Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Insensitivity 101: Dangerous English

The job hazards related to teaching English are rather few and far between. Mostly, they are non-job related, and consist of such things as

1) Being semi regularly accosted by the police to make sure that you didn't steal the bicycle you are riding, and that you are in the country legally (3x to date).

2) Falling asleep on the train and going WAAAAY too far. (7x at least)

3) Being totally unable to express important thoughts like "Does it come in a light beige?" or "Where the hell does this bus go?" (A lot, but less common than a year ago)

To be honest, the sole hazards on the job as I have experienced them are mostly related to being accidentally insulted by students trying to make leaps of language.

Case and point was a while back when I asked my students to describe me, and the first one said..

"Umm....I think you're....chubby!"

All truthiness aside, this is still clearly not a good thing to say.

A related example came during a recent discussion of the health benefits of Japanese food. I pointed out that I have lost about 13kg since arriving, and thanked a combination of being more active and eating more healthily. One student nodded... then said sagely:

"Hmm... that IS interesting. You should lose another 13 kilograms."

While this...true, I did point out that it is generally considered rude to tell people to lose weight, regardless of whether or not they need to.

One of the best, though, came in a recent lesson on metaphors. I asked students to compare themselves to animals. They responded in kind, coming up with reasonable suggestions like cats, birds and bears. Then I asked them to think of one for me.

Student: (ponders....) I know! You are calm, thoughtful and you aren't...how do you say (waves hands frantically around)...
Me: Hectic? Busy?
Student: Yes! umm... you're like a ... COW!
Me: .... um....
Student: YES! You always take care when you correct us and that is thoughtful... like a Cow, right?
Me: Um...well... (writing "Cow" and "Bull" on the board)....first of all, "Cows" are female, and they are often associated with stupidity...

Of course, it's hard to be really insulted. I know that she was trying to be very flattering, and just got mixed up in the cultural connotations animals have. For example, Japanese people have a really hard time with "As quiet as a mouse", because mice are considered to be noisy and annoying here. In the end, it's my job as a teacher to make sure she doesn't get into any fistfights later in life.

And... I suppose Japanese people don't have the best impression of what cows are like...

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
But come on! It's still clearly a female cow. ... that's run out of Advil...

(I don't know if you can tell, but I'm ducking behind my keyboard here....)

ANYWAY... we're going to awkwardly segue into another common area for accidental insults: the fact that words can mean different things to British and North American speakers of English.

For example:

Harmless North American English story:
I had a rough time yesterday while running to catch a ride! I was headed out the door, and I caught my pants on the the knob! At first, I was pissed, but then I smiled, because I realized that I'd forgotten my fanny pack!

What it means to a North American:
I had a difficult time yesterday while running to catch my car-pool. I was headed out the door when I caught my jeans on the door handle. At first, I was angry, but then I smiled because I realized I'd forgotten my waist bag!

How it sounds to a British Person:
I had a rough time yesterday while running to have some sex. I was headed out the door, and I caught my women's underwear on the penis! At first, I was drunk, but then I smiled, because I realized that I'd forgotten my package of vaginas!

1 comment:

David said...

That finale was the most awesomest thing you've ever written.