Almost fluent in my native tongue

February 22, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

I like the English language, it seems unending to read or to write. I love writers like Hitchems or Nabokov or the like who practice the perfect way to twist each sentence to make it more meaning than that huge flock of pedestrian writers including, at the very bottom, hacks like me.

The glory of English is its casual acceptance of new words from anywhere. Here, for example, is a link to a list of English loanwords by country of origin.

Interestingly that same source says that some significant percentage of the words in English come from French. This while France is fighting a losing battle against the use of English loan words in France or Franglais. They even have a law that attempts to thwart the flow of Anglo-Americanisms into the pure French language and culture (Le Loi Toubon).

This brings up visions of pairs of French linguists wearing berets and carrying batons prowling the streets, striking down any passerby who dares order a Big Mack or send an e-mail – both proscribed terms. When I last visited Paris in October, I saw no language police patrolling, although the waiters seemed to carry on that same work with indifference rather than batons as their weapons.

English is flexible but, in many situations, insensible to routine order and extremely difficult to aquire or to instruct the nuances that a native speaker knows by her very existence. Try explaining the structure of a sentence like “Luckily I already had had a shower when the postman rang.” to a native Korean speaker. I tried and failed.

In the last 20 or so years English has become the lingua franca (yes, I know that must anger the French even more). It is taken for granted that all or most educated Europeans speak both their own language and English. Additionally they often they speak five or six others, unnecessary except as part of a pan-European plot to make Americans feel inferior.

The mega-assault of the American entertainment culture pushing out through every possible communications medium has infused the entire world with, if not English, than English-isms. In Asian countries you will see teens and children wearing clothes emblazoned with American symbols and an English phrase, often totally meaningless but worn for the cachet. In virtually every Asian country, you can find native English speakers, often expatriates who have serially failed at everything in their own countries, getting by teaching English badly to willing students. I have been traveling all through this language infiltration and have experienced all levels of fluency – often to my extreme confusion.

Today, throughout southern and Eastern Asia, the penetration of the electronic Western culture and its side effects means that virtually anywhere an English speaking tourist might go, a local will speak at least tourist-English.

 This was not so at recent as twenty years ago. My wife and I returned to Kyoto from a 3 day excursion to Takayama, a sizeable destination for Japanese tourists in the mountains of Gifu Province. After three days in that town we had not encountered a single menu in Roman characters, only a very few signs that we could read and no person that spoke even a few words of English. The only other Westerners we saw were a French couple and,, beyond a nod to us as we sat at an adjacent table in a noodle shop, they did not speak to us but spoke to each other in glorious French. When we eventually returned to Kyoto and saw a Pizza Hut sign, we ran to it with the exuberance of Legionnaires to an oasis.

In most countries, I could get along with phrase books or the locals 'tourist' English or even a few words I learned as I went along. (I am fairly comfortable speaking my slightly understandable version of Romance languages or German but the unfamiliar sounds and accents of Asian languages are almost unattainable for me except for a very few phrases.)

As I began to travel more – and in less developed settings – I saw that language differences were more than an obstacle to me. The lack of mutual intelligibility created this false but unpleasant barrier between me and the 'locals' and so I adopted a strategy to break down this barrier.

I always try to learn at least one or two common useful phrases in the language of my destination country and I always carry a phrase book. These books inevitably have a set of commonly needed phrases like 'I want to go to the bus station', their phonetic equivalent and, most important, the phrase as written in the local language.

In an appropriate situation, I would ostentatiously take out my phrase book, search busily for the phrase I needed, then try to pronounce it. Inevitably, no one would understand me and I would try again, each time with a slightly different pronunciation. Eventually, with some degree of smiling frustration, I would show the book to my 'target', they would, again inevitably, laugh and say the phrase correctly, I would repeat it poorly, also inevitably, and by the time I got it close to correct, we would be friends and the barrier would be gone. They would understand that I was not holding myself away and they would become my teacher.

The second strategem did not involve language but was just a way for me to show something about my own life and illustrate where we were alike. I always carried many copies of a small picture collage of my grandchildren. Again when the situation was appropriate, like I was seated next to a family on a bus or boat, I would smile at their children and then show them the picture of my family. I would pull out a piece of paper and draw a diagram with stick figures of generations to show that they were my grandchildren. Ihe pictures were chosen carefully so that there was no indication of wealth or living standard but only the children. Western children are a total rarity in rural Asia and the picture would always be of great interest. Often I would end this kind of interchange by asking, in sign language, if I could take their and their children's picture .

But, back to language. The nuances of English are often unappreciated in 'tourist' English.. Two years ago, my son and I were on a train in Myanmar going from Yangon to Mawlamyine. This piece of rolling stock was made, according to the painted over plaque on one of the cars, in the 1930s and hadn't been much upgraded or repaired since. The seat padding was erratic and many of the seats had only two adjustments, fully upright and lying down flat in the lap of the person behind.

We had left our hotel in Yangon at 6 AM, it was approaching noon and food seemed an interesting diversion. About then we noticed some people from the 3d class car behind us first going forward then returning from the front of the train with paper plates of steaming, hot food and surmised that, against all probability, there actually was a dining car – or at least somewhere we could get food.

We made our way forward and, amazingly, came into the dining car. The tables were rickety battery cafe style, only a few actually attached to the wall and the chairs seemed to match. There was a small counter behind which there was an alcove in which we could see a shelf and some food preparation equipment, including a wok, heated by a flame fed by a large nearby gas cylinder.

The Myanmar man behind the counter stared at us for a moment and then ducked down, rummaging on a shelf ad then pulled out a single rumpled, stained menu typed in a font reminiscent of old Underwood typewriters that list a variety of dished and 'cofee, tea, cold rink to drink.' Prices in kyat were the equivalent of $1 for a main dish.

All good so far.

'Cold drink?', he asked. My son and I both nodded and he pulled two orange drinks from a cooler and uncapped them using an opener that hung on a string from the wall.

I looked at the menu left lying flat on the counter so my son could read it also. There was a list of items, usually some sort of meat with rice, cooked I assume in the wok. The tail end of the list were Myanmar dishes, the names untranslated but in Roman text.

'Beef with rice' I said.

He put his finger on the first item and said 'Rice chicken.' Now I like chicken but I am a little leary about chicken in Asia. Asian chickens aren't handled and fed like Western chickens are. They are less oppressed, they run around eating what they can, being chased by everything on legs and wheels until their time to be stuffed tight into a wicker cage and then summarily executed under conditions surely unsanitary by my tender Western stomach. My guess is that salmonella tainted meat is the rule rather than the exception. On top of that, chicken cooks very quickly and, in a wok, the chicken doesn't spend much time in the purifying heat. I had the vision of spending three days in a hot, squat toilet pondering the lack of toilet paper so I wanted beef.

'Beef with rice' I said. He shook his head and said 'Chicken Rice' so I chose '”Pork with rice” Trichinosis takes months to develop and I will be home in three weeks.

He put his finger on the first item and said 'Rice chicken.'

I got it.

No matter what I wanted, 'Rice Chicken' was in my future. 'Two' said my son. Perhaps we will have adjacent squat toilets.

The counterman-cook went in the alcove and began to rattle metal things. My son and I sat and looked out the window at the flat scenery of the Mon state.

In perhaps three minutes, he was back with two paper plates, each with a huge mound of steaming fried rice, glistening with the oil of ages. There was no obvious sink in the alcove. On top of the rice was an egg.

The counterman-chef looked down beaming, then dashed off only to return instanter to present us each with a fork wrapped in a paper towel.

On top of my rice was a fried egg, but there was no chicken. I need my protein; I want my chicken.

I looked up and said 'Rice Chicken.' He was uncomprehending.

I pointed at the mound of steaming hot rice and said 'Rice.'

He, without hesitation, pointed at the egg and said 'Chicken.'






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