Sunday, 5 April 2009

The Gift Of Language Learning

Somewhere in storage, I've got a dozen little booklets, handwritten in Japanese, documenting my daughters' years in nursery school. The booklets were co-authored, half by the girls' nursery school teachers and half by me, poring over my dictionary, chewing my lip raw.

Why did I write them? Because I had to. When you put your kid into the Japanese school system, you have to send him or her off every day with a renrakujo, a journal of your child's' life that is shared between you and the teacher. Most days, you don't have to write anything other than "Good appetite" or "Out of sorts this morning." But when something eventful has happened, like an illness or family upset, you end up writing a lot.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I spent hours over my kids' renrakukjo every single week, looking up terms like German measles, chickenpox, temper tantrum, and teething gel. I documented all sorts of things: baby teeth, rashes, food likes and dislikes, vaccinations, new words, new developments.

Now, I can write Japanese okay. I'm no Haruki Murakami, of course, but I studied Japanese at university and I managed to pass the highest level of the Japanese Proficiency Examination. But I promise you that the renrakujo gave me nightmares and caused me hours of head-scratching misery.

One evening, when I went to pick up my eldest daughter, I found her teachers huddled in a group, laughing their heads off. They were all looking at something: my kid's renrakujo.

"Oh mother," one of them spluttered, wiping her eyes, "what you wrote here--" and she burst into fresh hysterics.

"What did I write?" I asked, the blood rushing from my head. But they were laughing too hard to tell me.

Every language learner makes mistakes, and it's inevitable that some of them are going to be hilarious. When I worked as a waitress at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan, I once asked at least three dozen Japanese businessmen if they would like a dish of pee. I couldn't figure out why they were all smiling and snickering until one of my fellow waitresses caught up with me. "Mary-san," she hissed, "it's not oshikko, it's oshinko."

"Did I make a mistake?" I asked the near-hysterical teachers. "What should I have written?"

"It's not what you wrote," cried another teacher, "it's the way you wrote it!" Which would have been high praise if I'd been aiming for humor, but all I'd been trying to do was describe a bout of indigestion.

Still, even though it wasn't intentional, I gave them a shared experience, a moment of real pleasure. And that is a gift, isn't it? In fact, I would argue that not only is it a gift, it is something that only foreign speakers of a language can do. From a whole sea of appropriate Japanese words, structures, and phrases, I effortlessly picked something utterly hysterical -- something I'm betting that a native speaker of Japanese could not have achieved. Sometimes language learning results in communication and that is beautiful, but sometimes it doesn't and that can be pretty wonderful too.

They nursery school teachers tried to explain what was funny to me, but unlike the pee and pickles mix-up, nothing was straightforward, and the humor sailed over my head. Just like I can't for the life of me explain to the student who wrote it why the following sentence is funny:

It was nice last week, outlined as intense. But this week I wasn't enjoy and intested. I passed dull.

Like I said, it's a gift.

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19 comments:

planetnomad said...

Yes. So true. I best remember my student who wrote, accurately: The traffic was mortal. Or the one who dedicated his thesis to the "bewitching Mrs. Nomad."

I had a long conversation recently on this same topic with an Italian friend of mine who lived in France for 20 years. She shared some hysterically funny stories, including the time she mixed up the Italian verb "to ski" with the French verb "to poop" (impolite version) and talked about how all week she looked forward to...skiing...on the weekend, and how in the summer she...skiied...in the water since there was no snow, etc.

Writerperson said...

I am laughing at the ... skiing ... and the Japanese stories. I once told a waitress in France that she was fired, instead of that we were finished. I can still see her face.

Martha Flynn said...

Oh man, I've got tears in my eyes. I love these stories. Apparently in...Spanish?...the words happy and pregnant sound similar? Picture my friend telling her boyfriend's parents she was "pregnant" to meet them. He he he he.

Mary Witzl said...

PN -- Well, traffic makes me feel pretty mortal, especially here, so that one works very well, doesn't it? And 'bewitching' is a nice adjective to have in front of your name. But the skiing/pooing thing is absolutely something I can imagine doing. I'll bet your poor Italian friend was given nothing but encouragement by her interlocutors -- egged on every inch of the way.

I had a Korean friend who had terrible trouble with the long EE vowel sound in 'sheets', pronouncing it as the short I sound in 'this'. She was upset once when a hotel maid failed to change her bed sheets. Imagine the desk clerk's expression as she complained about the dirty sheets on her bed...

WP -- Thank you for commenting!

Don't get me started on waiters in France. I got sweaty palms just trying to order an ice cream in Paris; you were very brave to attempt any interactions at all. Fortunately for me, my husband speaks passable French. I let him do all the talking.
Martha -- 'Embarrassado' for 'embarrassed' is one of the classic false cognate errors a native English speaker can make in Spanish. I was warned away from that one in my first Spanish class, but I've met so many people who got snared by the similarity. I'm sure native Spanish speakers await that mistake with glee whenever they're talking to native English-speaking Spanish students. I would.

juliakarr said...

funny!

Charles Gramlich said...

What an interesting custom. Although I could see it would be quite a bit of work, it sounds like a wonderful idea. There's definitely a teaching system that cares about the students.

Jacqui said...

Okay, here's mine. I'm 15 and on an exchange program to France with a friend. We get shown into our room the first day, nodding and smiling and "oui oui" though we're only understanding every other word. There was some discussion of clothing which sailed over my head. Then, our "mom" looked surprised, but nodded.

We arrived home the next day to find every single pair of our underwear laundered and being hung on a line outside by the family's 12 year old son.

I still have no idea what we said.

Mary Witzl said...

Julia -- Thanks!

Charles -- It really is a good system, but you can imagine what a headache it must be for the teachers. What is really amazing is what they call the katei homon, when the classroom teacher comes to call at each and every student's house. Can you imagine that happening in the States? Me neither...

Jacqui -- Oh, that is hilarious! I can imagine your French 'mother' saying, "Now, my son is going to do the laundry, but I imagine you don't want him to handle your underthings?" And you said "Oui, madame!" So she said, "Are you sure it's okay?" and you 'oui'd' that too... That kid must have had the time of his life, don't you think?

angryparsnip said...

You made my day... I have to remember "But this week I wasn't enjoy and intested. I passed dull" Oh my. . .

Charlie said...

I can only read and laugh because I've neither travelled nor speak, however badly, another language.

But I think that planetnomad's story about skiing would work quite well when mingling with the aristocracy and bluebloods:

"Pardon me, but could you direct me to the ski lodge?"

Robin said...

Great story, and those sentences were hysterical, but I can't say "why", either! I've had a very unproductive day today, and I passed dull, though. I hope tomorrow is better.

All Rileyed Up said...

This is SUCH a great post on the nuances of language. I love it!!!!

I've been meaning to read Haruki Murakami for a while. My friend's favorite book ever is Kafka on the Shore.

Mary Witzl said...

AP -- Thank you! I passed dull myself today. Hoping to pass excitement tomorrow, though.

Charlie -- Actually, I suspect that this is where a lot of interesting slang gets born: in the false hypotheses and bloopers of non-native learners. I'm pretty sure I've coined my share of new sayings in Japanese -- in fact, I shiver to think...

Robin -- Doesn't 'passing dull' have a nice ring to it? It's so much better than boring old 'boring' which gets SO overused, I find.

Riley -- Thanks!

I got through Norwegian Wood in Japanese and it took me the better part of two months. Ever since then I've been less than enthusiastic about reading his books, but friends of ours absolutely love him.

adrienne said...

I love that last sentence! I've had days that passed dull and sailed right into opaque.

Kanani said...

Oh, I passed dull! Oh, that can have so many connotations! Great!

Anne Spollen said...

Yup, days that passed dull -- sometimes it sounds more "right" when given that idiomatic twang.

I teach Spanish (when I'm broke) and so many adults confuse Papa and papa. One is potato; the other is the Pope. You can imagine what happens when we do the verbs to pray and to eat...

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- Me too! I've had days that have passed dull and soared right over comatose, in fact.

Kanani -- My first thought on reading that was, "You passed dull what?" Terrible, but true.

Anne -- Spanish is a great language for false cognates, isn't it? The first Spanish class I ever had, our teacher told us that corny old saw: "Spanish is a funny language. The ropa isn't rope, the sopa isn't soap, and the butter is meant to kill ya." I've always loved that.

Kim said...

I came over from Planet Nomad and am so enjoying your blog! This is our first year in Argentina and I have a 2 hour class every weekday with a tutor but often get frustrated with how SLOWLY I'm progressing. But there IS progress. I'm improving my English as I learn Spanish :-)

I like your take on how our mistakes are beneficial, too. Since I make a LOT of them :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Hello Kim -- Thank you for commenting!

I really do believe that mistakes help you learn a language. Some language learners are so worried about making mistakes that they never make any progress. You are obviously adventurous enough to make mistakes. I think you'll find that this eventually pays off!