Learning English the hard way

It was difficult learning how to speak and think in conversational English.   It was also a lot of laughs.

I learned English much like most British Columbians learned French – from unilingual teachers and books. When I landed here from Hong Kong in 1974 at the age of 22, I had a fairly good English vocabulary but extremely poor command of conversational English.

My first job in Canada was working as a waiter at the Terminal City Club. I still remember when the salad lady, an English woman named June, called me “Honey”, I almost flipped.  She was, you see, about 20 years of my senior and, shall I say, not my type!  I had no idea that “honey” was just a friendly colloquial term she used to address just about everybody.

I got angry when another cook, not much older than me, called me “son.” In the Chinese custom, you only call your real or adopted son, son. To call someone else son is derogatory. My first day at work was also memorable. At noon, I approached two fine gentlemen sitting at a rather well used table. When I asked them what they would like for lunch, one of them shook the table a bit and looked up to me. “I would like a screw driver.”

I ran to Harvey, the room captain, and told him the gentleman would like a screwdriver to fix the table. When I took it to the table, the two broke into hysterical laughter. After catching his breath, one said: “Lucky Jack here didn’t asked for a Bloody Mary or a Black Russian.”

It wasn’t much later when I became a bartender that I appreciated the humour of the situation.

When I went to the University of British Columbia, I enrolled in the Liberal Arts One program. Every day I took a tape recorder, taped the lecture and played it over and over when I got home.

Participating in class discussion was simply out of the question. Each time I wanted to say something, I would literally translate my thoughts into English. I would mouth it silently a couple of times before I could gather enough courage to raise my hand. By then the discussion had moved to other areas and I would feel so embarrassed I would put my hand down.

After a couple of months, the professor finally caught on and I was told to take a remedial English course.

It was in those classes that I found out the question “What’s new?” does not mean someone wants to know whether I am wearing a new watch or a new pair of pants. I was also taught that the sky is not the only answer to the question: “What’s up?”

One of the techniques our teacher Mary Stott taught us was to listen to radio or TV and repeat what was being said. For a long while I listened to CBC News and repeated after the newscaster. It was a fun way to learn and to keep up with what is going on in this country.

But a Japanese friend took to listening to Western movies. You should hear the accent he picked up.

Some of us also went to the UBC pub to learn conversational English. After a few drinks, your self-consciousness vanishes and it’s much easier to talk in another language. The only trouble is, people who learned that way ended up speaking English as if they just had a couple of beer.

Another way we figured would help improve our conversational skills was to date English-speaking girls.

An Italian student related this wonderful episode to us in class. He took his girlfriend to a very romantic restaurant for dinner. There was candlelight, a cozy setting and quiet music in the background. He said gently, while gazing straight into her eyes: “Susan, you are the world’s most intelligent, beautiful and attractive woman.”

She smiled. “Gio, you are just pulling my leg.” My Italian classmate immediately raised both of his hands in the air and protested: “No, not me. I didn’t touch you at all!”

Another classmate came from a small village in South Korea and had never ventured outside of Korea before coming to Vancouver. He was invited to his girl­friend’s home for dinner. When the girl’s mother asked him whether he would prefer Boston or Manhattan clam chowder, he said politely “Well, Madam, I like clam and I don’t mind whether they were caught in Boston or Manhattan.” Mother thought he had a good sense of humour.

Then salad was served. My friend had never eaten uncooked vegetables since raw vegetables are pig feed in his home village.  While he was gazing at the dish and wondering what to do, the mother asked: “Would you like some dressing?” “No,” he says, “I’m warm enough.”

“No, I don’t mean that, I mean if you would like some Italian or French dressing.” My friend looked at the label of his suit and politely replied: “Thank you. But mine was made in Hong Kong.”

We learned to tell people not to speak louder when we didn’t understand what they were saying. One of our classmates, out of frustration, learned to say, “Are you Dutch?” after making repeated tries to be understood.

In 1978, I found full-time employment and was in a training course with five other management trainees. One morning one of them, Larry, walked into the classroom noticeably in pain.  I asked him what was wrong and only after asking a couple of times he said it was his hemorrhoids.  I didn’t know what that was, but I figured it would be a medical condition like headache or stomach flu.

I also remembered it is customary in the Western culture to ask about the person’s medical problems the next time you see the person to indicate you care about the person’s well being. So, it was the next day that I yelled out in front of my colleagues and teachers: “Hey, Larry, how is your hemorrhoid today?” Needless to say I did not make it to Larry’s best pal list.

I am relating these stories because I want people to know how hard it is for some of us to master English. It took me almost six years before I felt confident enough to articulate my thoughts in English. Many times I have heard unilingal Canadians say they feel offended when people speak another language in their presence. Yet I can never fully understand why they feel offended.

One reason, as I understand it, usually runs something like this: Canada is an English- and French-speaking country, therefore it is offensive for people who aspire to be Canadian to speak other languages in public other than one of the two official languages.

The other is: If they are speaking in a language I do not understand, they must be saying things they don’t want me hear and therefore I must feel offended.

Both reasons are, if one thinks about it, rather illogical and childish. Granted, language forms a very important part of a country’s culture and identity and all Canadians should learn to master at least one of the official languages of the country.  But what is wrong for people who speak three or four languages to speak a language of their choice in public places?

 In Holland, where I lived for three years in the seventies, I have never heard anybody complain about people speaking a language other than Dutch in their presence.  As a matter of fact, by the time they have finished high school most Dutch people speak one, two and often three languages other than their native tongue.

Someone I know makes a habit of yelling back at people who yelled at him: “Speak English, you are in Canada.” “Learn to speak another language, you live on planet Earth!”

The people who feel offended because they don’t understand what was being said must be very insecure. Why else would people be afraid that others are saying bad things about them?

My advice: Loosen up and have confidence in yourself.  If there are bad things people can say about you, they don’t have to switch to another language, they can just wait until you turn your back.

Let’s accept that we now live in a multicultural society. If we can accept other people’s skin color, hairstyle, sexual orientation and whatever, let’s also accept that some of them will speak a language other than English in front of us.  Let’s just smile at each other and carry on.

© (This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun on Saturday, July 17, 1999)

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