A Celebration of Languages. Nina Koptyug, Ph.D.
April 23 and June 6 are the two days which I observe every year. I would say that anybody who ever came in contact with me, and that means thousands of people, know those dates too.
The former is of course William Shakespeare’s birthday. I remember the wonder and awe, the reverence with which I read those lines, “April 23, 1564 – April 23, 1616”, in the small medieval church called Holy Trinity, formerly the Willows. Now it is often called simply “Shakespeare’s Church” because that’s the place where the Bard’s baptism, marriage and burial were registered.
With his 36 plays, 154 Sonnets, and several other works William Shakespeare helped shape and even create the language we teach all over the world today. Open any Dictionary of Quotations and you will find innumerable quotes for any occasion which come from his whole oeuvre. Sometimes it is a sonnet in its entirety, all the fourteen lines, or a monologue. We may use a line in our everyday speech inadvertently, not consciously thinking, “Here I am quoting Shakespeare”. Like, “What’s in a name?” Or its derivative, “The Name of the Rose”. If we leaf through a good large dictionary which gives not only the meanings but also the origins of a word or expression, we may notice that the first registered use occurred in one of Shakespeare’s works.
His role as the father of the modern English language is indeed impressive. Not only did William Shakespeare continue the work begun earlier by Geoffrey Chaucer. He was accepted as the Bard, the Poet, and revered by his contemporaries during his lifetime which as we know is quite rare.
Why do we still read him? Why is he traditionally included into the school curricula around the world, wherever EL is taught? First of all, his language is still understandable. Teenagers can read a sonnet and get the main idea; they then can continue working with a dictionary to grasp the meaning of every word and expression. At this stage our own knowledge of the subject helps a lot, we need only to point out once or twice that this or that word was really used by Shakespeare in this very meaning for them to become fascinated and to continue their study. Secondly, the Bard knew how to tell a good story which touched the hearts and souls. We teachers can conduct research and add some human interest items. Time and again, I have seen my young audience’s eyes sparkle when I mentioned that the play “Romeo and Juliet”, the actual book, had to be chained to a library table in one of the universities so that young readers would not take it out, and that many of its pages showed signs of tears.
My own introduction to William Shakespeare happened when I was five years old; that was when I saw “The Twelfth Night” first. I read the play in English when I was ten, with a parallel text in my own language to refer to. I guess that was the beginning of my life-long interest which eventually led to my becoming an EL teacher and later teacher trainer. My family supported me all the way. My mother who worked as a librarian at the local university would bring me books in English; my father who still speaks German fluently taught me the advantages of knowing another language, and showed me how much I could learn by being able to develop such a skill. And I had an amazing EL teacher at school. An article in a magazine and an example right in my family gave me the idea to bring up my own children as bi-lingual. No, I did not “teach” them, I simply spoke English to them since their birth while the father spoke our mother tongue.
June 6 is the birthday of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), the most famous Russian writer, poet and dramatist. It is another day that is always observed in my family, as well as in the whole country. Pushkin is the author who shaped and created the modern Russian language.
The number of quotes from his works in daily use is enormous; we may say a phrase without consciously thinking it originated in one of his works. His fairy-tales are among the very first bedtime stories a child hears. There are innumerable screen and stage versions of most of his works. Pushkin also understood the importance of writing for the young audience, and for making them familiar with the folklore of his own and other countries. He translated or retold some well-known tales. His whole oeuvre became part of the school curriculum a long time ago. Fairy-tales are part of literature lessons in primary school; some longer stories are read in middle school; and his most famous creation, the novel in verse form “Eugene Onegin” is studied in senior classes. Topics from the novel are traditionally part of the final exams, and for university entrance exams. I myself got a question during my oral examination while going through the entrance exams to Moscow University many years ago, at age 17. “What was Tatyana Larina’s patronymic?” I nearly lost the power of speech because my own mother many years before that got the same additional little question at her entrance exams here in Siberia. But then I automatically quoted: “here lies Dmitri Larin…” Which means that Tatyana’s patronymic was Dmitrievna. I still remember how the examiner beamed and gave me an extra point for my answer.
What’s a patronymic by the way? As an EL teacher, I often have to tell my students, be they children or adults, the term itself. It is a part of our daily life and yet it is not included into any textbook! A patronymic, as evidenced by the word itself, is the father’s name which is used with a feminine or masculine ending after the full name of a person. When teaching adults whose native language is English I always have to explain what it is and how to use it. For me, the system is simple, but as a teacher I do understand the difficulties this little peculiarity presents to any foreigner. It may be quite confusing because rather often it looks rather like the last name. It is also hard to explain when exactly it has to be used and when it is enough to use the first name only. It is never used by itself, only as part of the whole name, unless you find yourself in a remote village. Patronymics are never used when addressing children or young adults. Comparing how it is done in the English-speaking world is quite a fascinating and entertaining topic.
When one studies any language and its history, the changes it goes through, one’s life becomes richer.