Thursday, July 09, 2009

Repeat After Me

I had the pleasure of attending a reading given by Rachel DeWoskin recently. She's the author of the non-fiction narrative about her time in Beijing as an actress on a Chinese telanovella Foreign Babes in Beijing, and now she's turned her hand to writing novels.

I hadn't read Repeat After Me before I attended the reading so I didn't know much about the novel. The excerpts she read from the book got me pulling out my credit card, then her answers to some of the very thoughtful questions afterward cemented the deal.

The discussion focused a lot on language since Rachel had worked in Beijing on a TV show filmed in Chinese and one of the characters in her novel is a man coming to America speaking English as a second language. Thus, Rachel had to recreate her experience of being a non-native speaker for her character--but in her native language.

I like thinking about those kinds of things: what wouldn't you know if you were just learning English. Well, you wouldn't know cliches! "Raining cats and dogs" would sound delightfully fresh and metaphoric!

I was reminded of the first Aleksander Hemon novel I read Nowhere Man. I made a list of all the words I had to look up when I read that novel. Each was the absolutely perfect choice, but they were not words I'd seen enough of to recognize on sight. I think only a non-native speaker would have used them with such ease, because only a non-native speaker wouldn't know not to.

Aleksander Hemon has gone on to great critical acclaim; I hope Rachel DeWoskin will as well!


Silicon Valley Diva said...

Sounds like a fascinating read.

My husband is still grappling with English (he's French), even after 12 years. He gets confused over our slang & he is always asking me to explain cliches.

I have so much compassion and respect for those that can uproot themselves from their home country and master a new language.

Anyhow, I need to check out this novel!

Yamile said...

I write in English, which is my second language, and sometimes I worry that my word choice will give away the fact that English is a language I struggled to learn, and that I'm still learning every day.
Thanks for pointing out the bright side--I might not use many cliches because I don't know about them. But idioms kill me sometimes.

Aimee K. Maher said...

What a nice testimonial. I never think about the ease of my language, or the fact I can take it for granted.

Becky Mushko said...

In the 1970s, the junior high where I taught had several new Vietnamese immigrants. One morning two boys sitting on the steps were laughing loudly at a book they shared. As I passed them, I glanced at the page they were reading. The book was about American idioms; the phrase "raining cats and dogs" was what prompted their reaction.

Josin L. McQuein said...

In high school, my French teacher was someone for whom English was a fourth language (she was originally from Warsaw - learned German, then French, then English). One of her difficulties was slang.

Things like "raining cats and dogs" were confusing, while having "a frog in your throat" were horrifying because the first time she heard them she had no way to know the person wasn't being literal.

Whenever I hear someone with a pronounced accent, I wonder how many similar reactions they had the first time they heard a cliche phrase or two.

John the Scientist said...

The human brain tends to make patterns out of fragments and is not always accurate. Non-native speakers also make up new cliches when native speakers mumble them and you don't catch all the words clearly. Especially when those cliches contain words that are not in common usage anymore.

My wife came to America at age 11 speaking 2 non-English languages. Cliches gave her hell. She thought "the whole kit and caboodle" was "the whole kitten and poodle". Both kittens and poodles are popular pets, you have both a cat and a dog, so it made sense to her. Who the hell uses "caboodle" to mean a backpack anymore?

She also though "to learn by rote" was "to learn by rope", as in the habit of tying knots in a string to aid memory. Once again, made sense to her. For the love of God, people, enunciate clearly around foreigners!

And since she went to HS here in the US, she has no Chinese or Taiwanese accent. So she still hits these blind spots in idioms even 30 some years later. I recently blogged about one which boggled my mind, even after 15 years of marriage (I'm part Irish...)

JES said...

"...only a non-native speaker would have used [those words] with such ease, because only a non-native speaker wouldn't know not to."

Now, THAT is a perfectly balanced sentence (and observation, for that matter). Thanks!

Thanks too for the recommendation. Got some bookstore coupons burning a hole in my wallet; always happy to come across a talent like DeWoskin's.

Mira said...

"I think only a non-native speaker would have used them with such ease, because only a non-native speaker wouldn't know not to."

What an interesting point. This is a very interestng approach toward thinking outside the box. We want to use language, not be restricted by conventional uses of it. I like this.

Good food for thought. Thanks

SundaySoup said...

This post is very touching and thoughtful. Thanks Janet. I enjoyed the comments too.

Melanie Avila said...

My husband learned English as an adult and we have a lot of conversations about what qualifies someone as speaking fluently. We decided that if you know the slang and phrases like those mentioned above, then you can say you're fluent.

Amy L. Sonnichsen said...

Thanks for the tip, Janet. I grew up in Hong Kong and just came back to the States from living near Beijing for eight years. So, this book seems like a must-read for me. Also, the middle-grade book I just finished writing has a character who speaks English as a second language. Learning to write Chinglish dialogue was a big challenge for me, even though I've spent most of my life in Asia. :) I'm excited to learn from this author to see how she succeeds with her dialogue.

dylan said...

Several of my favorite writers wrote English as a second language (Nabokov and Conrad come to mind).

I love to listen to intelligent immigrant friends artfully mangling the language, often creating a lovely or startling turn of phrase through innocence or unjaded exuberance.


Chris Eldin said...

This book is on my TBR list! And the author is quite awesome!!