December 7, 2011

Yeah, Canada

Two stories:

My Polish tutoring client always goes to the same bank branch and speaks to the same teller. Why? Because this teller, an Anglo-Canadian, always remembers Mariusz. Every time, the teller tries to pronounce Mariusz's name better. "It's not easy," admits Mariusz, "for people... who live here." The teller tries his best, and laughs at his own failings.

Today a friendly man with a thick beard came into my ESL classroom to ask for a cup. He needed it to carry water to the Islamic centre in the building next door. "We're supposed to wash before we pray," he explained. Something was wrong with the taps next door. There was an extra Styrofoam cup next to the kettle, and I motioned to it. The kettle is used every day by the Chinese women in the class, who make tea, and also by the woman who came as a refugee from Kazakhstan. These lovely people appeared in my mind as the man walked for the cup. He offered to wash it and bring it back, but I waved away his concern.

Sometimes I hate on globalization, or, if not hate, wonder how on earth we put up with the shit of it. The living away from our "own" languages and cultures (however you want to define those), the constant need to mentally adjust and adapt to new situations or new people, the struggle. But there are good stories, too, of mutual effort, mutual appreciation, and acceptance.

November 21, 2011

The "one country, one language" myth

I dragged my mother to the first annual Vancouver Turkish Film Festival to see this documentary. On the way into the make-shift theatre, a man asked why we had chosen this particular movie.

The synopsis, I said, reminded me of Bahcesaray, a village in Eastern Turkey that I had visited for the sake of its name ("Garden Palace"). In this beautifully named village, I had learned a startling truth: Not all Turks speak Turkish, at least not as a first language.

The documentary reminds us of this truth. The pale-skinned, silver watch-wearing, Turkish-speaking teacher from the West is confronted with it when he arrives for his two-year posting at a primary school in the East. Many of his students only speak Kurdish. At once, his task shifts from teaching mathematics and social studies to teaching Turkish.

"He's a language teacher with no language training!" I whispered to my mother partway through.

The title is Iki Dil Bir Bavul ("Two Languages One Suitcase"), but the English title was given as On the Way to School.

November 11, 2011

Yes, I don't

"Joe? Do you understand?"

[Joe--Chinese name unknown to me--looks me in the eye. Rests his hands on his round belly, on the belt that encircles the belly perfectly, like the equator. Joe smiles. He is confident.]

"Yes, I don't."

Nobody captures Level One like Joe.

October 13, 2011

Have/Don't have

Eventually the adults in my ESL class form two lines, facing one another. I like to start with conversation, and away from desks. The further people are from paper and pens, the more they tend to focus on each other.

"Does everyone have a partner? ... Heidi, do you have a partner?"

Heidi--this is her English name--smiles, adorably, and kind of pokes into one of the lines.

"Mei you," she jokingly complains.

"Mei you?" I joke back. "Here, here, Senem is your partner."

Half the students in the class speak Mandarin, and they laugh. Even the others--the Turkish women, the Kurdish man, and the women from Iraq and Afghanistan--laugh. Mei you means "don't have." You means "have." The grammar and the pronunciation for these are easy, right? It's strange, I think, that I don't know more Mandarin. Or any Cantonese. So many people speak these languages in Vancouver. It would be nice to be able to make more jokes, to get more laughs.

October 6, 2011

Native speakers, eh?

Mariusz came from Poland to Canada five years ago. He ties rebar. At his new job site, there are Mexicans, a Russian, and a Serb. Mariusz is happy, because now he can understand what people are saying in English. At his last job site, he worked only with Anglo Canadians. They spoke so fast and shortened words so much that he was lost. And these people were working; they were too busy to slow down and help. Now, with the other non-native English speakers, he can actually participate in English.

October 4, 2011



"But which one is the best?" Fahad demands, between plaintive and playful. "When I go into the coffee shop, which one should I say to the man?"

I consider.

"It really depends."

"But here, in Canada."

"I know! It depends. On me--how I feel; on the other person--Do they speak English as a first language? Are they stressed? Relaxed? Is there a connection?"

Fahad isn't impressed.

"Ok. If you say 'Hey,' then you let the person know that you speak English pretty well. Because Level 1 kids only say 'Hello'--they see it in the textbook and their teacher greets them with it, even though no one says 'Hello.'"

Now I have his attention.

"From a native speaker, 'Hello, how are you?' is basically another way to say, 'You obviously don't speak English as a first language.' 'Hi' is better. 'Hey' is probably best, unless you don't like the person."

More attention still.

"Because it's so short. The longer the greeting, the more you like the person. 'Heyyyyyyyyyy' means 'I'm your friend. I'm really, truly happy to see you.' If you hate the person, 'Hi' [clipped, short, a blow dart]."

Fahad and I practice our super-long 'Heyyyyyyyyyyyys.'

Because friends don't let friends say 'Hi.'

September 24, 2011

Providing a new vocabulary


September 13, 2011

Learning German

hand (hand)
kuss (kiss)
haut (skin)
"volke sieben" (cloud seven i.e. "cloud nine")

September 6, 2011


My room is filled with the detritus of a reading and writing life. Books and school notebooks, pocket journals and torn bits of paper, photocopies and newspaper clippings. Burning the lot appeals to me sometimes. But how could I toss the following scrap--one of those daily calendar pages, this one themed "Insights From the Dalai Lama"--with the soothing reminder that, "When even one person indulges in spiritual practice, it gives encouragement to the guardian spirits of the land, and to the celestial deities who have sworn to uphold goodness."

Under which is scribbled, in my brother's wild hand,

can you make jello with T3s in it?? will they work?

(His wisdom teeth had just been yanked, and he communicated in scrawl).

September 1, 2011

German joke

What's between vier (pronounced "fear") and sechs (pronounced "sex")?


Haha. I guess it only works if you speak English and know your German numbers.

Vier=4. Fünf=5. Sechs=6.

It reminds me of the English joke: Why is 6 afraid of 7?

Because 7 ate/8 9.

Silly, but great.

August 12, 2011

I should be writing

"Your older blog posts were better."

"You haven't been writing much."

"You should be writing."

Yeah, I know. Writer-artist Mary was traded away at the end of August 2010, when I bought textbooks at the UBC bookstore. "Here's my debit card and my creativity." Classes started. Analysis began. Critique. Literature review. Sure, the professors invited discussion and welcomed "I" in papers and encouraged that touchy-feely collaborative atmosphere. But all along, in the back of my mind, knowledge: I am not making anything I value. Mostly we critiqued what other people wrote.

Fear not, though. Grad school ends tomorrow--tomorrow I have my last class. It's in #10 at the bottom of this list.

Classes I've taken toward the M.Ed in Teaching English as a Second Language:
Theories of Second Language Acquisition
Theory and Research in Teaching English as a Second Language
Research in the Teaching of Literature
Advanced Creative Forms and Techniques of Non-Fiction
Culture and Politics in Second Language Education
Theory and Research in Teaching Second Language Writing
Advanced Workshop in Literary Translation
Multilingualism and Multimodality: Diversity as a Resource
Research Methodology in Education
Applied Linguistics for Teachers

The program has been valuable, absolutely. But I really do look forward to talking to non-school people, to reading literature, to personal projects, to writing, to making things I value.

And to being less serious!

July 27, 2011

Linguistics and kids

Believe it or not, I've never taken a linguistics class. Now I am taking one. It's my last class in the M.Ed. program. I'm learning that almost all linguists who write about first language acquisition in kids are talking about their own kids. They record the kids at home and in the car and then analyze.

Stephen: I wonder where you get tiger food.
Brother: Tigers eat meat.
Mother: [teasingly] Give it a little boy.
Stephen: [pause] Is a boy meat?

Stephen is four.

Mother: A creature is anything that's alive.
Stephen: [sounding astonished] Are we creatures?

The linguist reporting these conversations, Clare Painter, is talking about how kids learn to draw inferences from linguistically presented information. In the margins, though, I just have "Hahahahaha" and "AWESOME" and "!". I'm less interested in analysis, and more interested laughing at the hilarity of kids. Yeah, I totally want one.

July 13, 2011





Heard during a single session of Research Methodology, a class offered to graduate students in the Department of Education.

*"Manipulatory" is actually a word. The fellow definitely meant "manipulative," though.

July 7, 2011

A way of traveling


(Something like, "Happiness is not a destination, but a way of traveling.")

--In lettering in front of the Faith Fellowship Baptist Church, which I pass three times a week as I am bussing to work.

June 27, 2011

Trolls and trolling

A troll is someone who posts something ridiculous online to get a reaction.

Trolling is the verb for doing this. (Convergent words).

But when people say, "Don't feed trolls," (as in, don't respond to that idiot on the message board), they say so with an image of a monster under a bridge, while when they say, "Don't troll," (as in, don't be an idiot and put inflammatory prompts on the message board), they say so with an image of fishing using long lines off the back of a boat. (Divergent images).

Which came first? Trolling before trolls, surely. And then "Don't feed trolls" was a funny leap off the back of the ship to under the bridge. It makes me furrow my eyebrows.

The words come from totally different places, too.

The verb troll comes from Old French troller, a hunting term.

The noun troll comes from Old Norse for a mythological monster.

June 26, 2011


The word is so interesting, and it's come up twice this week.

I asked Afsaneh how to say, "No problem" in Farsi. The answer, though I am surely transcribing it with mistakes, is something like "Moshkeli nadire" (MOSH-KAY-LEE NAD-DEE-RAY). This made easy sense, because both the words are familiar.

"Mafi moshkela" we used to say in Saudi, for "No problem."

"Nadir" is "rare" in Turkish.

Then, yesterday, Robin asked for the opposite of "zenith." He was fishing around for a word that he already knew. "Nadir," I put forward, "but it's an Arabic word, I think." "No, that's it!" And so it is. "Nadir" is English for the direction pointing directly below something. It can also work like "trough" or "bottom." Such words are almost invisible, they are so rarely used. Likewise, the spiderweb connections between languages often go unnoticed.

"Nadir" comes from the Arabic نَظِيرُ السَّمْت, nadhir as-samt, "counterpart to the zenith".

June 9, 2011

Dear Mary

Dear Mary
Thank you for your dedicated teaching!
You're THE best teacher EVER and I really appreciate it.
Take care, Yoshi

Beat that, other professions!

May 31, 2011

Love is a bowel movement

"Sevgi emekmiş"

Can Yücel writes in his poem, "Anladım."

"Emek" is Turkish for something like "effort." Nesli and I searched synonyms for "effort." A huge list appeared: attempt, endeavour, feat, effort, campaign, exertion... bowel movement.

I explained and we laughed for a long time. Sure, love is a bowel movement.

May 27, 2011

If we all spoke the same language...

Is a society more cohesive if everyone speaks the same language (and only that language)?
How do you argue with someone who thinks so?

My mom says that all the kids in her neighbourhood played together outside in a big group. Now she never sees crowds of kids like that. The suggestion was made that language plays a role. Our nearest neighbours speak Greek and Chinese as first languages, and yes, I suppose I never see the kids from those houses playing together. But there are other factors, right?

And what about my own childhood in Saudi Arabia? Navaz's mom didn't always speak English to her. Zabrina's never did. Lorraine and her brother had a Greek tutor. Yet we friends were very close.

And what about last year in Morocco? Oriane spoke French first, Maria Swedish, Julia Portuguese, Abderrahim a Berber language, Fatima Arabic, and so on. Depending on proficiency, who else was around, and sometimes mood, we would speak French or English or Spanish or, if people were feeling patient, Arabic. Yes, there was an English cluster within that--Alaina, Caitlyn, Eric, and I could curse, joke, mutter, obscure-reference, and slang-drop together in a different way--but does that diminish the importance of my friendship with Oriane?

And what about Rwanda and Somalia, Sam pointed out in class (these questions I posed during a presentation on identity in multilingual settings). The common language among people in Rwanda and among people in Somalia failed to prevent disaster and war.

These questions are really important, I think.

May 20, 2011

Gasp! Rasp!

Did you know they were spelled raspberries?

I did not.

May 19, 2011


There are two sisters from Iraq in my Level 3 English class, a class provided for new immigrants to Canada. The two women are quiet, so I walk over and sit with them. Tonight I noticed one writing in Arabic under new words.

She was not translating, though. She was transliterating--putting the sounds of English into the writing of Arabic.

"Fleas" = Faa + Laam + Yaa + Miim (those are the letters)

I used to do exactly this in reverse! Figuring out how to represent Arabic in the Roman alphabet was a pet passion in Morocco! Some people use numbers. I used capital letters and accents.

Wednesday, I'll show the young women from Iraq my old lessons, which appear as a tangle of English, French, Arabic, and Arabic-transliterated-into-Roman-alphabet. Hopefully they will get a kick out of it.

May 10, 2011

On the commute

I sometimes translate things into Turkish for fun.

Kırmızı bir güneş
Denize düşüyor
Ne yaz sıcaklığı!

A red sun
Falls into the sea
What summer heat!

Ay yüksek
Erik çiçeği gölgeler
Yastığımın üzerine düşüyor

The moon is high
Plum blossom shadows
Fall on my pillow

--Original haiku by Soseki Natsume (1867-1916), translated by someone else from Japanese into English.

April 29, 2011

Garber: a hilarious Canadian author

I will never forget the way he describes an albino.

It is simple, young and petted and everyone's favourite. People take it for walks along the Quai, keeping their backs always to the sun. It purrs; it whines; it peers into the air in search of objects. Buy it a beer and it goes to sleep; tell it a joke and it cries; draw it a picture and it eats the paper. It is a fine conversation piece and Nora has had it in her room for some time. It lies, stands or sits on her floor like a piece of fleshy driftwood.

From Tales from the Quarter, published in 1969. I am heartened. Hilarious Canadian authors exist.

April 27, 2011

The importance of being earnest

In speaking a foreign language, we tend to lose years, as well as other kinds of time, to become gentler, more innocent, more courteous versions of ourselves. We find ourselves reduced to basic adjectives, like "happy" and "sad," and erring on the side of including our "Monsieur"s; and we are obliged to grow more resourceful and imaginative in conveying our most complex needs and feelings in the few terms we remember (like a child rebuilding Chartres out of Lego blocks).

... Speaking a foreign language, we cannot so easily speak our minds; but we do, willy-nilly, speak our hearts.

... And even when we're not speaking Spanish, but only English that a Spaniard will understand, the effect is just as rejuvenating. Reducing our own language to its basic elements, we find, of a sudden, that it becomes new to us, and wondrous. How vivid the cliché "over the hill" sounds when we're explaining it to an Osaka businessman! How rich the idiom "raining cats and dogs"! Speaking English as a second language, we find ourselves rethinking ourselves, simplifying ourselves, committed, for once, not to making impressive sentences, but just to making sense.

Pico Iyer, from the essay "Excusez-moi! Speakez-vous Franglais?"

April 10, 2011

Monolingualism starts to sound like a disease

On native speakers of English:

Not only do the majority not speak languages other than their L1 English, but they also tend to be less competent than many non-native speakers in their acquisition and use of accommodation strategies, and instead expect non-native speakers to make all the adjustments. This may in part be the result of their monolingualism.

in the near future, those who occupy the top of the English language hierarchy will no longer be native speakers of English, but bilingual speakers of English who have the skills to function comfortably in multilingual communication.

--Jennifer Jenkins, in her article, "Exploring attitudes towards English as a lingua france in the East Asian context"

April 4, 2011

It's his attention to detail

I was asking if you wanted to zone over :-)

I'm stroll staffing it up

Going to head out finnish

Chime over later?

You've sleazy southern airport might not mean what I say, auto text humor! Auto text!

It really just writes hawks

mejor aquí

Tengo una amiga que se llama Alaina, que una vez me dijo que para ella, el español es un idioma seguro. Nadie ha gritado a ella en español. Nadia ha hecho daño en español.

Esta noche, corrí diez kilómetros y yo sólo escuchaba música en español. Yo quería un lugar seguro. A veces inglés no puede ofrecer eso.

March 22, 2011


A word gift from the Outer Circle (yeah, I'm talking about you, Jojo).

March 18, 2011

Toe the line

Toe the line
Tow the line?
No, toe the line!
I'm seeing ships
Definitely nautical
Like, heavy rope
A.k.a. lines
That you tow
What about the party line
Tow the party line?
Toe the party line?
Toes on the line
Now I'm thinking Capture the Flag
No, wait, respecting the line?
Staying behind the line?
Or is it pushing it?
Like pushing the envelope?
The party envelope
A bunch of sailors toeing/towing lines and pushing envelopes
While playing Capture the Flag

I have yet to find an expressions that bears such a wondrous constellation of simultaneous divergence and convergence in associations in people's minds.

March 10, 2011

Language is not a thing

Canagarajah has a bone to pick with linguistics:

"To begin with, the field treats language as a thing in itself, an objective, identifiable product. The field also gives important to form, treating langauge as a tightly knit structure, neglecting other processes and practices that always accompany communication... Inadequate attention is paid to the way in which various language forms and varieties are embedded in diverse environments, perfectly adequate in their own way for the functions at hand."

--from "Ecology of Global English" (2007)

February 27, 2011

Cool your horses

More advice from my awesome brother.

February 25, 2011

Texts from the new year

This new you is creepy.

How's the body? I know when I've wiped out on my bike, adrenaline gets me to where I need to be then a few hours starts to ache.

Did u put up porters for tandem lang. learning? if so, awesome and if not then we need to break some knee caps.

Hahahah. Sharmuta.

Um who is this? And i don't get pics

Yo yo homie? What good? I just got out da can and lookin 4 sum shorties. U down?

Amazing news so call home!

I'm glad that was g rated because I sent it to your mom first

Can type although im camless and my mother is sleeping in the next room. :)

Agreed. Meeting. Ugh.

We will drink Turkish coffee and everything..

Ridden? Rode? Oh god. English.

A date?!?! Gasp!

WHAAAAA? Where'd you find snow shoes from?

Hey doo you jabbed held?

Oh mah god so hot a canadian text MASSAGE

Happy * day

You are quite pretty, you know

February 2, 2011

Word of the day: sublime

Greatness with which nothing else can be compared, beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation. From the Latin sublimis 'sloping up to the lintel, uplifted, high, lofty, elevated, exalted.'

Thanks, Wikipedia.

A lot of people have thought about what is sublime.

January 25, 2011

The decline and fall of the native speaker

A "native speaker" of English is someone who grew up speaking English (though there are problems with any definition here). Language schools all over the world want "native speaker" teachers, so students can speak like "native speakers" themselves. But Evelyn from Chile, Amine from Morocco, and Oriane from France will probably never sound like me. Why is this comparison so important?

"If, on the the contrary, bilinguals are regarded as multifaceted individuals who possess a different, albeit more complex, mental organization, we are finally questioning native speaker dominance and native speaker idealization. In such a case, monolingual competence will be replaced by multicompetence as the optimal state of mind, and experienced multilingual users will have the upper hand."

--Enric Llurda, "The Decline and Fall of the Native Speaker" (2009)

January 18, 2011

Don't jump the bullet

is my brother Andy's advice.

January 10, 2011

Turkish again!

ikinci defa (second time)
üniversitede daha fazla Türk var (there are more Turks at university)
zaman geçirmekten hoşlanıyorum (I like hanging out)
para biriktirmek (to save money)
bağımsız filmler (independent films)
altyazı (subtitles)
ne kadar zamandır görüşmüyoruz? (how long has it been since we saw each other?)

Hasan and I met for some "Tandem language learning" this sunny Saturday afternoon. His English is way better than my Turkish, but when it came time to switch languages, he was wonderfully patient. I showed him how to take notes when I struggled, and these are some of the new phrases I learned or re-learned as a result. It feels good to be speaking again!

January 7, 2011

The Many Faces of Treason

"We will sacrifice our best hunches in favor of some pedestrian norm in fear of betraying the task we were set out to do."

Gregory Rabassa says this of translation, in The Many Faces of Treason. He says that when we sacrifice our best hunches, we commit the worst betrayal of all, worse even than betraying words, authors, and readers. Beyond the task of translating, I think, we often push down our hunches. I have a hunch that at least one person out there will have use for this reference.

Happy 2011. May we overturn some pedestrian norms.