I teach English in Japan, and one of my advanced students often has questions that give me a delighted shock. The thing is, his questions are so simple that I’m always surprised as to why I’ve never asked them or thought about them myself.
Why do they say “sweating like a pig” and not another animal?
How can you be thrilled to bits? Does that mean you are literally falling apart?
He’s a university professor, which might explain his questioning mind. All the same, last night he had yet another silly yet brilliant question.
We were reading an article about racism in Australia and he wanted to know what ‘Down Under’ meant. I explained that Australia was referred to as ‘Down Under’ because of its position on a globe or map of the world. He nodded to show his understanding and then I saw his brow furrow; I knew another question was coming.
“Does it include New Zealand?” he asked. “
No,” I replied and then thought, why DOESN’T it include New Zealand? “That’s a really good point,” I said, “And a really good question because New Zealand is even further south than Australia!” We paused for a moment to think when suddenly he inspired me to have a like-minded moment of wonder.
“Maybe New Zealand should be called, Really Down Under.” I suggested.
In the English language we have many idioms that to us, are just what we say. It’s not often we stop and think about the actual words and it’s rare when we question the origins of a saying. That’s one of the best things about teaching English as a second language: you learn so much about your own language.
Already this year I’ve discovered the origins of a number of idioms, including ‘in seventh heaven’ and ‘on cloud nine’. The first refers not to Christianity, but too much earlier in history when the Sumerian civilization was flourishing. According to their beliefs there were seven heavens and to reach the seventh was to be closest to God. ‘On cloud nine’ is a phrase that is believed to have come from meteorologists who often refer to nine types of clouds in terms of altitude. A cloud with the number nine is the highest in altitude and hence, a person who is on cloud nine is literally on top of the world.
I’m so thankful I have students with questioning minds, for without them, I would probably never discover so many things myself. They say a teacher is there to teach and that the teacher is the one with the knowledge. I think that teachers and students are both learning and teaching; from each other, from the world, about each other and also about ourselves. Never stop learning, for each time we learn something new, we grow just a little bit more.