Sunday, May 3, 2009

Glenny Can't Read

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, the odds are that you’re a literate person. Either that, or your computer froze on this site by accident and you’ve been left to try to decipher the identity of the geek in glasses, in which case, you would have my apologies if you could read this. In any event, our ability to read is something that we take for granted, thanks to an education system that taught us our ABCs from the time we walked into our first kindergarten class. Though I must admit that my favourite activity from those pre-school days was nap class, even I managed to pick up the basics of the alphabet at a fairly early age. For most of us, reading is as automatic an activity as breathing; we don’t think about it, we just do it. Now, imagine losing that ability and how unsettling that would be. Street signs rendered unfathomable. Newspapers as enigmas. Prices at the grocery store left to the good graces of the clerk assisting you. It’s a very humbling experience.

So, consider me humbled. It was one of the cruelest of ironies that I found myself on Mother Language Day in February no longer being able to read anything around me. The reason, of course, is that the Bangla language is represented by a Bengali script that has nothing to do with the alphabet with which we’re familiar. For example, the Bengali script uses eleven different characters to represent the vowel sounds used, with multiple characters standing for the same vowel, depending on how it is pronounced. So, while we would use the letter “o” for both “vote” and “cot”, different characters are used in the Bengali. And don’t get me started on the consonants and their combinations! Instead, here is the first clause from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sample:

ধারা ১: সমস্ত মানুষ স্বাধীনভাবে সমান মর্যাদা এবং অধিকার নিয়ে জন্মগ্রহণ করে। তাঁদের বিবেক এবং বুদ্ধি আছে; সুতরাং সকলেরই একে অপরের প্রতি ভ্রাতৃত্বসুলভ মনোভাব নিয়ে আচরণ করা উচিৎ।

Which, of course, translates to:

Dhara êk: Shômosto manush shadhinbhabe shôman môrjada ebong odhikar nie jônmogrohon kôre. Tãder bibek ebong buddhi achhe; shutorang shôkoleri êke ôporer proti bhrattrittoshulôbh monobhab nie achoron kôra uchit.

And this is part of the challenge facing foreigners trying to learn how to read and write in Bangladesh. Even if one is able to learn the intricacies of the Bengali script, one is still left with the significant hurdle that the script represents the Bangla language, so even if one is able to read the script, it would still require translation. As a result, foreigners find that the language must be approached in two stages, with the first being to speak and understand Bangla before being able to write and read it, a prerequisite that will likely doom me to illiteracy during my time here.

This is not for lack of sponsorship on the part of the agency that brought me here. Voluntary Service Overseas provided for an extensive set of language lessons at the HEED Language Centre in Dhaka during our orientation training. HEED stands for Helping Educate Exasperating Dummies (or more officially, Health, Education and Economic Development) and their teaching philosophy with respect to language is to assume that the Bengali script is a boogeyman best kept in the closet and to focus instead on the oral. Arriving at the centre with Kristel and five other rookies, I sat in a waiting room until a handbell was rung to signal the start of class, something I hadn’t seen since Laura graduated from her school on Little House on the Prairie. Following the group, I was led to the small classroom that would be our crucible of learning over the coming weeks. Finding the only left-handed desk in the room (ahem), I took my seat and waited for our teacher to arrive. We exchanged the type of nervous banter common among those about to experience the unknown and glanced at the posters of happy Bangladeshis whose reassuring smiles practically gushed, “You can talk to us!!!”

Our teacher arrived soon after and greeted us with a wary smile that spoke of her experience with Bangla manglers. Not quite suppressing a sigh, she introduced herself, “ Asalam alakum. Amar nam Sultana. Apnar nam ki?”, and all seven of us broke eye contact with her at the same time, which is the universally followed method of avoiding getting picked by the teacher. Finding her victim in the second row, Sultana repeated the question, saying the words with a deliberate slowness that Forrest Gump would have found slightly sluggish. “Apnarrrrr……….naaaaam…….kiiiiii?” she asked again, helpfully pointing at me, to avoid any possibility of misidentification. “Amar nam Glenn?” I asked, as if I were an amnesiac or the victim of a severe head trauma. “Bhalo!” Sultana replied, with a smile that signified my guess was a good one. I tried to contain my pride at this accomplishment, but it was no use. I was already a star, and the others knew it.

Over the next two weeks, we explored some of the key phrases needed to survive in Bangladesh, including “Please slow down” and “Not so much spice, please”. Sultana and I forged a special relationship during those classes, as I became her relief pitcher, the ace who could save the conversation when her questions stumped my classmates. New verb tenses were tested out on me like a champion lab rat, and I wore her “Bhalo!”s like medals on my chest. Conscious that this type of behaviour used to get me beaten up in junior high, I judiciously limited my responses to avoid being too much of a showoff. Finishing off the first series of classes, I wished Sultana well and looked forward to resuming the lessons with her after a short break to explore our placements.

Returning to HEED after six weeks, our group was greeted by the centre’s administrator and was informed that our lessons would now be taken with another teacher, Mr. Polash. My face fell at this news. No Sultana? No more ace relief pitching? This wasn’t bhalo at all. To add to the disappointment, we learned that we also had been bumped from our classroom and would now be taking our lessons on the roof, subject to the capriciousness of the weather and depraved Dhakanian pigeons. I was inconsolable as we trudged up the stairs behind Polash and entered onto the roof into the glare of the early afternoon sun. My anguish was only slightly assuaged by the sight of a proper classroom with four walls and a roof, albeit one that was baked hotter than the sweatbox that Alec Guinness endured in Bridge on the River Kwai.

I tried to make things work with Polash, but the magic just wasn’t there anymore. To a certain extent, he was a victim of his circumstances. The city endured a series of blackouts at that time (that continue to this day) due to a demand for electricity that outstripped supply. No power meant no fans nor airconditioners for the first hour of each lesson, so we all spent our time with one eye on the clock, waiting for that awful hour to be complete. But Polash and I also never really connected in any meaningful way. Compared to Sultana, he wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine. When we failed to use the possessive form of the pronoun in a sentence during one class, he hung his head and said, “You make me want to kill myself”. While I was pretty sure he was kidding and admired his passion for possessive pronouns, I didn’t want to have that kind of blood on my hands. So, I decided to become a language school dropout. With only a couple of lessons remaining, I knew I wouldn’t be missing much, and there was the opportunity to take further lessons once Kristel and I returned to Chittagong, so I made my excuses and bailed on the classes. I suspect that things will go much smoother with the tutor that we’ve selected, as he seems less interested in perfect grammar than in teaching us the basics of communication. While I doubt that I will ever progress to the point of being able to read and write in Bengali, I hope that I’ll at least be able to understand some of what is being said around me and to respond in some limited way. At this point, that’s the most that this dropout can hope for.


Cicely Nigeria said...

You're going soft Glenn! Complaining about "a series of blackouts" and "Prices at the grocery store left to the good graces of the clerk assisting you".

Sannu - ya ya ladi?

Anonymous said...

Well, well, welcome to the world of foreigner in foreign lands.

It is one thing to traipse through the lands of our former rulers and ancestors -- England, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Greece, and such like -- it is quite something else to plunge into the depths of total illiteracy.

In the lands of our foreparents [mothers and fathers], we can suss out the meaning of words, and minimally read the letters [even with a little classical Greek, things are not that insane]. While we may not know the meaning of all the words, and may not be able to translate literally or even figuratively, we at least get the cadence and meaning from the tones and gestures. Even reading the newspaper is not that difficult: despite lack of gesture on the part of the "speaker-cum-writer", there is always cadence. All languages have cadence, tonality, songlike features and effects.

But when you cannot distinguish which squiggle means what [or in Chinese, which radical refers to what], then you are indeed in trouble.

For me, there is pure pleasure in being in a land where I cannot communicate. This may sound odd coming from a person who makes communication his life work, but the freedom is there in its purity. There are several dimensions to such freedom [why keep things simple when you can complicate them all on your own].

First, there is my phenomenal inability to learn languages. While I love to listen to music, I never mastered any ability to read musical symbols and translate them into sound [a necessity for any ability with language]. I don't have a tin ear, but I cannot connect sound and memory -- I even have difficulty remembering lyrics or verses of poetry.

I can swing and sway, appreciate rhythm and tonality, cadence and meter, but cannot go from appreciation of what others can do to do it myself. A real problem when I was teaching poetry to first year undergrads at U of T several centuries ago.

Nonetheless, my appreiciation of such things carries to this day, because when I'm down and out, on the edge of the abyss, I take up a book of poetry and read for the music, not the words or intent. Emily Dickenson, my fav, has saved me many a time both because of her offbeat rhythms, lack of rime and formality, and because of her incredibly incisive insights. She challenges me to stop being so self absorbed in my depressions.

In addition, I am at that age when I simply cannot learn another language. The musical ear is one asset I fail to have [except in listening to the music of others], but more significant is the problem with memory. I cannot remember the foreign word for the English equivalent. To this day, after years of traveling to China and living there for weeks on end, I can only say hello, thank you, and good bye. Don't ask me what "cucumber" is in Mandarin.

And my Chinese colleagues valiently try to teach me at every turn. We have this game: they point to something; I give them the English word; they give me the Chinese equivalent [which is not always a word -- adding an extra dimension of challenge to the entire affair]. We often do this over meals, dinners in particular, and with much wine or beer, the experience is hilarious, if not memorable in terms of lessons learned.

I am told my Mandarin pronunciation is quite elegant, similar to my ability to use chopsticks when eating. I like being referred to as elegant; it soothes the furrowed brow and heals the wounds of ineptitude.

I can read pinyon with some ease [anglicized Chinese] and even with the correct tones [4 in Mandarin; 9 in Cantonese; 7 in Mihn; and so on]. And so if someone were to transliterate the symbols from radicals to pinyon, then I can give a speech in Chinese [albeit brief enough to prevent any audience from lynching me for mangling their language].

But this is not learning the language, and I am fully aware of the lie I would be perpetrating if I were to "speak" pinyon.

Also, recognizing my real limitations with language leaves me truly humble -- not humiliation, but humility, which is a virtue much appreciated by my Chinese colleagues and friends. I cannot speak their language and will never be able to speak it, so I must rely on them to handle my affairs.

This may sound like a cop-out, and maybe it is just self-justification for apparent lassitude, but I consider it an act of trust. I trust my colleagues; they will not do anything that will harm me; and I express that trust by leaving my fate in their hands. As dangerous as this may seem, I have never been victimized, even at the grocery store [where they use western numbers for prices and modern cash registers anyway].

And if I am victimized, I am either ignorant of it [and this is surely a case where ignorance is bliss] or, as one of my younger Chinese colleagues once said when her purse was snatched, someone else needs my money more than I do.

Since I don't approach the world as if it were a large battle field with winners and losers, I don't often feel put upon when someone gets the "best of me". I have survived; I can survive; I have resources others don't, and so there is nothing to worry about in the end. This may be naivete on my part, but I'd rather travel the world in a bubble than with sharp edges all around me.

At most, I can get killed by being too stupid to realize I'm deep in trouble; at best, you can only get killed once. I only ask that it be swift and as painless as possible.

Pulling back from the more morbid edge of the abyss, I find great joy in being the stranger in a strange land. I find that people are naturally curious. They may not ask for details about you, and in effect, they really don't care about such things, but the fact that a short, round, bald, white guy with grey beard walks through the neighborhood gives rise to reactions -- ranging from who the heck to hey that's Father Christmas on vacation. A smile helps, although is not always greeted with a less than wary response.

Being the object of curiosity is a double edged sword: you are in the limelight, and for some that is akin to invasion of privacy as people stop and stare. Yet, if you make eye contact, smile quickly, and even say hello in the native tongue, it often elicits a laugh and a positive response.

One thing I've learned: that laugh does not mean you are being laughed at, unless of course you have chosen to wear plaid Bermuda shorts and a flamingo shirt while walking through some local barrio. Even I would laugh at such a spectacle.

People are curious, even respectful, and often shy. They want to connect, but do not know how. They, in effect, are in the same boat you are in as a foreigner in a foreign land. They don't know how to connect to someone who cannot speak their language.

I've found that the Chinese are profoundly respectful, even to a fault. "Face" is extremely important, and they will try to do anything to prevent you from losing face or being embarrassed. This is true from the street-sweep to the executive: not speaking to you is an attempt not to embarrass you because you do not know their language.

I recall during one of my first trips, as I walked along in a "Chinese" neighborhood in Shanghai [that is, one where there were few foreigners at any time],I said hello to people as I passed by. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by people wanting to talk. With many gestures and lots of laughter, I made it clear that I could only say hello and no more.

This was not an embarrassing moment: everyone, including me, found it most amusing and we all laughed. Each day after that I walked the same route saying hello to everyone along the way and we laughed heartily. This is how I acclimatized to living in a Chinese neighborhood in a Chinese city where I could not read the menu in the local restaurant, or speak more than 3 phrases.

I became the local mascot, and I felt it was indeed an honor. This is humility -- trust and recognizing who you are in the universe both in terms of limitation and in terms of wonder.

Grammar and punctuation aside, tone and meaning aside, ain't it grand to be a foreigner in a foreign land. You begin to recognize who you really are in the grand scheme of things -- greater than the greatest yet least among them all.

Don't get too frustrated with language learning. You have more synaptic energy than I do to pick up a language. Keep having fun.


Anonymous said...

Some day I will learn the fine art to reviewing what I write before sending it to press. After I reread my previous comment several times, especially looking for bad grammar and misspellings, I nonetheless sent it on missing a few words. The English teacher in me recoils at these mistakes. At least two words glared at me as I reread my comments after publication: appreciation and valiant.

It is Sunday morning, and I am supposed to be working on reports before I drive north of Toronto for a week of teaching at an executive program, but.....this is no excuse for misspellings and typos.

I am not being hard on myself; I am being truthful. I am not a poet taking license like ee cummings.

My eyes are not fully focused, even if my brain is functioning somewhat. I guess one cup of burnt and bitter Starbuck's didn't light me up enough this morning.

Sorry for the errors....victor