New York’s grammar queen

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    Spotlight 9/2019
    Ellen Jovin, Grammar table
    © Brandt Johnson
    Von Judith Gilbert

    On any given day, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, you might find Ellen Jovin sitting at her Grammar Table outside a subway station, giving New Yorkers and tourists free grammar advice. Ten years ago, she set out on a project to learn as many languages in 12 months as she could. She didn’t stop, and up until now, she has studied 21 languages. Last year, she got the idea to set up a grammar table on the street to talk to people about her favorite subject. Since then, Grammar Table has become an institution in her neighborhood, and she has even taken it on the road through the US. Now, her husband, Brandt Johnson, is making a documentary, Grammar Table: The Movie, and she has also just signed a deal for a Grammar Table book. Spotlight spoke to Ellen Jovin about her portable grammar forum and people’s need to talk about language. 


    How did you get the idea for Grammar Table? 

    Ellen Jovin: Last summer, I was to idle aboutfaulenzenidling about in the heat; and I spent a lot of time on the internet connecting with language learners from around the world. I just thought it would be cool to stick a table [on the street] and do what I do online. I basically ask questions and people to participateteilnehmenparticipate in conversations. [I thought] it would be fun to do that in person. 


    How was it for you? 

    It’s not easy to stick a table on the streets of New York. pretty much anythingso ziemlich allesPretty much anything can happen. There are oddseltsamodd people. People look at you like there’s something wrong with you, or you’re trying to get something from them. I took the table, I put the sign up, and had my first grammar discussion in 30 seconds. A guy whose wife was an editorRedakteur(in), Lektor(in)editor


    What would you like to achieve with it? 

    The table isn’t a propaganda table. It’s a table to talk about grammar. It’s a pretty straightforward thing. I sit there: I’m not trying to push a particular point of view; I’m not trying to tell people how to talk; I’m not criticizing people’s grammar. That’s not the spirit of it at all. It’s a focal pointAnlaufstellefocal point for people to come together and talk about language. 

    I put the sign up, and had my first grammar discussion in 30 seconds.

    What are some of the questions you get? 

    I had someone come up to Grammar Table, a grown woman. She was so excited because I told her the pronunciation she was using for a particular word was fine. Apparently, someone had made her feel bad. I looked it up for her in two books. This was for the word “finance,” which has two active pronunciations. She was jumping up and down. She was with her daughter, who was, like, “OK, Mom.” She was so relievederleichtertrelieved.


    Do you get children, too?

    A ten-year-old girl early on in the life of Grammar Table asked me why people say: “There’s things to do.” Why do they make a singular verb if there’s a plural noun after “there”? She knew a plural noun should have a plural verb, and it should be “are.” Her mom said she wants to be “Grammar Queen” for next Halloween! Kids just to freak sb. out (ifml.)jmdn. zum Ausflippen bringenfreak me out, they’re so cuteniedlich, süßcute. Then there are all these teenagers whose parents to dragschleppendrag them over to the table: “Ask her a question!” 


    Are most of the people at Grammar Table native English speakers? 

    I get a pretty healthy mix. There are a lot of people who are non-native speakers of English who want help with aspects of it. I remember this family who showed up on the very first day. They were native HebrewhebräischHebrew speakers. They were curious as a whole family, this nest of people that came over full of questions. I just loved that. And also, that they just accepted that there was a Grammar Table! This is a big tourist area, so I get people from all over the world who are staying at hotels nearby. I also get locals who are non-native speakers, all different languages. 


    You’ve studied 21 languages. Do you discuss only English?

    Grammar Table usually is used for English, because I’m living in New York. I made a grammar sign for the table and on [it] I wrote “any language,” so people will feel encouraged to talk about whatever language. They can teach me Persian. I have books on the table that represent two different languages besides English. Recently, I took out Portuguese and Persian. I’ve taken out Russian and Swahili. 

    I have German, Italian, French, and Spanish fairly often. I try to bring out languages with different writing systems and really mix it up. I want to send the message that I’m happy to talk about English because that’s where I have the most authority, but I hope that you will come and talk to me about other things.

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