What are you trying to say?

February 20, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve been doing a lot of writing coaching lately. Most of us learn grammar and spelling and punctuation at school, but very few of us learn how to write. And so I try to fill in that gap for people, one-on-one, because most of us have to engage in some form of writing on a daily basis. In my view, it’s an essential life skill.

Good writing is a separate skill from ‘being good at English’ for example, which is something I hear a lot. It’s a metaskill, as it were – and it’s something that can be taught. Yes it requires that you use good grammar and spelling and punctuation, but those are not enough. There are plenty of people who have good language skills, but who still struggle to write well.

By far the most common problem people have, in my experience, is that they battle to express themselves clearly. They use big words and complicated sentence constructions, and the results are sometimes incomprehensible. Just the other day I was helping someone with their MBA thesis and I came across a sentence that made absolutely no sense whatsoever. “What are you trying to say?” I asked. She told me what she wanted to say. “Then say that,” I replied.

People look at me like I’m nuts when we have that exchange – when I started coaching her, she couldn’t believe that was all there was to it. My own husband looked at me strangely when I was helping him to edit his M.Sc thesis, or to write a referral note for one of his patients. Over and over I would ask him what he wanted to say, he would tell me, and we would write that down.

The bottom line is that there’s no need to overcomplicate things. You don’t need to use big words to impress people – even in an academic setting. In all of my recent academic pursuits I’ve written exactly the same way I write when crafting a feature for a magazine or newspaper – in simple, conversational language. And each time I’ve been complimented by fusty old academics on the quality of the writing. If you need more proof, the selfsame MBA student mentioned above took her marks from the lower sixty percents into the eighties simply by working on her writing. And by working on writing simply.

So next time you’re stuck writing something – whether it’s a presentation, a speech, an e-mail or a note to your child’s teacher – just stop and ask yourself: what am I trying to say? Answer your own question, and then write down the answer. It really is that simple.

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I “heart” Twitter

February 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yesterday was hectic. I forgot it was Wednesday, and more importantly, I forgot that it was blogging day. And so here I am, a day late and a dollar short, as they say in the classics. You’ll forgive me, I hope.

If you look to the bottom right of this post, you’ll see that my Twitter feed runs on this page. And you’ll get the impression that I talk a lot. Well, I do – any of my friends will attest to that. I love to have conversations with people; get inside their heads a little and find out what makes them tick – it’s one of the reasons journalism works so well for me, because I’m always having to extract information out of people by talking to them.

I’ve got quite good at it, which helps professionally, but can be a disaster in social situations. I’ve had complete strangers pour their hearts out to me and tell me their most intimate stories, which can be rather awkward…

Anyway, back to Twitter. It really suits me, because any time of day or night, I can open up Twitter and talk to someone – somewhere in the world, someone is awake and tweeting, and in most cases, will talk to you if you tweet at them. And yes, I am a little addicted.

Twitter is also full of outrage at perceived injustice, lonely hearts, upbeat motivational types, punsters, cynics – it’s the most fascinating place, populated with every kind of person you could ever imagine (not to mention a few you couldn’t imagine in a million years). People wear their hearts on their sleeves, or they are more cryptic. I’ve read more news reports, blogs and columns than I ever did before I was on Twitter, and I’ve learnt a helluva lot about the finer points of grammar and language use by connecting with world experts in those fields. And – best of all – there’s none of the friendship drama that Facebook brings. If you don’t like someone, you simply unfollow them, and you don’t have to explain yourself.

And there are also some truly golden moments. Towards the end of last year my daughter had to have surgery – her first – and I, the ever-overanxious mother, was in quite a state. I didn’t want to go down the passage to the waiting room and engage with the other worried people in there. Instead, while she was in theatre, I sat on the floor in the foyer outside the operating theatre, and logged on to Twitter while I waited. I needed the distraction, and tweeted to that effect.

In response, the lovely Sam Wilson (@SamWilson1) called on her followers to send me their lamest jokes, which was enough to make me smile. And then the jokes came pouring in. It was unbelievable. I sat on that shiny hospital floor, hunched over my phone, cackling away to myself instead of worrying my way to a gastric ulcer. And after a couple of hours, when my phone battery was almost dead, my daughter came out of theatre, right as rain.

I am still incredibly grateful to Sam and all of those lovely people. Tweeting a joke to cheer someone up might take a small effort, but it made a big difference to me. And I’ve seen similar gestures of support happen on Twitter many times. And while there are plenty of people on Twitter – and in the world in general – who are bigoted and unsympathetic and generally nasty – there are some really good people out there. And they’re funny and generous and kind as well.

So I won’t apologise for my Twitter addiction. The next time you see me hunched over my phone in the school carpark or in a coffee shop, don’t roll your eyes. I’m talking to some of my friends, and having a good time doing it.

In defence of Afrikaans

February 6, 2013 § 5 Comments

Afrikaans-bashing is a popular sport in South Africa – and understandably so, given that it’s seen as the language of apartheid, and by extension, the language of oppression.

But I’d like to say a word on its behalf, at the risk of attracting a hailstorm of retribution, because it always amuses me when people portray it as a dying language. Parents actively discourage their children from taking it as a subject as school, for example – I’ve heard them say: “What use will learning Afrikaans be in the future?” I’d argue it could be very useful, actually.

In South Africa, when it comes to mother-tongue speakers, Afrikaans is spoken by 13.5% of the population. First is isiZulu at 22.7%, and isiXhosa comes in second at 16%. More people speak Afrikaans as a mother tongue than English – a mere 9.6%. These are stats compiled after the 2011 census (Source: http://bit.ly/Jcyck), which are the most recent figures available, and suggest to me that Afrikaans is very much alive and well.

What people fail to take into account is the millions of non-white mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans – it’s not just the language of white supremacists. And I doubt any of those non-white speakers would thank you for telling them that their language is either dying, or that they are ‘the oppressor’ by association.

I understand the revulsion for Afrikaans, given South Africa’s history, honestly I do. Those associations are very strong. But it saddens me, because the language itself is so delightfully earthy and expressive, not to mention blunt – Afrikaans always says what it means. Often it’s the epitome of plain language, something I am in favour of in all situations.

When I was in matric, we were encouraged to turn to the Afrikaans version of our Science exam papers (the paper was in Afrikaans on the reverse side) if we couldn’t remember what terms like ‘miscible’ meant. Mengbaar, literally ‘able to be mixed’, was much easier to understand.

And while Afrikaans has borrowed from local and European languages like French and German, it is still a relatively young language, and isn’t the hodge-podge of languages that English is, for example. This means a much more consistent grammar than English has, and a pretty easy spelling system – if you can pronounce an Afrikaans word, you can probably spell it. It’s also a huge help if you want to learn another Germanic language, and if you understand and read Afrikaans, you’ll find countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Denmark much easier to navigate.

But there are also some magnificent Afrikaans words that I just love – pantoffel (slipper) and knoffel (garlic) just for the sound of them. A rollercoaster is a tuimeltreintjie (a tumbling train) or a wipwaentjie (a seesaw wagon) and I came across a delightful word on Twitter the other day courtesy of Michele Kapilevich (@Mieshue) – apparently the Afrikaans word for a toyboy is a katelknaap. Directly translated that means ‘bedstead boy’ – isn’t that wonderful?

My favourite Afrikaans expression is Ek vat nie kak van kaboutertjies nie (I don’t take shit from little gnomes). Somehow the Afrikaans has a better ring to it, and as a mother, I find this a most useful expression some days.

I have two kids – one has chosen Afrikaans as her second language at school, and the other isiZulu. That makes me happy – both of them will be able to communicate with a large number of South Africans if they work hard at becoming fluent in those languages. I am about 95% Afrikaans in heritage (although my mother tongue is English) and I studied Afrikaans and isiXhosa for matric, and majored in African Languages at university, and I loved every minute of it. Sadly I am no longer fluent in either language as I used to be, but I get along, and I have fun inflicting my poor proficiency of both those languages on mother-tongue speakers of both, and they are always grateful that I’m making the effort.

I love language – all language – and I just cannot bring myself to discount the richness of a language because of the associations with it, or proclaim its imminent death despite solid evidence to the contrary. So many languages are dying, partly thanks to globalisation and the pre-eminence of English, certainly in the western world, and I hate the thought of that – we need to fight to preserve all of our indigenous languages and make every effort to bolster and promote them at every turn.

And that includes Afrikaans.

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