Malachi Rempen, creator of web comic Itchy Feet, tells us about the humorous side of the English language and the educational value of mistakes.
Growing up I always had a language-sized hole in my heart. My dad is German and my mother, though American, speaks fluent German – but they didn’t pass it on to my brothers and me as kids. I was jealous of other bilingual kids, and that’s why I ended up moving to Europe: I wanted to fill up on foreign languages.
But it also came out of necessity. When I lived in Lyon, France, there was no choice but to pick up French, as most people there don’t speak English. Then I married an Italian with a massive family of non-English-speakers, so it was either learn Italian or don’t talk during visits. The idea for Itchy Feet came when I was living in Lyon. A friend was running an e-newsletter and wanted me to include comics depicting my new life as an expat in a foreign culture. After a while, the strip caught on with the language learning community – I stumbled onto a niche audience there. Not many people were making web comics about learning languages. I keep a notepad full of ideas, but I don’t write down jokes. I write down truths and then develop the joke around that. My strips are not just punchlines, they’re truths wrapped in humour. At least, the good ones are. See www.itchyfeetcomic.com for more!
FINDING INSPIRATION IN ENGLISH
I was very briefl y an EFL teacher, and both my brothers work as EFL teachers in Bangkok. I get a lot of comic ideas, funny stories and interesting insights into the peculiarities of the English language from them. English is great because it’s simultaneously the lingua franca of our age and also baffl ingly complex. It seems simple at first, but it heavily relies on figures of speech, idioms and regional slang. There’s no ‘High English’ in the way there is for other languages like German or Italian (High German is roughly equivalent to Received Pronunciation English or Standard American, only more so), so there’s plenty of room for humorous collision with other languages and cultures. And it happens all the time. The most interesting mistakes are undoubtedly the so-called ‘false friends’, which often lead to comic-worthy situations.
THE VALUE OF MISTAKES
Language is about communication. Learning the rules is important, but only in as much as it supports the speaking. You don’t get to consult a dictionary in the middle of a conversation, you just have to talk and fi gure it out, and that’s the best way to learn. It’s the language learner’s battlefield, the context which provides the best learning experiences – but also the worst and funniest. There’s no better teacher than a group of strangers laughing at you. You learn the most from making big, embarrassing mistakes – preferably in a public setting. Nobody likes to be laughed at, but if you can laugh along it’s the funniest, and most unforgettable, experience. Nothing worth doing is easy – and language learning is definitely worth doing.