Alan Riquelmy: A small prayer for the freedom goddess
Everyone knew within seconds the girl was the best non-native English speaker they’d ever heard.
She sat in the Voice room, used for free form discussion at the private English conversation school in Itami. That’s a city among plenty of others, bunched together between Osaka and Kobe on the main island of Japan.
It was where I worked, teaching basic English classes in tiny, partitioned glass rooms. And, typically once a day, sitting in the Voice room.
And for one day only, wide-eyed, listening to a young girl speak the best English.
Naturally, there was an explanation: Her father’s business led the family to live in North Carolina for an extended period of time. She sounded American, spoke like an American. Used idioms correctly and casually. The syntax of her sentences flowed.
This was not what English teachers in the small Itami school were used to hearing.
The school I worked for had a ranking system for its students. Beginners, those whose English was almost nonexistent, were 7C. It progressed to 7B, then 7A. The system dispensed with the letters at that point, leaving the progression from 6 to 2.
Under the system, a student could never make it to 1. That level was reserved for people raised in the language. The thought was, no non-native speaker could ever attain the level of someone who was raised in a language. The cultural references, idioms and sayings that we learn by osmosis make native speakers level 1 — an unattainable goal for anyone else.
Or was it, I wondered, listening to the best non-native English speaker who ever walked into the Voice room.
It was worth checking out. I asked her if she knew about Halloween.
“A celebration of the devil?” she asked.
Huh. There are plenty of folks in my hometown who feel that way, but that’s not it. Not exactly.
OK, what about the Statue of Liberty?
“A freedom goddess?”
This one I could get behind. In America we’re wrapped up in personifying large ideas like Liberty and Justice. We build statues to them, and set them outside courthouses. Why not switch to a little polytheism for a change?
Janus nods twice in approval.
Maybe that English language school I worked for was right. Maybe you had to be a native speaker to reach the highest of levels of linguistic ability.
That was probably why many students were keen to learn idioms: the unique sayings and phrases we constantly use, which by themselves make no sense, but to us have meaning.
He’s bought the farm; she’s not playing with a full deck; let’s face the music; keep your noses clean.
A tour guide used that last one on me and a friend as we explored the area one day. He was keen on practicing his English, and we seemed like good candidates. As for us, we needed some directions and ideas for sites to visit.
“Have fun, and keep your noses clean,” the guide told us. Be safe, stay out of trouble. Good advice, though the saying is a bit outdated.
It’s a lesson we all could use right now, regardless of what language in which it’s uttered. Whether you’re shopping downtown or relaxing at the river — stay safe, stay out of trouble, is a good mantra.
Speak it clearly to those who need to hear it. Be the most adept at conveying this message, through your actions and words, through whatever language you use.
And, especially this weekend, send up a prayer to the freedom goddess. Just in case.
Alan Riquelmy is the city editor for The Union. He can be reached at 530-477-4239.
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