An Abridged Bestiary of English by Ella van Wyk

When I worked as a tutor in the Writing Center at the American University of Sharjah, I was face to face with the beast of English. As a native speaker, I had never really looked at it before. Suddenly,  I had ESL students asking me questions about the rules, regulations and exceptions of this language and I realized how brave they were for taking on such a monster.  Naturally, many of them struggled and when they would come to me  in tears over the grade on their latest essay, I would comfort them by saying, “Don’t worry – English is a beast and you are doing so well.”

I thought there must be a better way to teach this language. It seemed to me that the rules of English were only applied after the language had grown organically, it was like trying to fit an octopus in a thimble. Each rule having a thousand exceptions and making no logical sense, it made the whole thing unbearable and I started to imagine a way to teach English that would approach it from  another direction.

Personally, I remember things better if there is a story behind them, like the little rhymes about ‘two vowels going walking and the first one does the talking’, or ‘i before e, except after c’ – these are mnemonic devices I still rely on as a full-grown, well educated adult. I was sure this was a method that could be applied to the English language for ESL students.

Then one day, as I was using my catch phrase of ‘English is a beast’ to one of my Iranian students, it hit me. I should draw this beast, and all its children; all its ill tempered, badly behaved children and describe who they are and what they do. I should create a Bestiary of English! The description of the beast would actually explain its grammatical function and at the same time would provide a story – easy to remember. If I could illustrate as well, the visual counterpart of the description would re-enforce the mnemonic character of the thing itself. Granted, this would not be a way to convey complete and accurate functions and descriptions of the thing, but it would lend enough of the character to spur the memory of what it is in the langauge. After all, isn’t that how we learn language as children? When learning the past tense, do we not just add “-ed” to the end of all our verbs and then slowly correct that generalization with the proper form,  like “went” instead of “goed”?

So, here it is. I humbly present you with The Abridged Bestiary of English. May these beasts serve you well.


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