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Saturday, July 19, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Go for broke, Japan!


The person shouting this is a close friend — a Japanese English instructor — who with looping earrings, sliding bracelets and multiringed fingers shows more metal than a brass band. She's noisier too, with a big-eyed, rubber-tongued enthusiasm for her work.

I wish she'd lend me some of her energy. Instead, I settle for pasta and wine. Lots of wine.

Here's the deal: Every so often she buys me dinner and in return I give a glance to her teaching material, original dialogs and sentences which she will soon gurgle out to learners all sorts, from teens to septuagenarians, who adore her for English teaching gusto.

And this time the gusto's gone wild. For she's scrambled it with Olympic fever.

"This month we cheer the Olympic team. Like this: 'Go for broke, Japan! Go for broke!' " She raises her arms and rattles her bracelets. The waiter glances our way and I signal for more wine. Urgently.

She lowers her arms. "You don't like it? Why?"

I gulp my wine. For I have been here before.

"Listen, Mariko, your dialog's fine. But people don't talk this way. No one screams, 'Go for broke' these days. Especially as a group. We'd just say, 'Go, Japan!' "

She wrinkles her nose. " 'Go, Japan' is boring."

"But it's real English."

" 'What's wrong with 'Go for broke'? It's in the dictionary."

"As are many words. But we have other ways to say things. You want to communicate, right?"

"Why do you put words in the dictionary you don't use?"

I pour more wine. "It's like the conversation we had last time about 'dilly-dally.' Or the time before that with 'jeepers-peepers.' Or whatever. Just because a term is in the dictionary, doesn't mean it always fits."

"If I can't trust my dictionary, who can I trust?"

"But you're assuming the dictionary is a translator and it's not."

"I knew you'd say that. You always say that."

I do indeed. And like many teachers here, she always pushes vaudeville-age English, fished up from some stagnant pool in her dictionary. Drinking doesn't kill the absurdity, just leaves it numb.

Yet now she brightens and tries again.

"OK, how's this— The Japanese team comes marching in, the flags are waving, and the students stand and roar, 'Show them what you're made of, Japan!' "

"No. Too stiff."

"OK. They roar, 'Do your damndest!' "

"Uh, no."

"Shoot the works!"

"No."

"Die trying!"

I almost spit wine and have to fumble with my napkin.

"Why do I even ask," she pouts. "You hate the entire dictionary."

"You ask because you want a native speaker's know-how. You can't teach from a dictionary."

"OK. Mr. Native Speaker. Teach me what to say. Something fun. Something other than, "Go, Japan!"

"Alright. . . How about . . Uh. . . 'Kick butt.' "

"Kick butt?"

"Yes. 'Kick butt.' It's both colloquial and fun."

She frowns. "Half of my students are over 70. I am not going to have them stand and shout, 'Kick butt!' It's undignified. Unless we can change it to something more respectable. Like, 'Strike their after part!' "

I drink more wine. I fear this will turn worse than our earlier struggle with "dilly-dally." Which she pronounced as "dirry-darry."

She spies another foreigner in the corner. "Excuse me, sir?" The man pauses with spaghetti hanging from his mouth. "Do you ever tell anyone to kick butt?"

The man turns to check whether she has spoken to someone else. But to his rear is only wallpaper.

"Kick butt? Oh, heavens no. I've never even heard of it."

"Oh c'mon," I throw at him. "People say 'Kick butt' all the time. You know, like 'Go, USA! Kick butt!' "

"Oh," he says, with his fork still in hand. "You mean like, 'Go for broke?' "

"See!" says Mariko "See!"

"No one says, 'Go for broke.' Not as a cheer."

"Oh, but I do. Or perhaps, 'Show them what you're made of!' "

I put my head down. Mariko fires, "Or how about, 'Do your damndest!' "

"Yes, if I was excited. Or maybe, 'Give it the old college try!' "

"That's good." Mariko takes furious notes.

"No, that's not good," I say. "What's in your spaghetti sauce? Bourbon? All of those are awkward or out of date."

"They are?" he says. "Well, jeepers-peepers!"

"Sir," says Mariko. "Why don't you join us? I need your insight."

He hesitates. Mariko turns on her best bracelet-rattling charm while I gulp wine.

"OK, sure," he says. "My pleasure."

Mariko whispers as the man gathers his things. "I like this guy. He kicks butt. He's what a native speaker's supposed to be."

I tell her he's not a native speaker.

"How do you know?"

"Because," I whisper back, "He's got dictionary English, like yours. Just watch."

"Nice to meet you," says the man as he sits down. And then he adds with a distant smile. . .

"So sorry to dilly-dally."



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