Stickman Readers' Submissions July 27th, 2006

Delightful SE Asian Wife In Europe – Language And Language School 3

By Hans Meier

And when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, "Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions."

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Mark Twain about my language

I guess my language is one of the most complicated in Europe, with only Finnish and Hungarian beyond it. Its confusing grammar once inspired a long, delightful rant by Mark Twain.

I guess my wife is one of those who are not interested in languages. She never asked me for words in my language, not even after she knew she'll move to my country. And in her simple self-acquired English, she is not at all keen on speaking lovely or at least correct. In the years I know her, i've told her many times it is not "senten", but "sentence"; not "play", but "place". Do you think she ever cared to use my advise? No, she sticked to her dull crippled Asian English. Today's slogan of "lifelong learning" isn't a thrill, but a threat to her.


From what I understand, her own language is mostly grammar-free. No cases, no declination, no conjugation. It's a subject-weak language which doesn't seem to know the auxiliary "to be": For "I am hungry" they say "Hungry." No difference between "a tree", "the tree" and "tree".

I ask her if she knows the concept of adjectives, nouns and verbs. "Yes", she nods. But I guess she only wanted to say that once in her life she encountered phrases sounding about same-same. She does not deeply realize the technical differences in the words "to hunger", "the hunger" and "hungry". She understands the meaning – an empty feeling in the stomach. But if she is just dealing with an adjective or noun is not of interest to her. Just like she is never willing to deliver literal translations; she only explains the meaning of a sentence in her words, any asking for a literal translation is an ordeal for her.

Over our non-married years, I went down well with her crippled pidgin English. I omitted "i", "you", "to be" and all articles. I spoke in present tense about things past. I forgot plural and third-person-singular-endings. It's fast, it's convenient, it guarantees you get understood, and your Asian partner won't make progress.

"You hungry?"

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"See car on street?"

"Want eat rice?"

"No angry me, you sure?"

Despite all those limitations, we can talk a range of things. Here is some of our homebrewed vocabulary:

"white-white" = cloud

"white-white black-black" = rain cloud

"small green-green" = 1) herbs 2) flower seeds

"police not happy" = forbidden

"bad fly" = gadfly

"air go out" = fart

"lawyer" = football referee

"ice box" = freezer

"old box" = trash bin

It had been a certain fun, a certain challenge to make myself understandable – and to see I get understood much better than other farangs who wouldn't put on their gum boots and wade into that awkward Asians' English.

My pidgin English talk had certainly been very stupid, considering that now she has to fully learn my language. Which is more similar to English than to her lingo. But then, I always had that feeling I shouldn't overwhelm her with my own language, it wouldn't be fair. On the other hand, she was always happy to use her own language. She uses her own language – and not English – whenever she knows I understand her.

And by the way, it is not only language knowledge, that she lacks to follow a full-on language class in Central Europe. She also lacks western lifestyle experience: When they practice the numbers, her school book shows excerpts from a telephone directory and from a postcode list. She hasn't seen either thing before in her life and so she doesn't understand the exercises.

Odense, Pommes frites, Mahmud, Feta, Leipzig, Jalabal, Schnitzel, Doreen, Klagenfurt, Couscous, Pita, Trento – do you know what that is? Her school book uses lots of world wide first names, world wide food names and various place names – names she never heard. She has no idea which of these names is edible, which is a town or a person. Much to her dismay, sometimes even I cannot clarify all these international names and how to pronounce them.


When she returns home from her "integration class", Nahlee first sleeps for an hour or two. Then she cares for garden, ironboard, fridge, kitchen… intensively… she clearly is not happy to do her homework. Even weeks after she starts school, English remains our lingua franca. When I talk to her in my language, the language she should practice, she gives me desparate looks like "Oh dear, aren't we friends? Don't talk this nasty language in our private sanctuary, please…"

If we try to talk my language, we need ages to get a simple message across. Once she gets a sentence right, I ask her to repeat it – which she does with new mistakes. Correct those ones, and her next repetion will bear other unheard-of mistakes. When she starts a sentence, she only thinks about the first two words and thus always gets into trouble mid-sentence. When she starts a difficult word, she only thinks about the first two phonemes and sometimes has no idea how to end it.

"Please translate this sentence into English", I say in my language.

"Yes, I know", she replies in English – and nothing else.

"Can you translate it into English", I ask her again?

She reads it out loud in my language.

More than once she complains about the complicated grammar; "In any other language I could use my time to learn words, not your stupid syntax rules and word endings!" I must say, now that I am forced to explain – and justify – our bizarre language, I find our slang quite demanding too. More than once I have to tell her: "Sorry, we speak it like that. Don't ask me why, I can't explain. Ask your teacher if there is a rule for that or not." I do buy two simple grammar books to look if there are any rules in cases where I can only rely on my intuition.

My wife has a heart of gold. She and her family have always been successful in the various midscale businesses they started. But she is no language freak. She wouldn't go ahead and write her story up on Stick's. Especially not in a non-native lingo.

And I understand her woes. Her ambitious teacher progresses way too fast. Every day, Nahlee comes home with three or five pages of homework. New grammar always arrives with new vocabulary, and on some days there are no less than 25 or 35 new words to learn. Keep in mind that on top of her school hours she has to commute for more than three hours daily. And she can't read or write in the train, it makes her vomit.

We spend three to five hours a day trying to get a grasp on all the new grammar. Sometimes I lose countenance, and when she forgets a well-established phrase, or she mispronounces a word that she had know for weeks, I fume. She hasn't seen me like this. I haven't seen me like this.


"What about your Indonesian school friend, Miss Isa", I hiss. "Does she have the same language problems like you?"


"Please answer like 'Yes, SHE has the same problems like me'", I correct her.

"She has same problem like me."

"'She has THE same problemssssSSSS like me'", I shout.

"'THE same problemssssss like i'", she repeats shily.

"'Like MEEEEEEE'", I scream!!!


I'm out of my breath. Give me a knife.

We switch back to our usual Pidgin English. At least we get some info across.

"What about your school friend, Miss Isa", I hiss. "She has problems like you or not??"

"Yes, have problem too!"

"You said her husband is professor? Can't he help her", I shout?

"She said she NEVER ask husband for help", Nahlee shouts back. "Never! If she need help, she go to other Indonesian. If she ask husband, he get angry quick!"

Give me a knife.

Stickman's thoughts:

I can't think of anything bright to say today.

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