Wear Your Beanie This Arvo, It’s Cold Outside: My Growing Pan-English Accent

Have you filled a bucket today?

Sometimes it’s pretty, but I’ve been taking pictures of language stuff just so I can have stock images for language-related posts.

There are times when my mental world grinds to a halt after something I have said. A phrase so particularly and enigmatic that I must stop and consider the universe; a trick of words so hilarious or stupid or amazing that I must marvel at my own tongue’s ability not to fall out of my mouth in horror. At other times I stop because I am not sure what has happened, how the words have emerged from me. I wonder at how it is that I have just said such a thing, as though my mandibles were possessed, as though some ghost was in the machine of my articulators.

Sometimes, it is a menu-item so amazing my life halts: “Multiflavoured razor clams.” At other times, it is something that emerges naturally from a conversation, a perfect, globule summary phrase that tickles me beyond comprehension: “Porcelain dildo artisanry.” When the words finally tumble free into the ether, my existence seems to take a sharp inhalation, as though the world has started to rotate in alternate directions.

Never has this been so apparent as when I am picking up Australian lingo.

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Ambient Language Acquisition

Elephants III

If you’re around elephants often enough, it’s not that hard to pick up elephant language.

There were five people left in the van: the driver, three backpackers in rapidly deteriorating dress, and a young Thai woman in business attire. All of the other passengers had long since disembarked, calling their stops to the driver, who would nod his assent and help unload their burdens.

Periodically, the driver would nervously gaze into his rear-view mirror. As always, we had been shoved into the farthest back seats, where our bulk seemed less menacing, where they put all the cargo no one knew what to do with. We loomed, cramped and ungainly, into petite-size seats atop our travel towels and toothbrushes. His gaze would pass over us indirectly, and he would cough gruffly in consternation.

“Hey,” he said to the woman, after a long moment of anxious glances. “You speak English?”

“Yeah, kinda,” she murmured, already not liking where this conversation was headed.

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A Toe in the Mandarin Waters

The wall

And for my next trick, I will use my powers to decipher the meaning behind these symbols.

About twice a week, the laptop ayi visits my class.

The laptop ayi is the Chinese tech support woman who delivers a trolley of computers to the classes around the school, keeping them safe, making them purr, and treating the trolley like it was her prize pony. After I book the laptops she brings them at the designated time, unlocks them, tips her metaphorical hat, and saunters on her way.

But occasionally an issue arises: the laptops were not safely stowed in their closet for her to fetch them. A computer is missing, or some headphones, or a powerchord. The trolley has been double booked and she wants to clear up all the fuss so that everyone can be happy. At least, I assume this is what she’s saying. My Mandarin doesn’t exist.

There is nothing more embarrassing than when an adult tries to communicate with you and your failure is so abject that a group of six year-olds comes to your aid. As my students see my face redden they suddenly appear at my side, the whole lot of them, the ones who have spoken Mandarin from birth and the ones who learn it recreationally at school. “Don’t worry, Mr. M,” they seem to say, as they shoo me away so the grown-ups can talk. “We’ll handle this.” The gaggle of them converse pleasantly to the ayi, who nods and responds, thanks them pleasantly, and ambles off along down the hall.

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The Language Babysitters and the Grown-Up Infant

In use

Don’t worry, my surrogate mom will deal with this.

I sat in my apartment, thumbs twiddling. I was waiting for a mysterious stranger. There was no way of contacting her–my cell phone and internet service had been cut off, which was what prompted her visit. I turned off the lights to wait in the dark, as being without internet or cellular made me feel like a caveman anyways.

My real estate agent had sent her. Charlie was twenty-something and awkwardly tall, as though the material that made up his body had been stretched too thin beyond the original blueprints. His English was superb, which was his purpose in my life. Aside from securing the apartment in which I currently dwell, he was also my personal caretaker. He dealt with my problems when they grew to a complexity beyond what cereal to buy or how to brush my teeth.

Confronted with a cell phone that no longer cell phoned, I grunted and bawked and mashed at it like a Neanderthal or a grandpa dealing with a DVD player. My technology no longer did technological things, and I was already out of ideas. I scratched at my heavy, sloped brow, and attempted to wifi-squat until I could contact Charlie and whine at him to solve my problems for me.

Within hours Charlie had conscripted a young woman to find me at my apartment and shepherd me through the city. She attempted to give me a ride on the back of her tiny, delicate scooter, but being twice her height and weight made the prospect unfeasible, and her offer to let me drive her vehicle through the rain in Chinese traffic terrified me to the core.

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Love of the Tongueless: Travelling Without Language

The Calle

You can’t tell by just this caption, but I am gesticulating wildly.

Faith waited nervously on the sun-dappled steps of Teatro Principal, on a busy pedestrian street in Guanajuato. She had a book in her hands and a pair of sunglasses, the afternoon sun blasting down upon the city. “I was worried you might not find your way,” she said.

My way involved flying through Houston, navigating Mexican customs, and finding a way to the centre of town from the airport. That I would need to attempt this feat completely in Spanish, despite my not speaking Spanish, was a matter of some concern. Would I get lost? Would I somehow end up stranded on the Mexican roadside, backpack straps anxiously twined around my fingers, as the exhaust of a dozen intercity buses choked my lungs? Would I simply end up wandering into the desert to be eaten alive by cactuses and supersnakes, or whatever it is that kills you in the desert?

But no, I arrived safely, thanked my driver, paid him his fare and waved him on his way. Faith shrugged. “Then I remembered that we’ve all been doing this constantly for the last few years.”

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Crash Positions and the Bag Boy

Straight razor

“I’ll have a little off the top, please.”

I entered the salon prepared for battle.

Years of terrible Korean haircuts meant a trove of neuroses as dense and fibrous as the mop of hair I was then sporting. Every excursion to a hair stylist meant almost certain doom and failure, a horrific exchange of miscommunications and dire proclamations of woe from both customer and merchant. It meant dismay and misfortune, it meant a furrowed brow and a trembling hand, and it meant a series of really dumb haircuts.

Over time my defences grew strong and I tried to mitigate the destruction rent upon my scalp through readiness. I knew vocabulary in Korean, as I now do in Chinese, to describe vaguely the kind of haircut I desire. I photos of myself from multiple angles with an approximate coiffure goal. I can draw myself in comic form, present a rule to give exact dimensions, and even guide them physically if necessary. A bad haircut in the latter days of Korea was a hard-won failure, but at least the fault was entirely upon the barbers, and not on me.

And so as I entered the salon in China, I was similarly clad for war. I had my pictures and my words, my sternest expression, my exact specifications and the blueprint for my head, the support beams and the girders and the gridlines required to sculpt my scalp into something vaguely like what I desired. My lip was curled, and my fist was around my phone, which was already scrolled to a picture of me, shorn-headed, with a similarly scornful sneer spread across my face.

“Sit down over there,” the barber said, rivulets of tedium pulsing through his voice. “I’ll shampoo you in a second. What kind of haircut do you want?”

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My Default Second Language (Ein 볶음밥, por favor)

"Try the bibimbap!" it probably says.

“Try the bibimbap!” it probably says.

“So, you want Guanajuato? I don’t really know Teatro Principal. That in El Centro?” a Mexican cab driver probably said. I couldn’t be sure – I don’t, as it turns out, speak Spanish, but this was the closest guess I had to the question he proposed to me. It is equally as possible he was asking me about my thoughts on the weather, or on Mexican politics, or if I liked squash, vegetable or sport.

“Yes,” I said, feeling like an idiot. What a dumb, wretched Gringo I was. Couldn’t I even try? He wasn’t asking for extemporaneous speeches on Russian history.

“Ne,” I yelped, trying to cover my tracks. The man squinted into his rear-view at me. He knew enough English to know the word ‘yes’, and knew enough human to interpret my nod. He did not know what to make of my profuse sweating, my growing anxiety, or my next few statements. “Sorry, I mean oui. Er… kha. Or… maybe… sí? Sí.”

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Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock: Language (How Do I Even Talk Now?)

Oh, hi there.

Still my go-to stock photo for language.

“Well, when I lived in Asia…” begin so many of my sentences these days. Moving away is hard, and as it turns out, so is moving back. Chronicles of Reverse Culture Shock is a series devoted to these difficulties, and is also an outlet so that I don’t become That Guy Who Won’t Shut Up About Korea to all of his friends.

I was on the subway, deep below the earth, talking freely to a friend. My tongue sluiced freely around my mouth. My teeth chattered, unbound. Phonemes flew unabashedly off of my stupid lips. Maybe I was talking about bowel movements, or my visceral hatred for a certain coworker, or fairly deep spoilers to books three, four, and five of A Song of Ice and Fire. Maybe I was expressing untoward personal opinions on Margaret Thatcher, or my thoughts in unicorns in North Korea. Perhaps, at different times, all of these subjects of discussion. In polite company I would usually try to refrain from blabbing on about touchy subjects, about the crude or the vulgar or the spoilerific.

And while I was still largely in polite company, I was in polite company that was speaking in Korean and had no interest in my dumb English conversation. Under the sea of a completely different language, my own sentences were slipping completely under the radar, too fast and too idiosyncratic and too boring for anyone to bother listening in. I had diplomatic immunity of the mouth, and I could say whatever I wanted, almost whenever I wanted.

I had grown used to this luxury. It seemed, for a time, that I was walking around in a glorious English bubble, a great movable sphere of incomprehensibility. No one around would understand me, and unless I tried with particular effort, I couldn’t understand anyone else. It was a gentleman’s agreement on eavesdropping, and the difficulty of translation meant that nobody would bother trying too hard to overhear my tedious communiqués. Every conversation was intimate and private, even if we were sardined into a bus with hundreds of strangers at rush hour, or swarmed by waiters and other diners at a restaurant. No one was going to bother trying to understand me, and thus my words were all free.

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Our Private Pidgin and the Great Slang Convergence

Wat Rong Khun - The roof

“Roof” or “ruff”? Well, it depends who I’m talking to.

All of us hailing  from varying parts of the world, in Korea we had a series of long arguments on the regional variations in description of carbonated beverages. Being from southern Ontario, I was staunchly in the “pop” camp, as were any others raised in the American Midwest, or who had a vested interest in Freaks and Geeks. My friends from elsewhere were adamant about calling it “soda,” while still others maintained that “soda pop” was the most righteous colloquialism. (No one we knew was in the “coke” camp, which is good, because what?)

While in my mind I championed “pop” in all situations, and would indeed do so until my dying day, when my great-grandchildren would pry a can of pop from my withered, dried old talons, in practice I had begun to falter. Around my American friends, I began to insert “soda” into my sentences, as though they couldn’t possibly understand what I might be referring to otherwise.

In time, my friends also brought to my attention that they had been doing the opposite for my own comfort. While they might not yield on pop, they were dropping Canadian, Korean, New Zealand idioms all over the place for the comfort of their listeners. Moreover, we had all been softening our accents. Ty would turn off all remnants of his Texan twang; the hollowed, rounded “o”s of my local Canadian dialect were receding. We had all been taking efforts to make our language more similar to the others’, in turn pushing them ever forward towards a mutually acceptable middle ground.

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The Unoverheard

Oh, hi there.

Luckily, you probably won’t understand me.

We were sitting at dinner, discussing essentially nothing: food or books or music. The din around us was filled with the sound of other people speaking, the clatter of spoons and chopsticks on dishes, sizzling things in enormous central pots. Suddenly, I perked like a bloodhound, and raised a hand to my friend to stop speaking.

“The women at the table behind us are speaking English.”

Beth tensed, alarmed. We were both in fight or flight mode, without intending it. “What? No. Impossible.”

We both stopped to listen, and in time confirmed that the syllables being exchanged adjacent to us were similar to our own. We were petrified. We felt awkward. How could we go on speaking to each other now? There was a miniscule chance that we might be overheard.

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