Sunday, July 29, 2007

Richard is a Gas Can; More Adventures in English

David Sedaris talks about carrying a little notebook around with him wherever he goes, presumably, to jot down funny ideas. He’s been on my brain since I’ve just finished “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim”, and I’ve been pondering the similarities between us unabashedly. He, like me, is an American living abroad, he’s hopelessly devoted to his partner and is also quite short. He has written of his attempts to learn, understand and speak a second language as an adult. That may be where the similarities end, but I was thinking that in the interest of weird and funny material, I should really be making copious notes during the English lessons I’m giving.

Three of my students are engineers. Now, both of my grandfathers were engineers, so in my family, the “engineer mentality” is well known. On one hand, they are meticulous, organized, math/science whizzes, with endless patience for trouble shooting. On the other hand, language and intra personal communication skills are not always their strong suit.

In China, your surname comes first. Two of the engineers are called “Chen”. For reasons unknown to me, these gentlemen are distinguished from one another by the type of engineering they practice. “E.E Engineer” is the electrical engineer while “M. Engineer” is the mechanical engineer. This is slyly alternated with “L.L Chen” or “D.R Chen”. I can only assume this is all in an attempt to maximize confusion since L’s and R’s are commonly inverted when Chinese people are just beginning to speak English.

These two men could not be more different from one another. LL is eager to show off his English skills, however small, while DR is quite shy about speaking. D.R is missing an index finger on his right hand. LL is not. DR uses a pocket English dictionary while LL is enamored with an online Chinese/English translator. I have tried on many occasions to stress the faultiness of a program that lists the word “sensation” as a synonym for “close” to no avail. When I mention a word he doesn’t know, his hand shoots up and he demands a definition. In the midst of my explanation, he slides away on his rolling chair to his computer and types away, no doubt missing everything I am saying.

On Thursday, this situation came to a head. We are working from a set of text books and DVD’s called “Family Album, U.S.A”. As many language programs are, this one is undeniably hokey, and looks to have been filmed around the same year I was born. Leg warmers, stonewashed jeans and poufy bangs are in abundant supply in this version of America.

In the episode we were working through, Marilyn and her husband Richard have made a bet about whether or not he can make it through one hour in her new advanced aerobics class. She thinks it is really “tough”, while he says “it’ll be a piece of cake”. (Fun with idioms!) If he can survive the class without getting tired, she will cook dinner for the entire family. If he can’t make it, then he will have to cook for everyone.

After watching the video, I encourage discussion so my students can practice speaking. I ask them to describe what they have seen.

“Marilyn very good wife to Richard” volunteers DR shyly.

“Great!” I say, “And what about Richard? What kind of person is he?”

“He think exercise very easy, but Marilyn think very hard.” Offers Anna.

“Right,” I nod, “ but is the class as easy as he thought it would be?”

“No, very tough.” Anna replies “He sorry he say easy.”

“Okay, Mr. LL, what do you think?”

He looks up from his keyboard, smiles at me brightly and says

“Richard is gas can.”

The other students look at me, beaming expectantly. I stare at him blankly. I rack my brain, considering and rejecting possibilities, idioms gone horribly wrong. Perhaps he means “wind bag”? Or maybe that Richard is full of “hot air”?

“Umm, let me see what your dictionary says there LL.” He points his finger at the screen defensively. “Here, Gas can.”

I look at the screen. Sure enough, it reads “Gascon”. I scroll down to examine the definition. It is far from enlightening. “Gascon: a person from Gascony.”

“Well, LL, it seems what we have here is another example of why you should not rely on this dictionary. Use the Oxford English book I gave you instead. Perhaps you are trying to say that Richard likes to brag.”

I write “brag” on the board and begin to explain its meaning, along with some related idioms like “full of hot air” and “big talker”. Now he is defensive, having been embarrassed in front of his classmates.

“Richard is mouther.”

“Mouther?” I am getting exasperated. “LL, I have been speaking English for 23 years and I have never ever heard the word ‘Gascon’ or ‘mouther’. Your dictionary is unreliable.” I write “unreliable” on the board and underline it for good measure.

He looks at the computer screen and strokes his chin thoughtfully. “Richard is tinhorn”.

I spin on my heel and march back to his desk. Sure enough the word “tinhorn” is listed as a synonym for “Gascon”.

“LL,” I say, with a voice that I hope veils my anguish “You shouldn't look up synonyms for a word that doesn't make sense to begin with. If I don’t understand these words, then I promise you, neither will anyone else. I think the word you are looking for is “brag”, or maybe, “big talker”.

He considers me from behind his bifocals. Obviously it isn’t his beloved computer that is leading him astray. It is this surly twenty-something American girl with her white board marker and her blasted Oxford English Dictionary. She is determined to keep him from using impressive English words, hellbent on humiliating him in front of the other engineers.

“Gascon?”he says quizzically

I shake my head.

“Gascon?” he pleads, desperately.

Still, I shake my head no.

Gascon!,” he says indignantly.

I sink into my chair weakly, looking at the other students. They smile encouragingly, but I can’t help but wonder how anyone in their right mind ventures into the realm of someone else’s language. It’s a jungle of bizarre phrases, intonations, meanings, spelling rules and inexplicable grammar. It’s a miracle anyone can do it.

I googled “Gascon” when I got home, and it reported that Gascon is a region in France. So, at best, its some sort of obscure racial slur. Where is David Sedaris when I need him?

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