Thursday, September 02, 2004

Learning English, One Murder Trial at a Time

The members of my advanced English classes (Rosi in particular) come up with some great questions. Most of the time, they're asking for clarification on the meaning or pronunciation of words or phrases that caught their ears that week.

“What it means when somebody hand you something and say 'there you go'?” Alfonso once asked.

“Is it okay to say 'press the green key' instead of 'press the green button' on the ATM pin pad at the register? I have trouble to pronounce 'button,'” Rosi said one time.

This week, she pulled out her notebook and flipped open to a page where she'd copied down a few sentences.

“I was reading about the Scott Peterson trial in the newspaper,” she said. “You could tell me what this means?” She read aloud:

"I should have never taken advantage of how great you are."

This was apparently an excerpt from one of the recorded conversations between Peterson and his one-time mistress, Amber Frey.

“Ok,” I said. “Let's start with the phrase 'take advantage of.'”

After explaining that, I had to talk about 'how great you are.'

Then we turned to the verb form (present participle) 'have taken.'

This is tough material to cover, even when the students are excellent. We finally got stuck because of the 'never.'

“It means he never took advantage of her?” Rosi asked.

“No, it means he did, but he regrets it.”

Nunca debía tomado ventajas de lo maravillosa que eres (just in case you were wondering).

We all breathed a sigh of relief when that one was explained. Then on to Ms. Frey's statement regarding Peterson's suggestion that he “take care of her” in some kind of relationship context when all this murder trial hullabaloo was said and done.

"I'd have to be out of my mind," she'd responded.

“Okay,” I said, “let's start with 'out of my mind.' What does that mean?.”

They translated it directly: “It means fuera de mi mente. Like, not in my head, but outside my head.”

“Well, in this case, 'out of my mind' means loca. It's an English idiom.”

Tendría que ser loca. “Basically, she's saying she would only agree to get back together with him if she were crazy.”

These two phrases-believe it or not-took up about 30 minutes of our time. But I think that's the best kind of learning. I would be surprised if, after that much fuss, any of those students forgot those phrases or were confused by similar statements in the future.

Hey thanks, Scott.

The interaction reinforced my contention that a language is easier to learn if you focus on reading or listening to things in that language that truly interest you. I told my students, “If you really want to learn English, start watching T.V. and movies, and listening to (good) music in that English. Oh yeah, and get yourself an English-speaking honey.

Rosi is comfortable with this approach; she's dated a few American men. But I realized recently that this can present its own problems. It's difficult to judge certain aspects of potential match-ups outside of your own language-like trustworthiness and compatibility-at least at the outset. I mean, these things are difficult enough when oral communication issues are not a problem (inasmuch as two people speak the same language). And imagine trying to pantomime your way through an argument.

A few weeks ago, Rosi was excited about a coworker she'd just started dating. “I like him very much,” she said. “He so nice, he tell me he love me. We go out for coffee after work the other day.” I was a little cautious on her behalf when she said he'd told her he loved her. She'd never even mentioned the guy until that week, they'd been on two dates, and already he loved her?

Then she told me about how, on the first date, he was showing her his martial arts moves. She started imitating what looked like Tai Chi in a very dramatic and serious way. I laughed a little when she told me, only because when she said it, she made a face that said she thought the display was funny, she didn't know what it was all about, but, you know, whatever.

The next week, she brought her new friend in to meet me, and immediately, he struck me as strange. Now, I love strange-a certain kind of strange (you know, quirky, goofy, weird sense of humor, uncouth, random…that sort of thing). But he was a different kind of strange, an anti-social kind of strange, the kind of strange that puts other people on-edge.

'This can't work,' I thought. 'Rosi is spunky, fun, outgoing. This man doesn't look like fun at all.'

The other thing was that I felt bad having a conversation with a native English speaker in her presence. It felt like I was betraying her, like simply by virtue of the fact that we were raised in the same culture, he and I were sharing a secret she wasn't privy to. I was a co-conspirator.

The next week she came in telling me that he was supposed to come over to her house that morning and go out to breakfast with her, but he never showed up. No call, no note, nothing at all. The next time he saw her, he explained that he was scared. That he “loved her very much,” but he was scared, so he decided not to go to breakfast with her.

“I don't know, Rosi,” I said, “this guy sounds like bad news.”

Then I explained what “bad news” means.

That same week, Rosi's guy told her he couldn't date her because he loved her too much. And after that, she was-understandably-a little chilly toward him at work.

“I'm a person!” he cried to her at the registers. “I'm here, Rosi. I'm a person, and you can't ignore me! I'm a person!”

She was confused by this guy. I told her to stay away from him. I wondered, though, if she would have picked up on his undesirable qualities had he been a native Mexican, and I'm pretty sure she would have. It's hard to notice these things when you're focusing so hard on simply understanding the meaning of a person's words. You don't have the chance to note HOW they're saying them, what they're not saying verbally but communicating otherwise, and when they are flat out lying.

Rosi remains single.

And then, sometimes, it works. Two weeks after English-by-murder trial, and one week after Rosi's “I'm a person!” ordeal, this happened:

Alfonso came to class looking a little nervous. He explained to me that he had a lot on his mind.

“You know my wife?,” he asked.

I do. His wife is an American woman who works with him there at Whole Foods. They have twins together-a boy and a girl, whom I've met and who are stinkin' cuties!

“Yeah,” I said, “I know your wife. What about her?”

“Well, she no my wife.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we no married yet. I just call her my wife because it make it easier, but we no get married yet. Today I go to talk to her Dad. I going to ask him for if I can marry his daughter. I very nervous. I scared he think my English is not good enough for marry his daughter.”

I thought I just happened into one of the most wonderful conversations I'd ever had. “Why don't we practice?” I said. “What kinds of things do you want to say?”

“I want to say I love her very much. I want to say she give me two wonderful children. I say I want to spend my life with her. That I want him and he wife to be my family, my father- and mother-in-law.”

Let me just state this disclaimer first: I have no romantic notions of marriage. Or maybe I mean I don't have any romanticized notions of marriage. I don't think marriage is automatically beautiful or good. In the abstract, I'm actually somewhat opposed to the idea of getting married.

But that's the abstract. Alfonso and his (soon-to-be) wife Nicole are the concrete. And the concrete example in front of me was beautiful, and it was good. I told Alfonso I thought what he said was perfect. We talked some more about how he would say it; he was going to have the conversation later that week.

It was the most worthwhile English lesson I'd ever given.

I suppose if you get the right two people together, things like spoken language become a secondary means of communication. The fact that something like the Peterson/Frey conversation even happened prove that speaking the same language as a honey does not automatically guarantee an easier, more seamless experience. That is, of course, putting it mildly.

Alfonso will probably, by sheer sincerity of intention, convince his would-be father-in-law of his worthy candidate status (I'm sure the talk is just a formality anyway. And besides, it's Nicole's decision to make, and she's already made it).

Rosi might meet an English-speaking man with whom she can communicate absolutely. Or she might not.

I'm just glad to be there to answer questions and watch them learn along the way.


Anonymous said...

Hey Kisa,

Now that sounds like a worthwhile job. Who needs a six figure income when you can actually impact people on a personal level like you're doing every time you teach that class.

Sean Juan

Oh, but the way, I really would have liked an autograph from Dustin Diamond... :(

Chinese Condoms said...

Get yourself an "English-speaking honey?" Even better advice: Get yourself an English/Spanish speaking honey.

I find it odd that you're against 'marriage in the abstract' and yet think that the would-be marriage of Nicole and Alfonso would be beautiful and good. Isn't their case a strong argument for how theoretically, or in the abstract, marriage can be beautiful and good?

I only ask because you found it important to interject your opinion on marriage in the middle of your story, a story which I enjoyed, by the way.

In cases where I'm attracted to someone who doesn't speak English (or Spanish), I simply make eye contact with her, smile while I accost her, and slowly mouth the words "Your skin would make a beautiful dress." This sounds quite haunting in English, but, for non-English speakers, it seems to interpreted well. Guys, I highly recommend it.

Now put the lotion in the basket!

Jesse E. said...

I find it odd that someone with the name "Chinese Condoms" can read.

Chinese Condoms said...

I find it odd that you have an androgynous name.

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that I wrote Kisa an email a million years ago and she never responded...or Nicole for that matter. I must have really done something to piss off the Mountain Pointe crowd.. :(

Sean Juan

Shivaram said...

I liked this post too; Did Alfonso and Nicole get married?