Friday, July 04, 2008

On the lack of good mistakes in my students' papers

Contrary to what you may expect, there are very few entertaining or intellectually stimulating errors in the papers handed in by my ESL students.

A sample of an intellectually stimulating error: when we were studying about food, I made the point to my students that when using foreign words - for instance, when talking about foods like dduk bokki, a sort of Korean rice-noodle dish almost unknown in North America ('cept among Koreans, of course) - they should be italicized in typing or underlined in handwriting. This is not uncomplicated, however: what if that same student mentions kimchi? Most North Americans do know what kimchi is, and I'd normally consider it a word that we have "borrowed" into English (the English word for kimchi is kimchi, and needs no fanfare or italicization). Ditto for common Japanese food names, like sushi. But what about okonomiyaki, or even lesser known foods like natto? And what if the student is listing their country's foods, going back and forth between words that we have borrowed into English, and words we haven't? Do we underline them all, and treat them all as foreign, for the sake of consistency on the page, even though they aren't equally foreign to the reader? This is intellectually stimulating - to at least some extent - because it reveals that such conventions are simply asserted at some point in history, when a word becomes familiar enough to be treated as such; and that, as cultures mix and awareness grows, more and more words will be crossing the line between the foreign and the familiar, with many lingering in a grey area.

You may reply: "but that's really not very interesting, Al," and I would understand. The case remains that in six years of marking student papers, it was a high point; relative to most of the mundane mechanical mistakes people make - beginning sentences with "and," using the base form of a verb when they want a gerund, dropping articles or prepositions or plural markers, not knowing when to begin or end a paragraph, etc - the question of when to underline or not is absolutely fascinating. "Hey, one of my students made a mistake that I actually had to think about for a second! Wow!"

There are, however, occasional cheap chuckles to be had. For example, on Chuseok, Koreans make an offering at the grave of their ancestors; which is very different from "making an ancestral sacrifice at the cemetary," as one student wrote. I would rather, you understand, encounter intellectually stimulating errors than cheap chuckles... but one makes do with what one has.

In that spirit, then, I thought it amusing to note the rendering of a certain teenaged Canadian pop singer's name as "Avril Ravine," which I noted today while marking a student paper.

Hyuk hyuk hyuk hyuk hyuk. Sigh.

No comments: