Litro #165: Breaking Borders | I Understand

Litro #165: Breaking Borders | I Understand

Translated by Lorna Scott Fox.

According to the education minister, anyone who doesn’t know the language of Shakespeare may as well be illiterate. Twice over in my case, since I live in New York and have just married an American. In a bid to correct this double ignorance, I submitted at the age of thirty-five to four hours of intensive English a day, from which I emerged with a few I can’ts and I don’ts, but having learned lessons about the world and myself.


Day One

The new crop of students at Embassy (a language institute offering immersive English courses in Britain and North America) has gathered in a classroom to fill out an endless test. I peruse the material and, with the aid of Beatles songs, snatches of movie dialogue, bits of French and my Spanish, I feel quite sure I understand the whole thing, and can easily dodge any grammatical traps.

Later I get a personal interview with a rather mannered teacher called Tom, and my confidence comes crashing down. He has scrawled, in red, a furious -16 on my paper. My comprehension is poor, he explains, and my grammar is worse. He writes down my level: just one notch above the total beginners.

After that we return to the classroom. There are fifty of us, aged between twenty-five and forty, a mixture of Japanese and Koreans, plus a Russian girl who could be a supermodel and an Italian Swiss determined to chat to everyone. George Shapiro, the studies supervisor—attired for the occasion in a red tie and platform shoes (without which he measures about 5ft 3)—delivers the welcome speech.

“Congratulations. You’re in the best city in the world,” he begins. Then, with a joviality that doesn’t flag for a second, he unleashes a tsunami of jokes about the school and its staff, peppered with commands, warnings, smiles and more smiles. He introduces us to the teaching team (who appear one by one, like the crew of The Loveboat).

“So, where did Michael Jordan learn to play basketball?” Shapiro asks.

We all remain tongue-tied, we’ve no idea. He answers for us:

“In the street. English is like basketball: you can only learn it through practice. That’s why we expect you to take part in our extracurricular activities.”

Cue Debora, a Brazilian woman with a sexy twang in English, who invites us to join her for an expedition to Amish country, a jazz breakfast at the Blue Note, and a meal in a restaurant in Little Italy (of course, none of these activities come free).

The welcome ceremony (which lasts three hours) wraps up with a talk from Jonathan, a beardy version of Woody Allen. He tells us what to do in the event of fire (there’s only been one fire in ten years, but you never know) and stresses the no-smoking rule in the building, including corridors, because the other denizens of this tower already object to the overgrown adolescents jabbering in every language and none who crowd the sidewalks, lifts and fire escapes.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to get to know a culture and a language. I hope you’ll make the most of it. Thank you and good night,” he concludes.


Week One

Monica must be about seventy. She’s fair and stout, and forever anxiously mouthing her words and waving her arms lest her charges miss a single vowel. More than half the students are Japanese or Korean, girls of indeterminate age equipped with a variety of pink bracelets, Hello Kitty cardigans and electronic dictionaries. The western clan includes me, two zealous Brazilians, a young Catalan called Marc, and Sandra, a Sicilian lady who only ever wears jodhpurs and riding boots. I introduce myself:

“I’m from Chile, though my passport is French. I’m a journalist, marrying a New Yorker three months from now, and living three blocks from the Institute.”

“Yesterday”, “Satisfaction”, “Night and Day” … it feels like English has always been with me, clamped to my wrist as if we were a couple of chained convicts on the run. And then suddenly English takes off on its own, just like that, leaving me to deal with the cops. Monica, the teacher, asks me a question: “Why?

I respond in Spanish: “Does that mean ‘how’, or ‘who’?” “In English, please,” Monica snaps. Just then, snow starts falling on New York. All the students rush to the windows to watch it come down, saving me from further interrogation.

There’s no better way to describe the effect wrought upon my mind by those four daily hours of English than by analogy with how snow alters the city beyond recognition. With patience and verve, Monica forces me to let go of every point of reference, from all-purpose phrases to song lyrics and vestiges of French grammar, and strike out alone into the infinite whiteness, sinking my feet into the freezing cold and scanning this empty nowhere for some lamppost or tree around which to reconstruct a mental map of my city, my language.

Maybe that crushing feeling of infantilisation is the reason why the Korean and Japanese girls seem so comfortable with the course. They look ageless, it’s impossible to tell if this one’s fifteen or that one twenty, which ones might be married with children and which are still virgins.

I am always being mobbed by giggling geishas begging to see a picture of my girlfriend, wanting me to sign their exercise books and tell them my name again. Before one group goes back to Tokyo, they take numberless photos of me to show to their friends.


Weeks Two and Three

I’ve been promoted to Intermediate Level 2. My new teacher, Dany, is large and square, with an all-over shaved head. Dany is a cool guy. A Jew of German origin, he’s lived in Texas and London. He plays bass in a jazz band. For his first lesson, he introduces us to the conditional as used in a song by Björk.

I sit next to Min, a very smiley, conscientious Korean architect, who can’t string two words together in English but scores top marks in grammar tests.

Outside, the snow banked on the sidewalks has turned to dirty mud riddled with footprints. Like when I was at school, I avert my attention from the irregular verbs in the irregular sentences being parsed by Dany on the whiteboard, and think instead about how to divide up the time and other strategies to get me through the four hours, while doodling non-stop on some exam sheets.

People who learn a language always talk about a linguistic epiphany, the moment when everything that had been obscure and muddled coalesces in the mind with transparent simplicity. I am waiting for this moment while resisting grammar, intent on defeating it by dint of exceptions.

People also keep saying that English is a logical language, with a knack for synthesis, freedom and economy. But I am not logical, nor am I synthetic, and I’m a Chilean, after all. I’m not free. Rather than learn anything I’ll scuttle for shelter, I’ll be defensive, self-protective.


Weeks Four, Five and Six

Dany has come over all philosophical. He asks us what we think about turning the other cheek. Having to explain myself with resort to a very few, very general words (I am and I do, basically) obliges me to be weirdly precise, pruning all the branches of my thoughts until reduced to a shaky haiku to which Min responds, untruthfully, “I understand.”

The same scene is replayed when Dany asks whether we agree that love is the most important thing, or whether we believe in life after death.

Min draws me a triangular house with a little dog outside, to convey his greatest dream. A house and a car and a dog. Western through and through. Min’s favourite dish is steak and chips; his favourite sport is baseball; top actor, Brad Pitt, top actress, Jennifer Aniston. These tastes are common to all the Korean men on the course. As a rule, the Japanese men sport fancier haircuts, and the women expose more chest and leg.

Despite the historical hatred between Japan and Korea, the two nationalities sit together on one side of the room, scarcely mixing with the Latin crowd. This now comprises: a dentist from Rio; Catalan Marc, who has started wearing rapper-style gold necklaces and bracelets over his neat, well-ironed clothes; Sicilian Sandra, always out to cheat in exams; and Chantal from France, who keeps in her wallet a photo of a dog rather than a boyfriend. The Latins hog the limelight in class and win at all the learning games, only to fail dismally when it comes to the Friday exams. The most conspicuous failures are mine: -16, -18. My marks are appalling. I keep trying to nudge the ball into goal with my hand, like Maradona, only to realise, too late, that the goal belongs to my own team.


Weeks Seven and Eight

Dany tells us a weird dream. His fiancée, the love of his life, appeared dressed in white, leaning over a second-floor balcony, and then—ignoring Dany’s warnings—threw herself down to the stone courtyard. There, wounded and bleeding, she got up again, returned upstairs, and once more threw herself, smiling, to the ground, while Dany cried out in despair. This dream turned out to be premonitory, the teacher added. Time after time he’d attempted to save his fiancée from her self-destructive impulses, and time after time she took no notice.

Dany is telling this story to an audience that cannot empathise or respond to it. We’re too busy trying to work out the verbal tense agreements in what he is saying. It may be our very condition as stuttering children that gives him the confidence to talk about his life without expecting advice or criticism, as gratuitously as if he was talking to himself.

But this doesn’t seem to mollify the Latin gang, who have sworn to frustrate Dany’s grammatical ambitions.

It’s odd how well the Brazilians, the French, the Chileans and the Spaniards understand one another across our different languages. It’s not only a matter of Latin roots, but also of mental outlook. Catholicism, that unbelieving way of seeing the world (two thousand years of scheming and faith), that cynicism clad in sentimentality, makes us impervious to Dany’s confessions.

At last, Sandra complains to Dany on behalf of us all. He tries to get the Koreans to stand up for him—after all, he’s invited them to a bar in the Village to hear him play—but they remain noncommittal and Dany graciously offers to change his teaching methods. More conversation, less grammar. Less philosophy, more practical dialogues.

I glance over at Min, who is tidying the exercise books, pencils and pencil sharpener on the top of his desk-chair. His best hope is to stay in New York, apply for a grant, get by with few or no friends, and yet he’s smiling at the whiteboard. He knows that if he hesitates, he’ll fall. If he thinks about it, he’ll back out. The little house with the pitched roof, the pet dog, the steak and chips, all those hackneyed dreams, are his way of walking the tightrope without looking down at the ground or up at the sky, concentrating on every step, smiling at an audience that isn’t there.


Weeks Eight, Nine, Ten and Last

Another test has determined another change of level and class. My new teacher, Cynthia, looks like a Chilean: petite and coquettish, holding her breath in to emphasise her bust.

Spring is here, the snow abandoning the city which looks just the same as it did before winter, although now it’s completely different. My way of apprehending the world and of talking extra-frantic Spanish likewise seem the same as before the course, but they have changed radically. My Chilean self-assurance, my egocentrism, such things have been blunted by the snow of the new language.

New York has left its mark on all the students. The Korean girls arrive late to class because the subway confuses them. Marc wasn’t allowed to buy a polo shirt in Harlem because it was “only for blacks”. As for me, I don’t brush my hair anymore, or shave, or do up my shoelaces. Wholly regressed into childhood, insurgent—like I was then—against order and civilisation via my body and hygiene, I tear like a savage at the cheese sandwich my girlfriend makes for me in the mornings.

More exams. Cynthia decides to return me to Intermediate Level 2. In this class, even the teacher is Oriental. While Yukio sighs her way through a sentence from the text book, mangling it, I stand up and walk into the corridor.

In the computer room, I see Sandra showing Marc how to varnish his nails, Min filling out a form and Chantal sounding off to nobody in particular. Suddenly I decide that I know. Like most of New York’s inhabitants, I can’t really speak the language, but I do know the syntax: the city’s full stops, ellipses, periods and dotted lines. Along with my Chilean brashness, my friends, my city and my language, I’ve also lost some of my fears.

So off I go, smack in the middle of a lesson, six floors down to the street, where some Germans ask me the way to the Empire State Building.

I understand,” I reply. Grinning maliciously at their bewilderment, I say it again: “I understand.

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