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Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Conversation: enough said

I heard once that the average male speaks 2,000 words a day, while the average female speaks 7,000.

My wife interprets this as meaning we are allotted 9,000 words between the two of us. She therefore begs me to keep mum so she can take my 2,000 words for herself.

Normally, I don't mind. Two thousand words seems like too many anyhow. Besides, I have found I am usually more eloquent if I just sit and grin.

Still, there was a time when things were different. A time when I was practically cuckoo to wag my English tongue. In those days I no doubt suffered from an affliction I now like to call Native Language Withdrawal Syndrome, in which victims start sounding like heavy-duty popcorn makers stuck on high, a volley of sound that shoots off whenever they can trap some poor soul into listening.

Many foreigners in Japan insist they suffer from an exact opposite ailment. That, deprived of native speaker contact, they begin to forget vocabulary in the same zippy way they also forgot high school math. These sufferers believe there is some clever name for their condition -- but what it is, they can't remember.

From my experience, however, such vocabulary loss occurs much later. If you don't think so, try putting two fellow countrymen in the same room after but a few months in Japan. Within seconds, nouns and verbs will start boinging off the walls like superballs.

That's how my language turned after a short while in the hinterland of Kyushu -- as rowdy as a cowhand off to a Saturday at the saloon.

On top of this, using English in the classroom didn't help. Textbook dialogs were like frozen dinners: pre-set, cold and with precious little nutrition. Besides, the only practical expression my students ever learned was, "Can we go home now?" A tricky conversation starter to say the least.

Not surprisingly, I soon began to talk to myself . . . though rarely did I agree with anything I said and more than once had to threaten to walk out to make myself shut up. Such shouting matches were tolerable enough at home, but quite embarrassing out on the street.

"Oh yeah!" I would scream, grabbing myself by the collar. "Take that back or I'll punch my lights out!"

When I wanted to join in more intelligent language, I turned to television. The only English show in those prevideo/presimulcast days was a Sunday night broadcast of "Sesame Street," very soon the most important hour of my life. I would sit there before the knees of Kermit the Frog and pant like an infatuated spaniel. Eventually the content of my letters began worrying folks back home.

"You know, mom, that Kermit really knows his stuff. I'd vote for him over Nixon any day." I wasn't alone in this passion; each English-desperate foreigner in Kumamoto quickly fell under the same spell. Whenever we got together, the previous week's "Sesame Street" episode was always the main stream in our flood of conversation. With lines like . . .

"I think I'll start my own paper-clip collection, just like Bert. I've already got a whole box!"

Or . . .

"I can see Mr. Snuffleupagus. How about you?"

As you might imagine, we few foreigners came to know each other well. A mix of lonely nomads, we shared our lives in so much depth that the world never seemed so close. From a one-light burg in Kansas to a resort town on the coast of Queensland to a snowy village in Alberta, it seemed we were all from the same place. Or at least from the way we each jabbered about "back home," it sure sounded like it.

We grew so tight, to suddenly see a new foreigner walking around was always a shock. It was like waking up to find a stranger in your kitchen.

"Did you see that guy? The nerve of him! Coming to our town and walking down our street!"

"Yeah, how come we never get anyone cool? Like Grover?"

Gab, gab, gab -- we chattered so much my jaw muscle soon became the strongest part of my body. I could open an entire beer keg with my teeth, let alone a bottle.

However, the true recipient of this firehose of English was not the foreign community, but rather the Japanese girl who would soon become my wife. One of the charms of my bride-to-be was that she could speak English, a skill polished by an exchange year in Pennsylvania.

Of course, I didn't want her to speak. I wanted her to listen. In between blabbing about sports, politics, books, movies and the Cookie Monster, I eventually asked her to marry me. The remarkable thing is that I gave her time enough to say "yes."

Now I look back and wonder . . . Was I truly drawn by love? Or was I instead just magnetized by the need to rattle my tongue? What if, for example, my ancient landlady had also been adept in English? Might I not have tried to marry her instead?

A question to which my wife responds:

"Oh, hush up. You already used your 2,000 words. Now it's my turn to talk."

I guess we were made for each other. Enough said.

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