Sunday, May 15, 2011

Speaking in Tongues

There are more things in Shinjuku than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Fascinating things can be found in the unlikeliest of places, like in the TOEFL and spoken-English learning materials section on the seventh floor of Books Kinokuniya.

Besides the usual books and DVDs, the shelves also have speakers simultaneously playing various audio CDs for learning English – some for beginners and some for advanced learners, some for tourists and some for businesspeople. So while one speaker blurts out random words and phrases – ‘sidewalk’, ‘square’, ‘as always’ – others play disconnected sentences. I stood there and jotted down a few.

  • The fitness industry has seen rapid growth in recent years.
  • She was puzzled by the strange message on her answering machine.
  • Is there a post office nearby?
  • Although the economy is improving, the exchange rate continues to fluctuate.
  • Stan was happy to hear some pleasant news for a change.
  • This ice-cream has a strawberry flavour.
Each one of these could potentially be Famous Last Words, or the Central Creed of a Modern-Day Religion, or any number of profound and quotidian things. But – and this is the beauty of it – before you can meditate on the infinite possibilities of any one sentence, the speaker has moved on to the next, and three other speakers have played other sentences in the meantime.

After a while, the speakers began to exercise a hypnotic effect on me, and the spell was broken only when a shop assistant politely informed me that closing time was in five minutes.

* * *

Last Friday my Japanese teacher told me, Sroyon-san wa conjugation ga jouzu desu ne. (You’re good at conjugation.)

Seldom have I received an odder compliment, but it cheered me up like anything. I should get a T-shirt saying, Don’t mess with me. I can conjugate.

* * *

When learning Japanese, I first memorised a number of useful phrases by rote; more general vocabulary and rules of grammar and syntax only came later. So it would often happen – and it still happens, though less frequently – that I would say something in Japanese and the other person, thinking I am a fluent speaker, would reply with a long, fast and complex string of Japanese which left me totally baffled.

Of course, children don’t learn languages like that. They don’t speak well-formed sentences with adult inflection before they form at least a basic idea of what the words mean and how they fit together. Or at least, most children don’t.

My friend Arjun’s childhood is rife with entertaining incidents. One evening, his mother’s colleague came to visit. Arjun was watching an American soap in another room. At one point on the show, one of the actors said something that created quite a stir. The sentence somehow stuck in Arjun’s head, and the dramatic effect it produced in the soap impressed him favourably.

So Arjun Sarkar, four years and six months old, walked into the living room, looked his mum’s colleague in the eye, and told her, “Your husband is sleeping with another woman.”

It did indeed create a sensation. His mother dragged him away and gave him a spanking he would never forget.

6 comments:

Anasua said...

you need to proclaim that on your T-shirt, you bacteria?

Shrabasti Banerjee said...

Hahah. I have a cassette-load of very strange hindi song/poem/story recordings between ages 2 and 6, but nothing beats "your husband is sleeping with another woman". And keep up the conjugating. :D

Ravis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ravis said...

Although the economy is improving, the exchange rate continues to fluctuate.
Stan was happy to hear some pleasant news for a change.

How can those be potential last words, hyan? Ploy of Connoisseurship! :P

Sroyon said...

@Anasua: I prefer bacterium.

@Shrabasti: Yes yes, I have those too.

@Raktima: I can find you answers, but I cannot find you an imagination.

Anasua said...

i thought you need to be in pairs for the act of conjugation. ;)