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“Miss, what does ‘wibbly’ mean?” Or, Are Made-Up Words a No-Go When You Teach ESL?

December 6, 2011

Next week, student group presentations will start for one of the courses I teach. Naturally I spent this week’s seminar and lecture on presentation-related skills: how to present, useful phrases, basic structure, things to keep in mind, etc. One of the general points of discussion was the way your perception and experience of the passage of time shifts when you’re presenting, quite in the same way as time may feel like it’s speeding up when you’re enjoying yourself or when you’re waiting for something unpleasant. I wonder how I could explain this concept in a pithy statement and was reminded of a quote from Doctor Who:

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff.

I finally settled on “time goes wibbly when you’re presenting.” While I was still discussing how it’s bad manners to judge your fellow students’ presentations and mistakes because you’re all in the same situation and how everyone gets nervous when they have to present (yes, even that super confident guy who appears to be made out of sparkles, sunshine, pure confidence, and Teflon), I noticed a hand in the middle of the room shot up into the air.

“Miss? What does wibbly mean?”

I concede that I should have anticipated the question, knowing full well I was using a made-up, nonce-like word, but I honestly hadn’t. I had chosen it because it best explained the concept to me, but I hadn’t kept my students’ understanding in mind. And when (for some) learning “good” English is still a lot of work and struggle, being confronted with nonce words doesn’t really help. It’s shifting the expectations as well as the parameters of the language, I guess one could say. When I admitted it was a made-up word I’d borrowed from Doctor Who for the occasion (though I’m pretty certain I was using it before I’d even seen Doctor Who) the student replied, “oh, okay, then I know it’s not me [who is lacking in vocabulary].” It most definitely wasn’t. It was all me. Lesson learned.

I guess I am still working on striking a balance between being the most native non-native speaker of English I can be while teaching ESL. These two things are not incompatible, but they have very different goals. I can’t get into the intricacies of this tonight (or any time soon, really. I’m currently teaching 14 hours a week, working about 30, studying for another 40, tutoring on the side and, well, you get the idea), but I’m reminded of the first feedback I got on a paper when I was studying in the US. I went to the professor’s office hours to ask for some more clarification and it was only then, after 4 weeks or so of classes, that she learned I wasn’t American. “Now your writing makes much more sense,” she said. I was shocked and appalled! My English was great! There were people in other my classes, native speakers, whose writing was atrocious – sheer torture to read and critique. But I quickly learned that she wasn’t commenting on my ungrammaticality (there I go again with another made-up word) as much as my tenacious stranglehold on grammar. I did everything according to the rules at all times (except for when I slipped up, naturally. Everyone makes mistakes). Native speakers are more laid-back, more creative, when it comes to grammar and vocabulary, because they’re allowed. They’re given a freedom and a benefit of the doubt that L2 speakers just never get. As a result, you can generally tell a native from a non-native speaker by their grammar, even if the non-native speaker is highly-educated or was raised bilingually and generally has a good grasp of the language. The non-native’s writing may end up looking almost exaggeratedly correct.

After that encounter with the professor I decided to loosen up. I took a course on attitudes towards language (especially accents and dialects) in society and went from being a staunch prescriptivist to living a gloriously descriptivist life. I returned from Virginia with “y’all” as a new staple in my vocabulary. I do not want to push my students into a mold that I consider random, constricting, and often explicitly oppressive. But they do need something to hold onto. They need some stability under their linguistic feet in order to strengthen their hold on this second language. And if then, after knowing the rules, they decide to become more creative, I’ll more than willingly help them in that process. However, correctness will always have to come first and nonce words have no place in that first stage, sadly.

So in the future I will say that when you’re presenting, time goes wonky. Or it goes funny. Or, just your perception of it changes. And I shall hope my students will forgive me when my face suddenly goes a little sad and nostalgic while I’m mourning the loss of wibbly – for now.

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