Bird on a Bare Branch

Attempting to fling a frail song in my little corner of the world

English as a Second Language? April 2, 2010

Filed under: Language,Teaching — Jen @ 6:33 pm

My students are officially native English speakers.  I beg to differ.  Here are actual things said in my classroom:

– What I did?

– What dat is?

– What this say?

– Where he is?

– What you say?  Also:  What did you said?

– Is you finished?

– I’m is.  (In response to me asking if he was following directions.)

– You had put it up in there?

– I axed him but he had said no.

– I had went to my grandma house.

– You hadded 15 then you taked away four more.

– Did the girl gived it to you?

– I know where he at.

– He tryin’ look at them fishes.

– She findin’ her a job right now.

– I been did it.

– I fit to go.  (A variation of the common Texan phrase, “I’m fixin’ to go.”)

– I fit to use it on myself.  (Translation:  I’m about to pee on myself.)

– Ain’t no Donnie here.

– What’s the other one is?


Me and You April 23, 2009

Filed under: Language — Jen @ 12:17 pm

Yesterday I was saying something to a colleague about how he and I would go somewhere together. I said, “Você e eu, nos vamos…” (“You and I, we are going to…”). He started laughing and said that “você e eu” sounded really funny. He explained that you say, “Eu e você…”, putting I first. Another native-English speaking colleague and I explained that in English we always put everyone else before I.

I thought about it for a bit then commented to J that our language usage explains a lot about our different cultures. As much as we romanticize the communal nature of African society, Mozambican culture is actually very much a “Me first” society. It’s apparent when getting on chapas, waiting in line at the bank, buying groceries, and driving in a car. It’s apparent on a deeper level by the high level of corruption in society.

The comment about language reflecting culture sparked a conversation in our office about Portuguese versus English colonization. My Mozambican colleagues said that “eu e você” came from the Portuguese and demonstrates how the Portuguese only thought about themselves and didn’t try to develop their colonies at all. Consequently, when they left in the 70s, they left no skilled Mozambicans behind. To this day, Lusophone countries are still among the most undeveloped in Africa. Mozambique is considerably less developed than all its bordering countries (South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania). My colleagues commented on how English colonizers put others first and thought about the people they colonized and trained them so that they were left with skills. Therefore, former English colonies are more developed now than Portuguese colonies.

I don’t agree with the statement that English colonizers put others first, but I do think there is some truth to how the British and Portuguese colonized Africa. Having never been to Portugal, I cannot comment on Portuguese culture, but the language-reflecting-culture topic is an interesting one to explore.

Those of you who speak other languages, do you have similar examples of differences between English language/culture and other language/culture?


I Use to Speak English April 15, 2009

Filed under: Language,Teaching — Jen @ 2:48 pm

Last week I did an English lesson on “gaps in knowledge” – reviewing grammatical errors that many of the students have been making in their writing and in their oral exam the previous week. One point that I really wanted to emphasize was the use of ‘used to’. I’ve noticed not only my English students but other English-speaking Mozambicans in my office and elsewhere who love to use this form but always use it incorrectly, but I had never been able to pinpoint the pattern of their error.

I spent some time explaining how ‘used to’ refers to something done regularly, over a period of time in the past but no longer. I drew diagrams showing, for example, a person who smoked in the 80s but doesn’t now in 2009. I demonstrated how I studied French in high school and college but no longer do. I gave lots of examples. They seemed to be catching on.

Then a student said, “What about when to use ‘use to’?” I pointed to the board and said, “That’s what we’ve just been discussing.” He said, “No, not ‘use-ed to’ but ‘use to’, the present form.” To clarify that I understood him correctly, I wrote ‘use to’ on the board and asked him if that’s what he was saying. He said, “Yes, to refer to what I do habitually now.” He gave an example: “If I smoke now, I use to smoke.” I crossed out ‘use to’ on the board and said, “No, this is not correct in English. There is no present form of ‘used to’. ‘Used to’ is a specific phrase that only refers to the past.” Most of the class looked at me as if I were lying to them. The student who asked about the present form insisted, “But my teacher in secondary school explained that ‘used to’ refers to something you did habitually in the past and ‘use to’ refers to something you do habitually now.” It was one of those moments that occurs frequently in Mozambique where I want to scream, not at the person speaking to me because he cannot be blamed for his ignorance, but at those out there teaching incorrectly. I also wanted to laugh. It was hard not to, as this student was so serious and so insistent about using the present tense of ‘used to’.

I still don’t think anyone believed me that ‘use to’ doesn’t exist. It was too much radical information for them to take in after years of being taught one way, a bit like first learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. In Mozambique, I use to challenge commonly held beliefs.


Yummy?? February 9, 2009

Filed under: Language — Jen @ 1:05 pm

I once explained to my former assistant that pronunciation often doesn’t matter in English, but sometimes it really makes a difference. For example, it doesn’t matter if someone asks me, “Howah yoo?” or calls me Seestah Jen, but it does make a difference when he calls his exams ‘testes’.

On Saturday I was browsing the cakes at Clube Nautico and asked what a particular brownish tart-looking thing was. The server told me the name in Portuguese. I said (in Portuguese), “Yes, but what is it? What’s inside?” He said (in English), “Penis.” “Excuse me?!” I said. He repeated it very clearly in English, at which point my two English friends and I were giggling a little bit. Then he said, “Amendoim” (peanuts in Portuguese). “Aha,” I said, wondering what the Portuguese for ‘penis’ is so that I could correct him. But I’ve never needed to know that word. Realizing I couldn’t tell him what he was actually saying to us and why we were laughing, and realizing I didn’t really want to describe it to him, I simply leaned forward and said, “Pea-nuTS.” He repeated, “Penis. Chocolate penis.”

As tempting as it may have been, I did not order a slice.


Hope Part 1 December 5, 2008

Filed under: Faith,Language — Jen @ 8:45 am

Several weeks ago I had a conversation with my assistant about the then upcoming elections that went like this (yes, in English):

Me: Do you think there will be violence with the elections?

Him: (very matter-of-factly) Yes, I hope so.

Me: You hope so??

Him: Yes, I hope there will be violence.

Me: (Unsure if he understood me correctly) You hope there will be VI-O-LENCE??

Him: Yes, I hope so.

Me: Violence???

Him: I mean, I don’t want there to be violence, but there normally is, so I expect there will be some this time.

Me: Ahhh, you expect there will be. ‘Hope’ means that you want it to happen.

Him: No, no, no!! I don’t want it to happen!

We then continued discussing the difference between ‘hope’ and ‘expect’. I realized later that his confusion lay in the meaning of the Portuguese word esperar which means ‘to wait for; to hope; to expect’.

And isn’t that what hope really means? To wait for, with expectancy. Yet in English we use it synonymously with ‘wish’ or ‘desire’. We can even use it contrary to ‘expect’: I hope Candidate A will win, but I expect Candidate B actually will. However, when we talk about ‘hopes’, it is used more like ‘expectations’: Don’t get your hopes up, you’ll only be disappointed. We hope for the best but expect the worst.

So I ask myself, in all this confusion and even in correcting my assistant, do I really understand what ‘hope’ means? I should by now, after 30 years in the Church, 30 years of celebrating Advent. I roll around a couple sentences in my head, trying out which one best fits what hope should mean: I hope Jesus is coming; I expect Jesus is coming. Neither one, in our common English usage, fits what I want it to mean. If I say, “I hope Jesus is coming,” people might say, “But He is! Don’t just hope it, believe it.” But to say, “I expect Jesus is coming,” sounds devoid of emotion, devoid of any excitement.

I’m expecting… Pregnant women say this. I don’t know what that kind of waiting and hoping for is like, but I imagine it’s probably the closest type of hope that we should experience toward Jesus. Certainly it’s what Mary felt, as she waited for Jesus. But I am not a mother, so what can I compare it to?

When I was nine-going-on-ten, living in Oman, my family planned to go back to the States for a three-month furlough at the beginning of the new school year. I saved every baiza of my allowance for one year to buy a black ten-speed Huffy with hot pink handlebars, seat, and pedals when we got to Orange City, Iowa. For a whole year, that bike was so clear in my mind, and the thought of riding a ten-speed to school compared to a kids’ banana seat bike was exciting and motivating to me in a way that nothing else ever had been. (That’s when I learned the value of saving money.) I always loved going to Orange City anyway and riding bikes all over town and to the public pool with my cousin in the summers. Weeks before we left Oman, I started envisioning myself riding the black and pink bike along Orange City’s streets. The closer we got to our departure date, the clearer my visions became, and the harder it was to wait. That was hope; that was expectation.

Perhaps when I can use ‘hope’ and ‘expect’ and ‘expecting’ and ‘wait’ together, that is when I catch a glimpse of what Advent hope really means.


Day 14 September 10, 2008

Filed under: Immigration,Language — Jen @ 7:42 pm

Today is Day 14 of dealing with Immigration. Yesterday I was told to bring in photocopies of my receipt from the Ministry of Labor for my work permit paperwork, my contract with Oasis, and my criminal background check. I cringed at that. (Remember all the drama concerning my criminal background check?) I said I didn’t understand why I needed to submit more copies when they already had copies of everything on file. They explained that, well those are filed away and if we bring in copies it will “speed up the process”.

For some reason, I don’t have copies of the translations of my criminal background check or of the affidavit from the embassy. What I did with them or why I never made copies is beyond me! So my team leader and I went this morning with copies of everything I do have. Jill explained to Mr. Secretary that I don’t have copies of the translations because they’re on file there at Immigration. Once again, we were told to come back later, in the afternoon for a response about whether or not I may renew my visa.

You know where this is going. I returned alone in the afternoon, only to be told that it still hadn’t been authorized and to – altogether now! – come back tomorrow.

I’m tired. I’m feeling really worn down from all of the back and forth with seemingly no end in sight. And it’s completely out of my control. All I can do is ask my questions, then smile and say thank you each time they tell me, “Amanha” (tomorrow).

At the end of the day, as I was leaving the office, João and I chatted for a bit about my Mozambican family, whom I was on my way to see, and continents (yes, world continents – apparently in Europe and Africa children are taught that North and South America are one continent called America). At the end of our conversation, he told me my Portuguese was improving. Really? Thanks! As a comment just for a laugh, I said it was because of all the conversation practice I was getting from walking to Immigration with him everyday.

As I walked down the street, I realized my parting comment was actually true. My Portuguese has improved in the past couple weeks. I find it rolling off my tongue more easily, not having to think as hard about verb conjugations, and often even thinking in Portuguese. I attribute this to spending about an hour a day with João, whom I have always appreciated as a great conversationalist. Unlike many Mozambicans, he brings up interesting points and asks a lot of questions. He also patiently explains things to me by slowing down his speech or rewording sentences and encourages me to find different ways of explaining myself when I get stuck instead of giving in to my temptation to find someone to translate.

Then it hit me that this is exactly what I’ve been praying for for months! I’ve been so frustrated since I’ve been here that I’m not learning Portuguese more quickly and easily because I spend all day every day in front of a computer, doing work in English, and interacting with colleagues who all want to practice English. I was taking two hours of lessons a week and one hour of conversation practice but have stopped both of those due to a heavier workload. (Besides with my conversation partner, I felt like I was paying her to be my friend, and it wasn’t actually helping my conversation much at all.) I bought a TV antenna to watch local news but continue to think of other ways to regularly be engaged in Portuguese.

Then in all my frustration with Immigration, I’ve completely missed the gift presented to me of regular Portuguese conversation! It’s not how I would have answered my prayer, but obviously I couldn’t answer it otherwise I would have. I can’t imagine another way that I would have improved as much I have recently. How well God knows us! What a great sense of humor He has too.


Apparently Jen Is Rude August 31, 2008

Filed under: Immigration,Language — Jen @ 2:46 pm

“Jen, when we go to Immigration on Monday, let me do the talking,” is what João told me on Friday after we had gone to find out Mr. M’s decision concerning my visa renewal. I had gone up to the desk to ask Mr. M if he had my passport. He started yelling at me: “It’s not ready! I told you to come back Monday! It’s not ready now! Come back Monday!” He had clearly told us “tomorrow” on Thursday. But I wasn’t going to argue, so I thanked him and we left.

That’s when João told me I was rude. Oh, he said it nicely, and he explained why, but that was the gist of it. He said my manner of speaking caused Mr. M to respond to me the way he does. João acknowledged that I’m just learning Portuguese and don’t know these things. He explained that in Portuguese there are more rules than in English and that it’s important, when approaching an official, to use a lot of “sir”, “I’m sorry”, “excuse me”, “if you please”, etc. The thing is, I know most of this intellectually, but humbling myself in such a manner when I’m so frustrated with these Immigration officials is another matter. But I can work on it. And I really appreciate that João felt comfortable enough explaining everything to me in a patient, understanding way. Not many people would do that.

Tomorrow, hopefully, with João doing the talking, we will finally get some answers about my visa. Hopefully I will still be allowed to stay here.