Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I'm Losing My English

A strange transformation occurs when I step into the ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom. My voice pitch gets higher, I over-enunciate each syllable, my speech slows down significantly, and I gesture dramatically to emphasize my words, all the while with a big cheesy grin pasted on my face. "He-LLO, class! How are YOU to-DAY?"

My brain constantly self-edits my vocabulary when I'm talking to non-native English speakers, simplifying grammatical structures and minimizing the use of words more than 2 or 3 syllables long. My Canadian roommate last year would get on my case when I used what she called my "teacher voice" on her. "Snap out of it, Michelle! You can talk normally to me!"

But after four years of living in China, I didn't know how to talk "normally" any more. My first or second year I was in China I got a phone call from my brother Steve who was studying linguistics at Geogetown University and was all excited about his classes. I, too, had taken linguistics classes in college, and so he wanted to share with me what he was learning. But my brain had to work overtime just to keep up with the normal speed of his conversation, which seemed amazingly fast to me. And I had a hard time following him as he talked about syntax and phonemes and alveolar fricatives and other things that I studied in what seemed like another lifetime, in my B.C. days (Before China).

In China my days were full of "Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes", and "The Wheels on the Bus go 'Round and 'Round." My literary pursuits included such classics as Dr. Seuss' "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," and "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" My daily interactions with my students consisted of questions about the weather, what they were wearing, and what color or shape things were. And by the time we finished our classes late at night, my roommate and I had no brain power or energy left to have philosophical discussions about the meaning of life. We limited our conversations to whose turn it was to take the dog out or what groceries we needed to buy for dinner.

Now I'm back in the U.S., but it's taking awhile for my English to get back up to speed again. Here are a few examples of how much my vocabulary has dwindled:

  • Not long after I returned to Virginia Beach, I was outside working in the yard and overheard our 10-year-old neighbor playing with his friends on the trampoline. He was giving commands to his younger buddies for their game, "I'll be the hero, and you be the villain..." And I realized that this kid has a better vocabulary than I do! I hadn't heard or used the word "villain" in a long time. I think I would have just said "bad guy"...

  • A Chinese friend of mine who's lived in the US for about 10 years was helping me prepare some dishes for a party. As we sliced onions, she noticed my eyes tearing up and commented, "Wow, those onions are pungent!" I was amazed - I don't know if I've ever used the word "pungent" in ordinary conversation! (I'm not even sure how to spell it!)

  • We had some international students over for some games and someone was describing a word for us to guess for the game "Taboo." Our Brazilian friend spouted off a rapid-fire list of synonyms as if he were a talking thesaurus: "young, adolescent, child, infant, youth, teenager..." before finally guessing the correct answer: "juvenile." I was in awe.

So, if you see me or talk with me in the near future, please be kind and speak slowly, use small words, and limit your references to bilabial fricatives. My English-weary brain would appreciate it. The high pitched voice and cheesy grin are optional. :)

Saturday, January 17, 2009


This is what comes of having too many languages in my brain at once...

  • Chinese characters and curling dragons caught my eye as I read the "Jin Yu" Chinese Restaurant sign. I was proud of myself for remembering that "Jin Yu" means "golden fish." I continued reading the sign aloud, sounding out what I thought was more Chinese, although it didn't immediately sound familiar - "Toh Tah-keh Oh-uht..." Then I suddenly realized what it said: "To Take Out".

  • My brother and I had gone to the public library for the first time since we'd been back in the US, and were in awe of the rows and rows of free books available, all in ENGLISH! As we scanned the shelves with our new library cards in our pockets, we came across a poster of a smiling child with a pile of books. My brother was surprised to see that the large lettering across the top was in Spanish: "Celebramos los libros". But he was a bit puzzled by the caption on the bottom of the poster as he continued reading, "Ceh-leh-brah-teh Books," wondering what it meant and why there was an English word thrown in the phrase... And then we realized that the bottom phrase was completely in English: "Celebrate Books."

  • For months since I've been back in Virginia Beach, every time I pass "The Founders' Inn," a hotel near our neighborhood, I look at the sign for their new spa and try to decipher the Chinese-looking script on it. It consists of 2 fairly simple-looking characters, and I feel as if I should know what they mean. I've even had a few friends ask me what the characters mean (people here seem to think I know a lot more Chinese characters than I actually do). But then recently someone finally explained the mysterious symbols. They do have something to do with the name of the spa, "Flowering Almond," but not in the way that I thought. The first highly stylized "character" is "F" and the second one is "A."

(...In my defense, I think the sign outside the hotel looks more Chinese and less like English letters than this image I found on the internet...)