Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Monday, 21 June 2010

Flying Pigs

The English language is a strange one; beautiful, expressive but often completely absurd. Try explaining to a group of eleven year olds that you have a "runny nose" and there will be laughter; try explaining to a group of 14 year olds that the plural of "sheep" is "sheep" and the plural of "knife" is "knives" and there will be rolled eyes and grumpy silences (Japanese is extremely complicated, but there aren`t nearly as many exceptions to rules as we have. A rule is, as you might expect here, a rule). The more I teach English as a foreign language, the more appreciative I become of just how complicated it can be: how often native speakers break rules, combine phrases and experiment with grammar to personalise their own form of expression. Which makes me love it even more, because if language is the most sophisticated form of communication, so - too - is it often the most creative.

Nowhere, though, have I had as much fun with the English language in Japan as when I decided to test my favourite Japanese colleague on the meaning of Western expressions during a particularly boring hour at work.

"Right," I said. "The rules are: first answer counts. And you have to answer within ten seconds."
"Ok," Harai replied, looking extremely obedient and a little bit scared of me. I think he was trying to get on with lesson preparation, but I wasn`t particularly interested in letting him. Predominantly because I had finished mine.
"Are you ready?"
"Yes, I`m ready."
"Ok - 24/7."
"Come on, you have three seconds left."
"No. It means open all the time: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
"Like 7/11, the combini?" (Combini means Convenience store: there is no V in Japan, so they have turned it into a B.)
"No. Because that means from 7am to 11pm, which is not all the time."
"Ready? Ants in your pants."
He frowned and looked at his trousers. Then - as I snorted with laughter - started, with great solemnity, to mime with his fingers a small ant climbing up his leg. After a few seconds of concentrated finger climbing, he announced:
"You have dirty underwear?"
"No. It means you can`t sit still. As if you have ants in your pants."
"Clever!" he agreed, delighted.
"Next: an arm and a leg."
Here he put his arm out and his leg out and studied them carefully.
"You are helpful."
"Because you lend a hand and an arm and a leg."
I laughed again.
"No, it means something is expensive: it costs an arm and a leg."
"Because to buy it, you would need to sell your arm and your leg."
"How much does an arm and a leg cost in England?"
"Good point. I don`t know. People don`t tend to sell them much these days."
"At the end of your rope?"
"You`ve got no more rope?"
"You`ve got no more patience. Pigs might fly?"
"Yes, butan. Pigs."
"Yes." I mimed flying.
"Pigs fly?"
"Pigs might fly."
He frowned, and then - with a look of inspiration - shouted:
"Fat people die early!"
At which point I had to stop the game because I had shrieked with laughter so loudly that one of my students - coming nervously into the staff room - bounced straight back out again in terror without getting what he had come for.

Learning a foreign language is one thing; learning how to express yourself is another. Harai is now talking a little more like a native, but in the most fantastically Japanese way possible.

"I am hungry 24/7," he announced this morning. "I am at the end of my rope and I have ants in my pants."
"Oh dear," I said, giggling, "and what are we going to do about it?"
"I think maybe I sell an arm and a leg."
"I`ll buy them," I offered.
"Pigs might fly," he answered immediately. "But thin people sometimes do too."

And our next topic, I believe, will be proverbs.