Tue Oct 17 23:14:48 2000
To: newsletter
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Exploiting student's innocence

Hello, friends,

      Sometimes, deciphering students' English is a lot like archeology: one finds a few shattered fragments; dusts them off, and applies some expertise to decipher them and finally fit them together. Then, the task becomes forensic: one has at last the meaning, so one begins to explore how the phrase crumbled into the form in which it was found. One has certain tools at one's disposal. One knows, for instance, a bit about the nature of Japanese itself, so that one can understand some of the turns the Japanese tongue makes in attempting to wrap itself around English sounds--thus, the random substitution of an "R" for an "L," and vice versa, and the occasional use of an inappropriate vowel or a similar-sounding consonant. One can also apply the knowledge that the student is relatively new to English, and thus has a shaky grasp of spelling, resulting, in some cases, in phonetic spellings of certain words. The combination of these two factors often means a phonetic spelling of how a word sounds at the tip of a Japanese tongue, further complicating the process. A final clue to unraveling a mysterious etymology lies in the newness of not just English but of the roman alphabet itself: "d"'s are commonly reversed into "b"'s or "p"'s, and any sort of play at all can occur among "r"'s, "n"'s, and "h"'s--throw in the the occasional extra stroke, and almost any letter becomes possible.

      Consider the possibilities inherent in "My friend is good. Show you his picture?" This phrase was laboriously reconstructed from shards excavated in a student's midterm (an exercise in the form of a letter). Ignoring the grammar, and focusing only on the final word, the linguistic archeologist was at pains to discover the word "picture" among such ruins as an "i" and a "u" that had changed into "e"'s; a silent "e" lost to science altogether; a "ct" combination that had, understandably, lapsed into a "ch"; and, most puzzling to the present writer and the source of most of his apprehension, an extra stroke that had somehow adhered to the "h." In its original form, the fragment had read, "My fliend is goot. Show you my fliend pecker?"

      So much for my attempt at clever eloquence. How sensitively would you react to this? I, unfortunately, laughed out loud, which put me in the position of having to explain this to my sweet and shy English teacher. I showed it to her; not surprisingly, "pecker" was not in her vocabulary, but fortunately I had spent enough time with drunk Japanese men to have added its local equivalent to mine ("chin-chin," or "chinko" for short, in case you have any use for this info--"nodo" is "throat," and in case you are wondering why I'm giving you the word for "throat," I have to add that my favorite Japanese anatomical word is that for "uvula," which is "nodo-chinko"). Of course, she then also laughed; which attracted the attention of still more teachers, who pressed her to explain. She could not bring herself to say the necessary word out loud in Japanese, so it fell to me. Somewhat to my horror, one of those other teachers then took it upon himself to inform the poor boy himself (and thank god it was a boy), in front of other kids. The boy seemed to find it as funny as did, by this point, pretty much the rest of the school, so no harm was done. Of course, next time, I will try VERY HARD not to laugh out loud. I'll just quietly copy the passage into my notebook and go on correcting. If necessary, I'll bite the inside of my cheek and run out into the middle of the watermelon patch for a hearty guffaw.

      Another great letter began, "Dear Mike, // Hell! My name is...."

      Other news: none. It's getting cold quickly here, and we've had some glorious skies at night, clouds backlit by the full moon--but then the moon is the same everywhere, and clouds are the same, too, if not at the same time.

O genki de,



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