Sunday, 31 May 2009


Mizuho, who lived next door to us in Japan, was a concert pianist who had studied in Vienna for a dozen years. Almost every night, we could hear her playing. The notes would come wafting through the summer breeze, passionate and intense, as refreshing as a waterfall spilling over rocks. After a long day at work, it soothed our headaches and calmed our frayed nerves.

One day, I happened to run into Mizuho's mother. "We love hearing Mizuho play!" I told her.

She looked nervous. "I hope it's not too loud -- it isn't too loud, is it?"

I shook my head. "Honestly, it's so beautiful, it could hardly be loud enough!"

"You're sure it doesn't bother you? Because if it does, we'll get her to stop playing so late--"

"Please don't!" I said hastily. "We love hearing her play!"

She smiled nervously; she didn't look convinced.

"You're so lucky to have a daughter who plays so beautifully!" I gushed. "We'd do anything to get ours to play like that!"

Mizuho's mother shrugged. "She's always enjoyed playing," she murmured.

I smiled and shook my head at this. My husband and I had our work cut out for us getting our daughters to practice.

"I can imagine how much work you put into getting her to that level," I ventured. "Just pushing her to practice must have been a full-time job."

She stared at me. "I never put any work into getting her to practice at all," she said flatly.

"Really?" I could hardly believe this.

She tilted her head. "Do you know, I used to beg her to go outside and play with her friends? She just wouldn't leave the piano alone!"

Now I really couldn't believe it: She sounded -- and looked -- aggrieved.

"I'm serious," she persisted. "She would hole up in the house for hours, playing the piano. Her friends would come by, wanting her to go out and play with them -- but no. She had to play the piano. We were so worried about her!"

Over the next year, I got to know Mizuho, and she confirmed what her mother told me. "My parents used to threaten to shut the piano on my hands!" she said. "But they couldn't stop me."

A few months before we left Japan, we were given tickets to one of Mizuho's concerts. She was incredible.

I work with a woman I will call Güzin. Although Güzin isn't a native speaker of English and has never lived in an English-speaking country, she speaks English so well I assumed that her family must have started her learning the language at an early age. Somehow I got the idea that they had enrolled her in one of those high level English language nurseries, or perhaps hired an English-speaking nanny for her. When I asked her about this, though, she laughed.

"I taught myself when I was a toddler."

"Come on -- you couldn't have!"

"I did," she insisted. "My parents both worked. They left me at home all day and I found these English language tapes they bought for my older sister, who wasn't the slightest bit interested in English and never used them. I was bored all by myself, so I put them on. And that's how I learned English."

"God, your parents must have been thrilled!"

"Not really. My mother tried to stop me from writing it. She thought I was too young."

Güzin can speak English for hours on end. She doesn't stumble over words or have to ask what people mean. After seventeen years in Japan and endless, exhausting study, my Japanese is close to her level of English.

Some people, it seems, are just determined to learn no matter what.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Pressing A Point

I'm only a few feet way from the vending machine when I hear footsteps behind me on the marble floor. Wheeling around, I see three of my students standing there with worried looks on their faces. "Hojam," the bravest one of them says very respectfully.


Ahmet clears his throat as the other two all but push him forward. Poor Ahmet: his English is no great shakes, but he's a lot more fluent than Alper or Ilker. He's obviously been voted the designated speaker here.

"Why Alper and Ilker didn't get extra points?" he asks breathlessly, cutting to the chase.

Extra points are given at the end of the term for excellent attendance, a real consideration at time when a few extra points can mean the difference between pass and fail. They ought to know this, too: I've been reciting it in their class like a mantra for the past two weeks. Alper and Ilker lick their lips, their eyes flicking from Ahmet to me.

"Because they missed a lot of classes." Duh.

They make a brief stab at protesting, but in the end they have the good grace to accept this: after all, I've got attendance sheets to back me up. But Ahmet isn't finished.

"Why they didn't get points for composition?"

Alper and Ilker narrow their eyes and move a little closer.

"Because they copied." Frowning, I turn to Alper and Ilker. "And I warned you many times that if you copied, I'd give you zero points."

"No, hojam! No copy, I swear!" puts in Ilker, his dark eyes flashing.

"Ilker, you copied. You wrote the same thing a lot of other people wrote -- the exact same words." I look longingly at the vending machine. The water cooler in the teachers' room is empty again, and it's hot. The boys don't see this: those elusive extra points are the only things on their minds at this moment and even if they knew how thirsty I am I doubt they'd care.

"No copy," Alper protests weakly, but his eyes are shifty and there's a look on his face somewhere between pain and amusement.

I take a deep breath: I'm going to play the religion card. "You boys go to mosque every Friday, don't you?" They'd better go: they've missed enough of my late Friday afternoon classes on this pretext.

Ahmet nods. "Yes."

I'm prepared to believe him. Not only does he appear to bathe regularly, he turns in his homework on time, pays attention in class, and obviously irons his cotton shirts. Ilker and Alper nod too, but they're a hair behind Ahmet and they won't quite meet my eye. They watch furtively as someone feeds coins into the vending machine and a can comes rattling out.

"So you know how important it is not to lie, right?"

They give me sullen looks: they see where this is going.

I'm beginning to hate myself a little, but I'm sick and tired of students niggling over the extra points they have not earned. I'm also over-the-top tired of the plagiarism issue -- and I'm thirsty -- so I press on. "Well, when it comes to students copying, it's impossible to fool teachers because we always know. We're a little like God." I point up to the ceiling and three pairs of eyes follow my finger. "So don't copy from now on, okay?"

They heave deep sighs and nod.

Finally, they leave me, shoulders slumped, heads down in defeat.

Feeling an ungodly thirst, I go to the vending machine, hoping there will be a can left.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Around The World On Breakfast

When I was a child, breakfast was scrambled eggs with toasted wholemeal bread and reconstituted orange juice. The eggs were cooked until they were hard and dry and the orange juice was always a little on the watery side; my mother hated cooking and loved economizing. My father only had eggs on the weekends. His breakfast was something so hideous I could hardly stand to look at it: a huge bowl full of oats, bran, wheat germ, and dried fruit swimming in soy milk. It looked like something straight out of a trough and was genuinely gag-worthy. By the time I was twelve, I could no longer stomach scrambled eggs and the thought of health food made me bilious. I'd discovered I was a food snob: I liked my orange juice fresh and full strength.

When I first moved away from home, I treated myself to huge, exotic breakfasts: blintzes with blackberry jam and sour cream, huevos rancheros with jalapeno sauce, lightly poached eggs on poppy seed toast, cornmeal muffins with Monterrey jack cheese.

As a student, I didn't have much time for breakfast. Before I left my apartment, I stuffed hard-boiled eggs and apples into my pockets. On weekends, I went to a local diner and had the kind of big, greasy breakfasts my mother never cooked, washed down with enough coffee to keep me awake for three days.

In Japan, I learned that breakfast was often rice, grilled fish, soup, and pickles, washed down by a lot of green tea. I found out that the egg served in a small bowl was actually raw; you mixed it with soy sauce, poured it over the rice, and ate the resulting mixture with nori, compressed seaweed. It took me a year to get used to this, but once I did, I couldn't get enough of it.

In Holland, breakfast was bread, cheese and coffee. The bread was never toasted and none of my Dutch housemates could understand why it should be. Some of them ate peanut butter for breakfast. At first I scorned this, silly me. Peanut butter for breakfast is perfectly delicious and I can heartily recommend it.

When we were first married, my husband liked to occasionally serve the breakfasts he remembered from Sudan: foul, or Egyptian red beans, with unleavened bread, chopped onion, tomato, and goat's cheese, washed down with sweetened black tea. But Egyptian red beans weren't easy to come by in Tokyo and we both had busy jobs that we spent hours commuting to and from. On the weekends, I sometimes made Japanese breakfast. After a while, my husband could eat raw egg over rice too, and we never once got salmonella. When I wanted a western-style treat, I went to a small hotel near my office that served omelettes, toast, fresh fruit, and limitless coffee.

Our first baby was born in Wales. At first, my husband outdid himself making beautiful well-balanced breakfasts: poached eggs, vegetarian sausages, lightly fried tomatoes, wholemeal bread, fresh-squeezed orange juice. Then we moved back to Japan and resumed full-time jobs. Breakfast for our baby was organic brown rice cereal, mashed fruit, and lentil soup. For us it was a banana on the way to the station. On my way to work, I passed the elegant little hotel where I'd once enjoyed my leisurely omelettes and coffee. The thought of my double-income-no-kids self sitting there never failed to amaze me: I felt like a completely different person.

In Scotland, I helped run a small hotel where we cooked and served up to 20 breakfasts a day. I baked my own bread, muffins, and rolls on a daily basis. We offered a full British breakfast: eggs poached, fried, scrambled, or hard-boiled, grilled tomatoes, sauteed mushrooms, sausages, bacon, baked beans, stewed fruit, and fresh fruit salad. I also made oatmeal, Indian-style, boiled with milk, raisins, and spices and served with fresh fruit and cashew nuts. This wasn't popular with our elderly guests: they wanted their oatmeal, which they called porridge, boiled the traditional way with water and salt. One woman asked me to make it the previous night and serve it cold. Watching her eat her salty, stone-cold porridge the next day, I marveled that I could ever have found pickles, grilled fish, and raw egg exotic.

A typical Turkish breakfast consists of white cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and bread, served with a tulip-shaped glass of sweet black tea. I have this almost every day now, and I can vouch for its tastiness. Some people might think that cucumbers and tomatoes make strange breakfast foods, but it's amazing how refreshing they are in the summer. The olives and salty cheese help replenish all the salt you tend to sweat out, too.

Some years ago, I found the exact same cereal my father used to eat in a health food shop in Tokyo. I bought it for purely nostalgic reasons, but to my amazement it was delicious. I found it in Holland and Scotland too, and I know where they sell it here. It makes a great default breakfast when you run out of other things. And it's handy for houseguests too. I don't put soy milk on it, though. And I still like my orange juice neat.

Friday, 22 May 2009

East And East, The Twain Shall Meet

Recently my Acquired Daughter accompanied me to my morning writing class. She'd just finished her last exam and was feeling giddy with relief.

Although my students aren't finished with their final exams, that didn't matter: they were in a party mood. The minute they saw I had someone young and interesting with me, a couple of the ones who usually skip out as soon as I come in, slunk back to their seats. When I introduced Acquired Daughter, they looked puzzled. "Your daughter?" We don't look in the least bit alike.

"Well, yes."

Before I had the time to write prompts on the board, they were asking questions: they even interrupted each other in their eagerness, asking her about her life, her interests, her likes and dislikes -- and her family members. This was tricky: back in Scotland, Acquired Daughter has siblings that have nothing to do with me; all of a sudden I acquired sons. A boy in the front row was particularly impressed with how many children I had, and I gave up trying to tell him that I've only given birth to two.

Still, the visit was a huge success: a few of my students probably spoke more English in the first 30 minutes of this class than they have in the entire course. Suddenly English was real communication, not just a falsely perky teacher tormenting them with present perfect and reported speech.

Then came this question: What kind of music do you like?

Acquired Daughter gave them a broad smile -- and magic words. "I like Turkish music. Like Düm Tek Tek."

Düm Tek Tek was this year's Turkish Eurovision Contest entry. It was beaten by Azerbaijan, but it came in ahead of Great Britain. It's a big hit among my students and my own progeny have been playing it non-stop too.

Everyone cheered. I'm so sick of Düm Tek Tek I could scream, but they were obviously thrilled that my daughter had even heard of it.

"What else do you like?" someone asked.

"Asian music," answered Acquired Daughter promptly. "Like Dong Bang Shin Ki."

"Who is that?" a girl in the front row asked.

"They're from Korea." Picking up her mobile, Acquired Daughter punched a few buttons and the classroom was filled with the delightful sounds of Dong Bang Shin Ki's Mirotic.

There was a general buzz of approval. "I like that! What is name?"

Within 30 seconds, five kids had Dong Bang Shin Ki's Mirotic on their mobile phones.

Today, I heard Mirotic blasting from someone's mobile phone as I was walking down the corridor. I looked to see if I recognized who was playing it, but I didn't. Acquired Daughter has done her bit to turn Turkish students on to Dong Bang Shin Ki.

Somewhere in Tokyo where my oldest daughter is working as an au pair, a little Japanese boy may well be lisping Düm Tek Tek.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Coming Of Age

I graduated from high school a year early. Thanks to yearly summer school attendance -- as an extreme nerd I had virtually no life -- I had enough credits to graduate. The problem was, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I wasn't interested in any of the universities that would have me, and I didn't know what I wanted to study. Above all, I dreaded the thought of staying in my hometown and attending our local university. I was bored and miserable and itching to get away from the familiar. And I was dying to have adventures.

One evening, I saw a notice in the university commons. Cuba was struggling to find enough workers to harvest their sugar cane and they were recruiting students. Anyone with the airfare who was willing to work hard was offered free room and board.

I couldn't believe what a good deal this was: free room and board and the chance to have the adventure of my lifetime! And living among Cubans, I would be forced to learn Spanish. It seemed almost too good to be true.

To my irritation, my mother did not see things my way. "Don't be ridiculous, you're much too young."

When I protested that I was seventeen, she snorted. "You're too soft."

This got my back up. "I am not!"

Every summer, my sisters and I helped our parents in the fields where my father and his colleagues conducted experiments on peppers. When I reminded her of this, my mother rolled her eyes. "You can't compare what you do in the pepper fields to real field work!"

She pointed out that we could take breaks when we wanted to, that we could sit in the head house and drink water, that during the worst of the heat, we were at liberty to sit in the shade. And finally, that we occasionally got taken out for hot fudge sundaes after our labors. "There are no hot fudge sundaes in Cuba," she concluded, raising her eyebrows.

"I don't need hot fudge sundaes!" I lied. "I can work all day if I have to!"

My mother laughed. "Can and do are two different things. You're the first one to plead exhaustion when we're pulling weeds."

"That's because pulling weeds is boring."

"Listen to me," my mother hissed, "because you don't know what you're talking about. Sugar cane shreds your hands and cutting it is hard work. The bugs are fierce, your co-workers would be veteran field hands who would mock you with your pale skin and soft hands and squeamish ways. You'd be a rabbit among wolves. Give up this crazy idea."

I had too much pride to back down, but she had me with the bugs. In fact, she'd had me with no hot fudge sundaes. I stopped talking about Cuba and sugar cane. A month later my cousin invited me to come and stay with her in Miami and my mother readily agreed. I ended up getting a job there and staying a year, and my mother was fine with that too. Ironically, I met a lot of Cubans and actually managed to learn a little Spanish.

Fast forward to now. I'm on MSN with Eldest Daughter, age seventeen, and she informs me that she has a great plan: she wants to backpack around Asia. "South Korea!" she writes. "Vietnam! Laos! Thailand! Cambodia -- and Chiiina!"

I suddenly feel week in the knees. "You can't go to all of those places if you're starting university," I hastily write back.

"Duh," comes her answer. "I can too. I'm saving up for it."

We're at it, back and forth, for half an hour or so -- "You can't...!" from me and "Oh MOOOOM" from her. My one advantage is that I'm a much faster typist than she is: I can say more in less time. I don't win the argument -- I can never win arguments with her -- but we finally agree to disagree. A week passes and there are no mentions of Asia. Then one day, she logs onto MSN in raptures of joy. "Mom, I've just found the coolest au pair job in Japan! It's starting next month!"

She arrived in Tokyo four hours ago. Ah well, her Japanese will definitely get stronger. And maybe she won't need to backpack around Asia after all...

Friday, 15 May 2009

Sweating It Out

Mert sits in the back of the class, against the wall. The classroom seats are in long rows, bolted to the floor. The rows are close together too, making it impossible for me to check the work of wallflowers like Mert. It's no puzzle why he sits there: he rarely comes to class and he will do anything to get out of speaking, reading, or writing English.

Today, he is present for the first time in ages and he looks nervous. Small wonder: we're less than two weeks away from the final examination and Mert's chances don't look good; apart from his lousy attendance, he blew the midterm. The one example of homework I have from him is, to say the very least, not stellar.

During the break, I collar Mert before he can sneak out the door for a smoke. "Are you okay?"

Mert still has the deer-frozen-in-headlights look all the other students lost after the first few weeks. Unlike the others, he's never gotten used to the idea of a non-Turkish-speaking foreign teacher. His jaw drops now and he stares at me, stricken, unable to answer.

"Are you feeling well?"

"No," he hisses. "I am illy."

"You're ill?"

Mert's mouth remains open. "You're ill," he affirms, and I try not to sigh.

"Is that why you were sleeping in class?"

His jaw drops again. Another student translates my question and Mert shakes his head. He's not sick now, it seems; he was ill last night, but now he is better. Since I have an obliging translator, I take the liberty of grilling Mert a little further. "You've missed a lot of classes. Were you ill for two months?"

He nods. Before he can go on, however, our interpreter leaves and Mert is forced to finish on his own. Mert doesn't call me tee-cha; he calls me hojam, the Turkish equivalent. Squeezing his eyes shut, he finally comes up with an answer. "Hojam, Turkey."

"You were in Turkey?"

His head bobs up and down.

"For almost two months?"

More nodding.


All of a sudden I notice that Mert has begun to sweat. His upper lip has a thin glaze over it and beads of sweat are collecting on his high, pale forehead. Even as we stand there, the drops of perspiration seem to join up and double in size. A large drop loses its hold on his temple and begins to trickle down the side of his face.

He swallows painfully. "Hojam, mother. Illy."

"Your mother is ill?" Boy, am I getting tired of 20 questions!


This is awful. If he's telling the truth, this poor kid deserves all the sympathy I have. If he's bluffing, how dare he come up with a lie like this?

"What is wrong with your mother?"

Now Mert is visibly shaking. If there's any time left after this, he's really going to need that smoke!

"Hojam, greep."

Good thing I've taken French. Let's see...grippe must mean flu.


He's got a packet of Kleenex out now, and it's about time: the sweat is running down his neck in rivulets. A drop quivers on the end of his nose. He hastily wipes it off. "Yes," he almost whispers.

"Your mother has had influenza for two months?" I can't keep the incredulous tone out of my voice.

He nods.

"Is she in the hospital?" Fortunately, I know the Turkish word for this, so I use it. I have to.

Now Mert really does look ill. He is so pale that I can see the blue veins throbbing in the side of his head, still slick with a sheen of sweat. Edging away from me, he licks his lips. He knows he's backed himself into a corner: any mother who's had the flu for two months ought to be in the hospital. He starts to shake his head, edging away from me, his hand automatically going to his shirt pocket where he has his cigarette pack. His eyes are filled with desperation and misery.

I give up and let him go. It's just not worth it, subjecting a kid so disinclined to learn to this sort of torment.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with his mother -- I'll bet you a hundred dollars. But I almost wish she'd give up on Mert's English too.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Turkish Waterloo

Some years ago, I spent a summer working as a dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant in Amsterdam. I got to be pals with the sushi chef, a shy, gentle man who did not speak English. One day, he confided that he had given up trying to learn English as it was too hard to pronounce. I was young and stubborn and believed that I could help him. I asked him what words he found so difficult.

"Some English words sound exactly the same," he told me.

"You mean like here and hear?" He had asked me about these words earlier.

He shook his head. "No, different ones -- words that mean entirely different things."

"Such as...?"

Looking embarrassed, he answered. "Ugly, angry, agree, hungry." He ticked them off on his fingers, considerately adding the Japanese meaning for each one in case I had trouble understanding him. I was grateful for this: he pronounced all four words exactly the same.

At the time, I was halfway through a Master's Degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and fired up with teaching fervor. I told him that vowel sounds are shaped by the position of the tongue in the mouth; that some vowels, like the ee in agree are made with the tongue held high, but others, like the uh in ugly are formed with the tongue in a low position. I told him that other vowel sounds were actually a combination of two vowels, or diphthongs, like the a sound in angry. I talked about stress and I demonstrated with examples.

My chef friend listened politely and he was a good sport about playing along. When I wrote out four sentences, he gamely gave them a go.

"I HANGREE with you!" he intoned, brow knit. He licked his lips and made a stern face. "You make me very HANGREE! He frowned and held the paper closer. "Those shoes are HANGREE!" He took a deep breath. "I did not eat lunch. I am HANGREE!"

When he looked to me for approval, I tried to smile. I explained that H is aspirated, that it starts in the back of the throat and is pushed out. I wrote out more sentences and he did his best to pronounce them. And he produced the exact same results.

After about a week, I gave up. The sushi chef smiled and shook his head in a resigned way. "It's really no big deal," he told me. "At least I don't need to use English."

I felt bad, but I couldn't help feeling a little superior too. I'd never had any trouble pronouncing foreign languages. Thank God I didn't have a tin ear for foreign vowels like my poor friend!

Fast forward to now. I am taking roll in a class of twenty-five restless Turkish teenagers, including Gökay, Özlem Çınar, Osman, Unsal, Ünal, and Tufan. I call out Gökay's name and am met by a burst of snickers. Gökay corrects my pronunciation -- "Guuh-kigh, not Goo-kay, tee-cha!" -- and I give it my best, but it only makes everyone laugh harder. Ö, my daughter keeps telling me, is pronounced like the first syllable of Ermintrude, though how this is supposed to help me, God knows; I never have occasion to use Ermintrude in speech.

Osman's name is mercifully not a challenge, but Özlem's thoroughly flummoxes me. I can feel sweat beading up on my neck as I try, again and again, to get the vowel right. Özlem is nice about it -- "It is okay, tee-cha, it does not matter" -- but she is an exception. Çınar and Ünal rub my nose in it.

The sad truth is that while I can sometimes hear the difference between O, Ö, ı, Ü, and U, I can't pronounce them. My daughter, who can pronounce Turkish just fine, finds this hopeless vowel butchery of mine a little exasperating. She cannot see why I can't distinguish between the ı in Çınar's name and the Ö in Özlem's.

Agree, ugly, angry and hungry all sound very different to me. O, Ö, ı, Ü, and U all sound pretty damn close. Sigh: I've reached my own linguistic Waterloo.

Good thing my kid is learning Turkish.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Bringing Up Teens

Here at the coal face of bringing-up-teens
All of us poor ragged fools
Nagging and screaming and laundering jeans
Making -- and breaking -- the rules

How do we know if we’re doing it right?
If what we’re doing is fair?
Quarrel after quarrel and fight after fight
Worn out with labor and care

Blunt is our pick – God, it’s dark in this pit!
Harder than flint is our plight!
One day, sweet reason, the next a foul fit
Darkness – then suddenly light!

One thing they tell us: when our kids have grown
When we’ve retired from the pits
We’ll miss our cutting blade, miss all that stone
(If we’ve hung on to our wits)

So take up your lantern and little canary
Back to the coal face with you!
Some day we’ll meet in the sweet light-and-airy
When all of our teen raising’s through

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY, all you mothers out there! And those of you with mothers, remember: it could happen to you.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

They'll Never Know

Ilker sidles up to me, eyes shifty, like I'm a drug dealer and he's shaky for a fix. "Tee-cha, when pop quiz?"

I try not to sigh. "You know I can't tell you that! It's a pop quiz. That means no one knows when it will be." I crane my neck, trying to look past him. "The others are still in the dungeon," I say meaningfully, hoping he'll get my gist.

But no such luck.

Instead, he moves closer, regarding me intently. "Tomorrow?"

"Look, I don't know." I give him a stern look. "And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. Now go back and finish the tour of the castle!"

"What we have to write?"

I give in and let out a long sigh. "You know I can't tell you that either!"

"History of castle? Peoples live in castle?"

"Maybe." Shrugging, I look up at the sky. It is a brilliant, beautiful blue, not a cloud in sight, if you don't count Ilker.

He all but wrings his hands. "Pleeeease!"

He won't believe me, but I really don't know. The powers that be don't tell us: they're suspicious our students will winkle it out of us. The powers that be know that our students feel about writing the same way Superman feels about Kryptonite.

Three days later it happens: we teachers are given the three questions the students have to answer about their field trip to our local castle. I announce the pop quiz and write the questions on the board. The class absorbs them in stunned silence:

1) Describe the castle's location.

2) Describe the history of the castle, and some of the castle's features.

3) What did you like or dislike about your visit to the castle?

Now I am sick and tired of my students copying things off the internet and trying to pass them off as their own work, so I read them the riot act on this. I write PLAGIARISM on the board in 3-inch letters. I tell them loudly and clearly that even one copied sentence will earn them a zero grade -- for the slower ones, I demonstrate this by writing two identical sentences on the board with an X through them and a big frowning face -- and I repeat the whole spiel for good measure.

And when I collect their papers, here is the very first one I see:

1) XX Castle is situated in the southern section of YY City and is a stunning backdrop to the harbor.

2) Largely built during the Hellenistic-Roman period the castle is thought to date back to the eighth century B.C. It is likely that the castle was built to defend the city from Arab raids. With its horseshoe-shaped main tower, Byzantium style of fortification, and embrasures for archery defense, the castle is a unique example of its type.

3) I very think XX Castle small so small room and very bad Dungeons because it's have got a poor people but Very beatifull view very beatiful tours.

A quick glance confirms my worst fears: I've got half a dozen more almost exactly like it

I just manage to collar one of the plagiarists before he leaves the classroom.

"Alper, you did not write this." It's hard to keep the rage out of my voice.

He is all injured protestations, his voice an indignant whine. "No, tee-cha, I write!"

I suck in my breath and pull out a pen. "Okay," I hiss, pointing to my notebook. "Show me. Write me just one sentence now."

He takes the pen with a show of bravado and goes through the motions, but all he can produce is XX Castle is before he puts down the pen with a weak smile. "Tee-cha, how you know?"

I shake my head and snap the notebook shut. "Zero points!"

"How you know I don't write?" he asks again. I give in: I roll my eyes so hard it almost counts as aerobic exercise.

But I don't even bother to answer: if he has to ask, he'll never know.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Ways of Their Errors

A Japanese friend once told me that he could study English just listening to my Japanese. I was hurt at the time -- I was trying so hard! -- but I know what he meant: some of my students come up with English that is so convoluted and over-the-top bizarre, it might as well be Turkish. Sometimes they come up with unintentionally hilarious misuses of English, which is something I've done my share of in Japanese. But teaching has made me look beyond the surface errors to separate the grain from the chaff, and I am as grateful for this as I am for the amusement their errors provide. And speaking as a language learner who has entertained and bewildered others, I am pleased to offer you some of my students' mistakes.

Mehmet is very friendly, shy, talkative, handsome, hardworking, agrassif, serous, and very joker. Some might say that this is inconsistent. And yet, Mehmet may be all of these things. Sometimes I feel friendly and sometimes I feel shy; sometimes I feel very serious and sometimes I like to clown around. Let's give Mehmet and his friend the benefit of the doubt.

I can't do anythink because always you in my mind. Sheer poetry, with a slightly Slavic ring to it.

He hat his father becaus his father is very bad person. All this kid needs is a few more Es and the odd article. And another review of third person singular.

Ahmet has got yellow blue eyes he is not tall or short, he is normal. he is blan. he has got blan hair. Girls were falling in love his hair and me to long hair and brow eyes. I'm guessing that Ahmet's yellow blue eyes are actually green, but what a lovely image. And at least the writer's consistent with the misspelling of blonde.

My apartment door was open and I am be very affired Yes, I know this is wrong, but I still think that affired is a more evocative way of expressing fearfulness than afraid.

Istanbul very fantastic and beautiful city. So I have historical and enjoy. My students suffer terribly from adjective abuse and overuse. But how can I tell them that enjoy always takes an object when 90% of the waiters in America don't know this?

My room small but very sweety. You can see where this one came from when you think about adjectives like funny, silly, chatty, dopey, and sleepy. My heart goes out to my students, grappling daily with the nightmare of English adjectives.

I cannot come class for to take lessons. Because I was illy. Same as above.

He's smilish, he hardly ever be angry Well why not, considering 'stylish', 'British', and 'churlish'?

He's intelligent, romantic same as Don Juan Extra points for the cultural reference and correct spelling of 'romantic'.

In the way, I saw nice view So how is a beginning student of English supposed to know that 'in the way' refers to an obstacle? You can see a nice view from the window, so why not in the way?

I ate food cake drank cola Say this to yourself a couple of times and tell me the rhythm isn't compelling.

Dance was fantastic. While I was watching danced persons boy came near me. That boy very handsome. True, we need to work on the difference between -ed and -ing adjectives, and a lot of non-native speakers struggle with articles. But one line into this girl's composition and I'm already hooked. And she's nailed the past continuous with simple past construction.

I love my childhood friends because she is angle and funny girlfriend's. I'm not defending anything here, but if my local greengrocer's in Scotland can put up a sign reading Fresh Raspberry's, then my Turkish students ought to be allowed. I'm betting they've had fewer opportunities to hone their English punctuation than my greengrocer.

He looks like smallish weak and thin but he's very stronger person and sometimes pessimistic Yay, he got the third person singular S right and used look like in a personal description! We'll work on the appropriate use of comparatives and separating physical and personality descriptions later.

My world love only man friend. Because man only very trust. Uh oh: someone's had his heart broken by his girlfriend, hasn't he? I'll cut him some slack.

My mother's cock is delicious. Proving once and for all the importance of correct spelling (two Os in cook) and careful attention to grammar (cook is only a noun when we're talking about a person; if we're talking about what a cook prepares, we have to add an -ing.)

I'll never be able to explain this error to the shy, quiet girl who made it. But I'm grateful to her all the same.

Friday, 1 May 2009

On Error

In Japan, I once had a class comprised of four young ladies who had just finished college and were working towards their Mrs. degrees. They were sweet, pleasant girls who spoke passable English, but they all had the same fault: they hated making mistakes. Their compositions reflected this: their prose was painfully accurate and unadventurous, meticulously penned in copperplate. Every sentence carefully followed the subject-verb-object formula. They took no risks -- and they bored me half to tears.

I used to dread marking their compositions, which invariably went like this:

I went to my friend's house on Saturday. We played tennis. We had a lunch at Bon Appetit. We went for a drive in Den-en-chofu. We enjoyed ourselves very much. I went home. I helped my mother in the kitchen. I did my homework. Then, I went to bed.

One day another student joined this class. Fumiko was a young housewife, the mother of two small children, and a real breath of fresh air. Every day she came into class with funny stories about her family. She rolled her eyes and giggled as she told us about squabbles and skinned knees, and her English was atrocious, but creative and wonderfully communicative. Her compositions were almost too ambitious, but they never once bored me. She obviously worked with a dictionary, and she was a firm believer in incorporating English proverbs into her prose.

Whenever I sat down to mark Fumiko's English journal -- which she turned in to me on a weekly basis -- I reached for the aspirin. You could tell that she had scrawled her entries at the kitchen table: there were spots of grease, ketchup, and soy sauce on the pages, and Fumiko's handwriting was nowhere near as neat and precise as her classmates'. But I always marveled at her creative, adventurous use of English and I laughed myself silly at her humor, both accidental and intentional:

I am tell husband finishing homeworks when after dinner is finished eating. His thinks everytime after finishing dinner doing nothing because man's job allready finished. I am tell my jobs never finished. When woman becomes mother, all labor increases: Putting one's baby to breast, cooking dinner's preparations, and clean floor's. I say him "You come home as work is finished but I have homeworks even sleep time!!" We disputing all day long, again and again. A man will work from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done!

When Fumiko got her compositions back, I could see her classmates glancing from their virtually unmarked sheets to hers, on which I had always written plenty of comments. I could read quiet victory in their eyes: Look, our compositions are perfect, but Fumiko has made so many errors!

Fumiko didn't seem to mind what the others thought. She stayed after class when she could and asked me endless questions about grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and colloquialisms. She brought her Japanese-English proverbs dictionaries to class and we would pore over them together, trying to find the proverbs which were the most contemporary and useful. Proverbs are used more often in Japanese than they are in English and I had my work cut out for me convincing Fumiko that it was possible to overdo it with proverbs in English. Still, after a while I could see the value of having some of the more structurally accurate, commonly used English proverbs at the tip of your tongue. But even as I managed to convince her that proverbs weren't always useful in English, she managed to persuade me that they were useful in Japanese; I began to see that even the tritest cliches could contain pearls of wisdom. In fact, through Fumiko, I got hooked on Japanese proverbs. And a year later, Fumiko's English had vastly improved while the others had made only modest progress. Cliche though it is, Fumiko had truly learned from her mistakes.

I learned from her mistakes too. And although there were occasions when I wondered what in the world she was talking about, Fumiko became my role model when I started writing Japanese in earnest. I took risks; I was adventurous; I put my all into my compositions, resigned myself to making the occasional howler, and pored over my teacher's painstaking corrections and explanations.

And I bought an entire series of Japanese proverb books and dictionaries, and learned dozens of them. To this day I can still bore my kids by reciting the appropriate proverb when the occasion demands, and they've even learned some themselves.

So thank you, Fumiko. Thank you for showing me such a good example. Thank you for hours of entertainment, and who cares about the headaches? And thank you very much for getting me hooked on proverbs. 七転び八起き Nana korobi, ya oki, or Fall down seven times, get up eight. (If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.)

A real pearl of wisdom, that. And it's come in handy for a lot more than language learning.