Saturday, November 28, 2015

Dictating the terms



Do you remember the days of dictation at school? I do. I can recall sitting in class scribbling furiously as the teacher intoned the sentences to be written in an appropriately sombre and pompous voice. I remember spelling bees too (is that how you spell that? Haha). I was quite competitive in those days and took childish and smug pride in having a pretty good level of accuracy.

But then that all went by the wayside when I learnt to type. Now my fingers seem to have taken over where my brain left off and they do their own thing with my spelling. They really do. Sometimes I can't quite believe what comes out on the screen. It's bizarre and  certainly not what I had in mind. I'll type completely different words from those I was thinking of, let alone incorrectly spelt ones, and often they aren't even homonyms. It is totally and utterly baffling.

So when the Language Centre at Erasmus University asked me to write a 'difficult' text for the annual dictation competition, I was honoured and terrified in equal measure. I mean I would be seriously under the spotlight if I got anything, even so much as a hyphen, wrong. This was where I would have to prove that I was everything I'd been vaunted to be (don't ask me what that is; it just sounded good).

Now, I don't know about any of my writer friends, but I often have spells of crippling self-doubt. The word fraud frequently enters my mind when I think about my writing. So I was in something of a sweat to create a suitable tangle of spelling, pronunciation and punctuation conundrums to foil the best of the university's language masters in this serious test of their linguistic skills.

In the end, I sought the help of that brilliant pronunciation poem (this one) and resorted to a few choice literary adjectives such as Brobdingnagian and Hurculean. Look, neither of these is too difficult to spell, but you have to remember those capital letters, something used much less in Dutch than in English anyway. I also traded on the rules that the dictation had to be in British English, so peppered the text with words like labour, centre, travelled and instil, all of which trap the unwary students who are more used to reading in American. Mean, aren't I? Well, I had to get them somehow. Some of these cloggies are really good. But there are more than a few who think a 'lift' is Dutch, and that 'elevator' is the correct English word, so I knew I had some easy pits for them to fall into.

As has become my writing custom, I asked for it to be proofread and triple if not quadrulple checked. I really didn't want any arguments, which is what you get if there's any room for doubt at all. The only snag was that the rules also required a maximum of eight sentences. And I had to write around 350 words. You do the maths! Since I also had to read this piece of gobbledegook as part of my job, I was gasping for breath before I'd reached the end of each forty word morsel. I almost felt I deserved the round of applause the contestants gave me when I'd finished. But with heart in boots, I did my thing to completion. The pic below was taken when I was in full enunciation flow. The participants apparently liked it because they found it difficult (odd lot), and they also liked the subject: bilingualism at the university, which is something of a current hot topic, likely as it is to raise the temperature of any conversation.




But I was truly impressed. The winner made a grand total of five errors, which I think is probably fewer than I'd have got if I'd been doing it. Honestly. And she is Dutch. There was a runner-up with just seven. However, I did see one paper with 134, so for that poor soul, it was out of one pit and into the next. All in all, it was a truly enjoyable evening - in hindsight of course. But then I've always been better at pinning the tail on the donkey than seeing ahead with the blindfold off.

Have a good weekend everyone!

24 comments:

  1. I didn't know that poem. The choice of words are brilliant - and how conscientious you have been too. I had never given a moment's thought to dictation exercises... fascinating!

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    1. The National Dictée is a huge thing here, Jenny. It's on TV and a very large proportion of the population follows it. Ironically, it's mostly won by Belgians!

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  2. We used to do this at school.Such a good discipline

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    1. It is, isn't it, Carol? I still use it with my students.

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  3. I love that poem! Words, words, words - that's all they are, yet some treat them with more respect (and even awe and, in your case, Val - fear!) than others. I am glad you enjoyed your evening! :) xx

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    1. It was fun, Dale and it was nice to be appreciated too!

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  4. Goodness, having read that poem I have some sympathy with the person who make 134 mistakes!

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    1. Yes, but luckily, I only used a few words from it, Jo. I am not that unkind, really I'm not. The text was actually about the problems with Bilingualism at the university, so I just threw a few of the tricky ones in.

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  5. Yes, I remember Dictation from school. I always found it a bit boring. However, we were never challenged by that poem - isn't it amazing! Did the participants use a keyboard or write with a pen? What an interesting challenge for you.

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    1. I think it's mostly only language teachers who know that poem, Patricia :) For the dictation, they used pen and paper. The old fasioned way.

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  6. Hi Val - congratulations on being asked to 'dictate terms'! What a great challenge - I'd have got loads of mistakes ... I've never seen that poem or the others ... what a great chap Gerard Nolst Trenite was. I imagine the University has some really interesting and intellectual ideas going on ... how fascinating to read about.

    Once again - congratulations and so pleased you pointed us towards the poem ... such fun, frightening and amusing! - cheers Hilary

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    1. Haha, Hilary, I think everyone is amazed by thAt poem. It's really something isn't! Thank you!

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  7. Yes, I remember Dictation too. I’ve seen that poem fairly recently, can’t recall in what context though. It’s brilliant.

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    1. Thanks, Cathy. I often refer to the poem, but it has more use to language teachers than almost anyone :) Glad you enjoyed it!

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  8. This is interesting! Do we get to see the piece?

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    1. Ha, I hadn't thought of doing that. I'll post it somewhere here later TT.

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  9. Really enjoyed this post. I used to love dictation at school.

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    1. Thank you, Wendy! I used to like it too!

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  10. Dictation was one of my favourite lessons, just loved it and reading it back was great fun too.
    Read the poem quietly under orders of Mrs H. Well I tripped and fell at the fence three times and nearly again with 'Nor does fury sound like bury.' Ah' but it does when spoken by an Irish person, it really does Val. I was forever trying to correct people until I realised that Irish-English and English English are not the same!

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    1. Mel, I enjoyed your comment! I'm amazed how many people here also say they enjoyed dictation! But yes, I can imagine the difference between Irish and English English could trip you up now and then. Thank you!

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  11. I loved dictation at school! Do they even do that anymore? Suspect not. What a great achievement by the winner. I can't imagine trying to do the same in Dutch. Mercy, please!

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    1. I don't think they do it at school, Veronica, but this competition is a national event, so the university decided to have one too. The Dutch one looked terribly difficult to me!

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  12. I enjoyed dictation and spelling tests too. I still get annoyed at the misuse of punctuation, especially the apostrophe! I think the written word has suffered a lot in the last few years so it's good to see that this discipline is still in use. Mind you I use a keyboard so much these days that my handwriting is almost illegible - even to me.

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    1. Oh, yes, Jane. So do I, but I have relaxed a bit as I think there are different views about punctuation depending on where you come from and when you were brought up. These days, for instance, the comma is not used half as much as it used to be to separate parts of sentences, so for some people, I use them too much. There are differences between the UK and the US too. As a result, living in the Netherlands with people from all over the world, I've had to learn to be more flexible. Don't talk to me about handwriting! So difficult now, isn't it?

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