A muffled thud made me stop and look up. I was reading a story in Red class, year 1, at 3 in the afternoon. The bell to go home would ring in less than ten minutes. This was our daily routine--story time to end the day. It was also my favourite time. There is a kind of magic that happens when you read to a group of children.
Muffled clattering followed the muffled thud.
I got up from the chair I was sitting in, designed for six year old children, and stood up to peer across the room.
"Mrs G?" I called out to our class room assistant.
She was sitting behind the table that marked the end of our carpet area (which is where all the children were gathered for story time) on a short chair, similar to mine, when I started reading the story.
So I pitched my question in that direction.
A hand shot up from behind the table. It belonged to Mrs. G.
"Mrs G...what happened? Are you okay?"
All the little heads that were facing me now turned to face the direction my question was aimed at.
A few muffled noises which sounded like sobs to me came from behind the table.
"Ellie, can you and Ryan read the Hungry Caterpillar for us please?"
Conor had swung into action before me. He was spread on top of the table, ninja style, to find out where Mrs G was.
"The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Miss...you mean, right?"
Ellie was the best reader in class and also the most pedantic.
I nodded and sprang across the carpet area, scooped Conor off the table and tapped on Mrs G's shoulder who was lying in a sort of child pose on the floor. Her shoulders were heaving.
For the uninitiated among you, i.e. those who haven't experienced being responsible for under ten year olds in a classroom situation, let me tell you that all of the above happened in less that 2 minutes. Speed and agility are of utmost importance when it comes to keeping order. Trust me.
"Mrs G, what happened? Are you okay?"
The face Mrs G raised to me from her position on the floor was red and streaked with tears.
"Where does it hurt...should I send for the nurse?"
Mrs G held out her hand (her sobs had morphed into intermittent hiccups by now) to be helped up on her feet.
"Mrs G is on the floor." announced Conor with glee.
The entire class bolted to the table. Mayhem.
There's nothing like noisy children to reboot a teacher/teaching assistant's batteries into action. When you've taught children this young, you know how quickly they pick on your energies.
Stoic and calm, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened a couple of minutes ago, Mrs. G rose to her role, calling out children by their names and instructing them to pick up the drying dragons they'd painted earlier, from the table she'd been sitting at and tumbled off from while checking their reading records.
The bell rang. The children left. We were alone in the room: Mrs. G and I.
"Are you okay? What happened?"
"Say that again..." again the same sobs, no wait... that's soft chuckling...not sobs.
I was lost and confused.
"What did I say?"
Mrs G walked across the carpet area and picked the book I was about to read to the children, came back to where I was standing, opened to a page and pointed to, "ventriloquist."
"Ventriloquist?" I asked.
And there she was again, chuckling her soft chuckles, her shoulders heaving. Blobs of red were creeping back on her neck and cheeks.
The penny dropped.
"How do you say it?" I asked.
In between her heaves, she held my hand to assure me she didn't mean to be rude and said,
I spent the rest of that afternoon saying [ven---kwist] aloud to myself.
Even today, when I come across it, I do a quick rehearsal in my head before I utter this word.
When I'd said ventriloquist that day, this is what Mrs. G had heard, wen-tri-lo-quist. I had stressed each syllable (Indian style) and picked LO instead of tri as my stress syllable. Try it once, I can assure you it doesn't sound like any ventriloquist you know. We'll cover the v/w confusion in a bit.
I learnt English as a second language. All my spoken English came from school and from reading books. I have always loved words and I never hesitate to use new ones. When using a dictionary, I wasn't shown how to read the pronunciation of the words, so I only gleaned the meaning and usage and kept adding new words to my vocabulary.
All was well till I ended up teaching in a primary school in London.
I came across West London English and my students met English's Indian cousin.
The great thing about children is that they are honest and forgiving. My students would correct me and with their help I learnt how to modulate my speech to not sound 'funny' when I didn't want to sound funny.
But, it wasn't till my own two children started correcting my V or lack of it, that I became aware of the fact that despite Hindi alphabet's ability to have a letter for almost all 44 phonemes, my V sounded like W to others (not to me). Even today, scenes like this happen at home.
"Have you packed your vests?"
"Yes, mom...wests and souths and a few norths, too."
A CELTA trainer in Doha told me, "Never be ashamed of how you speak. Find out the standard pronunciation of a word, if you're not sure. And tell your students both the versions--standard and colloquial."
"I'm a Geordie." she said and smiled. " If I talk to you the way I speak at home, you'll be lost."
I ended up teaching English to adults in Doha.
V is to Hindi speakers what P is to speakers of Arabic. There is no P sound in Arabic, so B is used instead.
"PAPA John's Pizza." I stress the P with a piece of paper placed a few centimeters away from my mouth. "See, how the paper moves when I say P, now say B--it doesn't move."
"Let's try again Abdullah...P...P, expel that air through your lips."
"Wery well teacher." mimics Abdullah and I have no choice but to laugh out loud and remind myself to bite my lower lip slightly with my teeth next time I want to sound out the very troublesome V.
I love the English language. It's let me live so many lives over these years: from Famous Five to Winnie the Pooh and then a bit of Mowgli, too. I better stop or we'll be here for a very long time.
I love the different accents even more. The richness these bring to a language so widely spoken should not be contained in the clipped sound of received pronunciation.
In India, the way you speak English is often used as a measure of your intelligence. I know. Sad and shocking.
Have you ever faced a miscommunication or misinterpretation because of your accent or pronunciation?
A 2 minute video to wind up the post today.
Wishing you all a wonderful day:)
Will see you tomorrow.
Disclaimer: The classroom shenanigans are a mixture of many memories. All names have been changed. The bit about Mrs. G falling off her chair because she put her head back a bit too much to laugh out and hence tipped the balance of the tiny chair is totally true.