|It could be sugar. It could be salt.|
Heck, it could be cocaine.
Photo by Charlotte Overton-hart
I’d been in Japan less than a year, teaching English to middle- and high-school kids, and my Japanese language skills were nothing to write home about. I could successfully introduce myself, order a Domino's pizza (yep, they’re in Japan too), and ask questions like, “Which train goes to Kanazawa?” and hope that the person who responded used lots of hand signals.
Then I went to dinner with a newly arrived, non-Japanese-speaking foreigner (Americans are called “foreigners” in other countries) and she asked me to tell the waiter she wanted her meat well done.
I shook my head. “I don’t know how to say that.”
“Try,” she insisted.
“Seriously, I don’t know the word for ‘well done’ in Japanese,” I argued.
I took a deep breath and smiled at the waiter. “Meat,” I began in Japanese. “Um… brown is good. Red is bad.”
His head tipped to one side like a confused puppy’s.
“Okay. Meat?” I asked, pretty sure I had the right Japanese word for that.
“Niku,” he repeated, and nodded to confirm that he understood that much.
“Yes,” I said. “Meat. Hot meat is good. Cold meat is bad.”
He tipped his head further to the side and shook it a little bit.
I shrugged at my dining partner.
“Keep trying,” she said.
Big (annoyed) breath. “Brown, hot meat: yes,” I told the poor, patient waiter. “Red, cold meat: no.”
“Ah,” he said and nodded. “Weru dahn?”
Uh, yeah. Weru dahn.
As much as I wanted to smack my demanding dining companion in the forehead, the experience forced me to learn how to talk around something to get my point across, if I didn’t have the vocabulary and grammar I needed for the job.
One might say it broadened my linguistic flexibility.
I’ve been thinking a lot about language learning, as I recently started teaching an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) class for fifteen adult immigrants. Three are from East Asia, about half hail from various South American countries, and the rest are Middle Easterners.
In one way I have been where they are—living full-time in a country whose spoken and written language is largely a mystery. Newspapers may as well be written in hieroglyphs. Street signs, too. Asking for help requires courage, humility, and sometimes the ability to laugh at yourself.
I once went to the grocery in Japan for a bag of sugar. I found the aisle of baking goods, but none of them were brands I knew, nor were they packaged like in they are in America. I narrowed my search to a plastic bag full of sandy white stuff. But was it sugar? Or was it salt? I couldn’t read the kanji. I didn’t know the word for “sugar”.
But I did know how to say “salt”.
I stopped another customer in the aisle, held up what I hoped was a bag of sugar and asked, “Sumimasen. Kore wa shio desu ka?” (“Excuse me. Is this salt?”)
Most of what he said blew right past me, but he shook his head, and I heard the word “No”, and he pointed to a different package.
I thanked him and turned around to head to the cashier with my item.
He called after me. “Little sister! Little sister! That’s not salt!”
All I could say was, “Thank you. I understand.” And I kept going.
He followed after me, distress rising in his voice. “No, little sister! That’s not salt!”
I had absolutely no way to explain to him that I didn’t want salt, because I didn’t know the words for “want” or “sugar” or “you’ve been very helpful but please go away now”.
Up to the cashier the anguished man followed me, insisting I had the wrong product.
I kept saying, “Thank you. I understand. I am okay. Thank you. Goodbye.”
He and the cashier had a conversation about me.
I eventually left with my bag of sugar, feeling—and probably looking—like a very stupid person. (And I looked up the word for “sugar” when I got home.)
So much of our perceived intelligence comes from our ability to communicate: to ask and answer questions, to navigate a conversation, to share what’s happening inside our heads.
Though I’d minored in French, a summer in French-speaking West Africa introduced me to the frustration and helplessness of not sharing fluency in a common language.
I hung out with a lot of French people—who, by the way, kiss you on both cheeks whenever you meet, and when a cute French guy does that to an American girl who’s never before left the states it makes her break out in a giggling fit that she’s still embarrassed about twenty-three years later.
It was incredibly difficult to keep up with conversations. Philippe said something, Viola answered him, Cedric commented, everyone laughed (except me: Should I fake laugh? Not laugh? Smile a little?), Cedric made another comment, Bruno asked me a question (Oh crud! What did he ask me? I don’t know! I’ll just say “Uh-huh, yes, okay”), while I sat there still trying to decode those first words Philippe spoke.
By the time I figured out what everyone said, and then put together a sentence of my own to respond or add to it, the conversation had long since moved on to a different topic.
I spent most evenings with these lovely but often inscrutable people, sitting on the couch, gazing around the room like a frontal lobotomy patient, the rest of my brain seizing as though half a dozen trigger-happy cops were all tazing it at the same time.
And by the way, when you routinely respond “Uh-huh, yes, okay” to stuff you don’t actually understand, you may find yourself picked up on a Friday afternoon by a car full of people on their way to the beach for the weekend, because they asked you earlier in the week if you wanted to go and you said, “Uh-huh, yes, okay.”
Being a foreigner is hard.
“Immigrants should learn English if they want to live here,” I’ve heard said more times than I have fingers and toes and possibly hairs on my head.
Yeah, I agree. And so do most of them. And they’re trying, in between jobs—perhaps multiple jobs—and raising kids and going to school.
Languages are challenging and learning one takes a lot of time and effort. Our brains are only wired for language acquisition until we’re about twelve. Then this neurobiological pruning takes place, and all those sponge-like pathways that absorb vocabulary and grammar structures like we’re slurping smoothies simply go away. After that learning a new language is just plain hard work.
Before I left at the end of my four years in Japan I wanted to be able to stand up and give an impromptu speech without preparation or notes. I did it, and I’m sure my little talk was rife with mispronunciations, badly conjugated verbs, and sentences that sounded like a four-year-old put them together. After getting into Mommy’s wine stash.
Did the Japanese people who listened to me that night realize that in my native language I’m a writer? That I hold an M.S.Ed. in educational psychology? That I’ve taught college courses and trained other teachers? Or did they just see a foreigner with paltry language skills and dismiss me as cute for trying?
My dear friend Miwa came to visit me in the U.S. after I left Japan. On Sunday morning she accompanied me to church. As we entered the sanctuary she reached for a program from the usher at the door. He turned to me and asked with a smirk, “Can she even read it?”
Indignation and embarrassment welled up in me at his arrogance, ignorance, and disrespectfulness. He looked at Miwa and saw her as nothing but an illiterate foreigner.
“Yes. She can read, write, and speak three languages,” I told him.
What I really wanted to ask next was, “How about you?”