Rip and Tear

I sometimes show my students the scene from Apollo 13 in which the hapless astronauts attempt to build an adaptor to fit a round CO2 filter into a square hole. They have to tear and rip various things (the cover off a flight manual, a piece of tape lengthways), and accidentally tear or rip some other things (a plastic bag) into the bargain.

And so one of the things I do is pause the playback at every instance of the words rip or tear, which are freely interchanged (“What do we do if we rip the bag?” – “He tore the bag” etc.), or the phrasal versions which pop up from time to time (“he wants us to tear off the cover”), and marvel internally at the fact that no one ever seems to know them, or be able to pick them out. The verbs tear and rip, to my students, seem superfluous lexical items, barely worth storing away (and this could in fairness be my fault, since I I also taught today, to take a random sample, duct tape, biomimicry, geothermal energy, and kinetic charging: a brain only has so much room…).

And yet these are verbs that small children know. It is an oddity of second language learning that we seem to skip the easy lessons and jump straight to the stuff we think we need. Adults have a powerful filters for (apparent) relevance. As do children. If a child knows how to rip and tear, it is because a good part of her early life is spent ripping and tearing; perhaps we simply rip and tear less as we grow old. And yet, like scrunch up, crumple, stick and glue, they are handy verbs to have at your command, whatever your age.

Occasionally for very good reasons I get my students to make a paper aeroplane, and in this way I make sure they all know how to fold and fold back and crease a bit of paper. Perhaps we would do well to dedicate a lesson a week or so to finger painting as well, or to collage, or potato prints, or other such childish pursuits, long since beneath our collective dignity. It may be that we end up suppling an essential but neglected foundation of language. And it might, into the bargain, be kind of fun.

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