If you learn a new language as an adult, or if you learn it as a child from non-native speakers, you will have an accent. There is a scientifically proven reason behind this. Each language has phonemes (basic sound units) specific to it. You can discern only those phonemes that you are exposed to as a baby. By the time you are about eight months old, it is already too late for your brain to pick up new phonemes. Without the complete set of phonemes of a language, an accent, however slight, is unavoidable.
Once upon a time in India, there were three parrots. They were for sale. A prospective buyer was interested.
“How much is that parrot?” asked he, pointing to the first one.
“That’s pretty steep. What’s so special about it?”
“Well, it can speak Hindi.”
The prospective buyer was impressed, but wanted a better deal. So he probed, “How much for the second one?”
Now it is official — we become embarrassing, ridiculous and annoying when our first-born turns thirteen. The best we can hope to do, evidently, is to negotiate a better deal. If we can get our thirteen year old to drop one of the three unflattering epithets, we should count ourselves lucky. We can try, “I may embarrass you a bit, but I do not annoy you and I am certainly not ridiculous!” This apparently was the deal this friend of mine made with his daughter. Now he has to drop her a block away from her school (so that her friends don’t have to see him, duh!), but he smiles the smile of a man who knows he is neither annoying nor ridiculous.
I did a bit worse, I think. “You are not that annoying; you are not always ridiculous and you are not totally embarrassing. Well, not always,” was the best I could get my daughter to concede, giving me a 50% pass grade. My wife fared even worse though. “Oh, she is SOOO ridiculous and always annoys me. Drives me nuts!” making it a miserable 33% fail grade for her. To be fair though, I have to admit that she wasn’t around when I administered the test; her presence may have improved her performance quite a bit.
But seriously, why do our children lose their unquestioning faith in our infallibility the moment they are old enough to think for themselves? I don’t remember such a drastic change in my attitude toward my parents when I turned thirteen. It is not as though I am more fallible than my parents. Well, may be I am, but I don’t think the teenager’s reevaluation of her stance is a commentary on my parenting skills. May be in the current social system of nuclear families, we pay too much attention to our little ones. We see little images of ourselves in them and try to make them as perfect as we possibly can. Perhaps all this well-meaning attention sometimes smothers them so much that they have to rebel at some stage, and point out how ridiculously annoying and embarrassing our efforts are.
May be my theory doesn’t hold much water — after all, this teenage phase change vis-a-vis parents is a universal phenomenon. And I am sure the degree of nuclear isolation of families and the level of freedom accorded to the kids are not universal. Perhaps all we can do is to tune our own attitude toward the teenagers’ attitude change. Hey, I can laugh with my kids at my ridiculous embarrassments. But I do wish I had been a bit less annoying though…
Here is a French joke that is funny only in French. I present it here as a puzzle to my English-speaking readers.
This colonel in the French army was in the restroom. As he was midway through the business of relieving his bladder, he becomes aware of this tall general standing next to him, and realizes that it is none other than Charles De Gaulle. Now, what do you do when you find yourself a sort of captive audience next to your big boss for a couple of minutes? Well, you have to make smalltalk. So this colonel rakes his brain for a suitable subject. Noticing that the restroom is a classy tip-top joint, he ventures:
“Belle piece!” (“Nice room!”)
CDG’s ice-cold tone indicates to him the enormity of the professional error he has just committed:
“Regardez devant vous.” (“Don’t peek!”)
During my graduate school years at Syracuse, I used to know Ioanna — a Greek girl of sweet disposition and inexplicable hair. When I met her, she had just moved from her native land of Crete and was only beginning to learn English. So she used to start her sentences with “Eh La Re” and affectionately address all her friends “Malaka” and was generally trying stay afloat in this total English immersion experience that is a small university town in the US of A.
Soon, she found the quirkiness of this eccentric language a bit too much. On one wintry day in Syracuse, Ioanna drove to Wegmans, the local supermarket, presumably looking for feta cheese or eggplants. But she was unable to find it. As with most people not fluent in the language of the land, she wasn’t quite confident enough to approach an employee on the floor for help. I can totally understand her; I don’t approach anybody for help even in my native town. But I digress; coming back to Ioanna at Wegmans, she noticed this little machine where she could type in the item she wanted and get its location. The machine displayed, “Aisle 6.”
Ioanna was floored. She had never seen the word “aisle.” So she fought and overcame her fear of Americans and decided to ask an employee where this thing called Aisle 6 was. Unfortunately, the way this English word sounds has nothing to do with the way it is spelled. Without the benefit of this knowledge, Ioanna asked a baffled and bemused clerk, “Where is ASSELLE six?”
The American was quick-witted though. He replied politely, “I’m sorry, miss. I am asshole number 3; asshole number 6 is taking a break. Can I help you?”
Bush has just left the building. Perhaps the world will be a kinder, gentler place now. But it will certainly be a less funny place. For life is stranger than fiction, and Bush was funnier than any stand-up comedian. Jon Stewart is going to miss him. So will I.
“They misunderestimated me.”
Bentonville, Arkansas, 6 November, 2000
“There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.”
Nashville, Tennessee, 17 September, 2002
“There’s no question that the minute I got elected, the storm clouds on the horizon were getting nearly directly overhead.”
Washington DC, 11 May, 2001
“I want to thank my friend, Senator Bill Frist, for joining us today. He married a Texas girl, I want you to know. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me.”
Nashville, Tennessee, 27 May, 2004
“For a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times.”
Tokyo, 18 February, 2002
“The war on terror involves Saddam Hussein because of the nature of Saddam Hussein, the history of Saddam Hussein, and his willingness to terrorise himself.”
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 29 January, 2003
“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Washington DC, 5 August, 2004
“I think war is a dangerous place.”
Washington DC, 7 May, 2003
“The ambassador and the general were briefing me on the – the vast majority of Iraqis want to live in a peaceful, free world. And we will find these people and we will bring them to justice.”
Washington DC, 27 October, 2003
“Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat.”
Washington DC, 17 September, 2004
“You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.”
CBS News, Washington DC, 6 September, 2006
“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
Florence, South Carolina, 11 January, 2000
“Reading is the basics for all learning.”
Reston, Virginia, 28 March, 2000
“As governor of Texas, I have set high standards for our public schools, and I have met those standards.”
CNN, 30 August, 2000
“You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”
Townsend, Tennessee, 21 February, 2001
“I understand small business growth. I was one.”
New York Daily News, 19 February, 2000
“It’s clearly a budget. It’s got a lot of numbers in it.”
Reuters, 5 May, 2000
“I do remain confident in Linda. She’ll make a fine Labour Secretary. From what I’ve read in the press accounts, she’s perfectly qualified.”
Austin, Texas, 8 January, 2001
“First, let me make it very clear, poor people aren’t necessarily killers. Just because you happen to be not rich doesn’t mean you’re willing to kill.”
Washington DC, 19 May, 2003
“I don’t think we need to be subliminable about the differences between our views on prescription drugs.”
Orlando, Florida, 12 September, 2000
“Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYN’s aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, 6 September, 2004
“Will the highways on the internet become more few?”
Concord, New Hampshire, 29 January, 2000
“It would be a mistake for the United States Senate to allow any kind of human cloning to come out of that chamber.”
Washington DC, 10 April, 2002
“Information is moving. You know, nightly news is one way, of course, but it’s also moving through the blogosphere and through the Internets.”
Washington DC, 2 May, 2007
“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
Saginaw, Michigan, 29 September, 2000
“Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 18 October, 2000
“Those who enter the country illegally violate the law.”
Tucson, Arizona, 28 November, 2005
“That’s George Washington, the first president, of course. The interesting thing about him is that I read three – three or four books about him last year. Isn’t that interesting?”
Speaking to reporter Kai Diekmann, Washington DC, 5 May, 2006
“I have a different vision of leadership. A leadership is someone who brings people together.”
Bartlett, Tennessee, 18 August, 2000
“I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.”
Washington DC, 18 April, 2006
“And truth of the matter is, a lot of reports in Washington are never read by anybody. To show you how important this one is, I read it, and [Tony Blair] read it.”
On the publication of the Baker-Hamilton Report, Washington DC, 7 December, 2006
“All I can tell you is when the governor calls, I answer his phone.”
San Diego, California, 25 October, 2007
Famous Last Words
“I’ll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office.”
Washington DC, 12 May, 2008
[The last of my French redactions to be blogged, this one wasn’t such a hit with the class. They expected a joke, but what they got was, well, this. It was written the day after I watched an air show on TV where the French were proudly showcasing their fighter technology.]
[In English first]
Science is based on logic. And logic is based on our experiences — what we learn during our life. But, because our experiences are incomplete, our logic can be wrong. And our science can lead us to our demise. When I watched the fighter planes on TV, I started thinking about the energy and effort we spend on trying to kill ourselves. It seems to me that our logic here had to be wrong.
A few months ago, I read a short story (by O.V. Vijayan, as a matter of fact) about a chicken who found itself in a cage. Everyday, by noon, the little window of the cage would open, a man’s hand would appear and give the chicken something to eat. It went on for 99 days. And the chicken concluded:
“Noon, hand, food — good!”
On the hundredth day, by noon, the hand appeared again. The chicken, all happy and full of gratitude, waited for something to eat. But this time, the hand caught it by the neck and strangled it. Because of realities beyond its experience, the chicken became dinner on that day. I hope we human beings can avoid such eventualities.
Les sciences sont basées sur la logique. Et la logique se base sur les expériences – ce que nous apprenons dans notre vie. Mais, comme nos expériences ne sont pas toujours completes, notre logique peut avoir tort. Et nos sciences peuvent nous diriger vers notre destruction. Lorsque je regardais les avions de combat à la télé, ils m’ont fait penser à l’énergie et aux efforts que nous gaspillons en essayant de nous tuer. Il me paraît que la
logique ici doit avoir tort.
J’ai lu une petite histoire d’une poule il y a quelques mois. Elle s’est trouvée dans une cage, un homme l’y avait mise. Chaque jour, vers midi, la petite fenêtre de la cage s’ouvrait, une main se montrait avec de quoi manger pour la poule. Ça s’est passé comme ça pendant quatre-vingt-dix-neuf jours. Et la poule a pensé:
“Aha, midi, main, manger – bien!”
Le centième jour est arrivé. Le midi, la main s’est montrée. La poule, toute heureuse et pleine de gratitude, attendait de quoi manger. Mais, cette fois, la main l’a prise par le cou et l’a étranglée. A cause des réalités au-delà de ses expériences, la poule est devenue le diner ce jour-là. J’espère que nous pourrons éviter les éventualités de cette sorte.
[Another of my French “redactions,” this piece is a translation of a joke, which perhaps didn’t translate too well. I was told that the French version was in poor taste. Now, reading it again, I feel that the English version doesn’t fare much better. You be the judge!]
[In English first]
Once, an American was in England. In a public bus, he saw an English lady sitting with her little dog, occupying two seats. The bus was crowded and many passengers were standing. The smart American, inspired, asked the lady very nicely: “Ma’am, if we put your poodle on your lap, one of us standing could sit. Much appreciated.”
To his surprise, the lady didn’t pay any attention to him. A little miffed, he repeated his request. The lady ignored him with a disdainful look. Americans are men of action, and don’t waste words (where guns and bombs would suffice, as we know). Embarrassed, and being quite American, he picked up the dog and threw it out the window and sat down in its place.
An English gentleman across the aisle was watching the whole exchange. He tut-tutted disapprovingly and said, “You Americans! Whatever you do, you do it wrong. You drive on the wrong side of the street. You hold your fork in the wrong hand. Wrong habits, wrong clothes, wrong manners! Now see what you have done!”
The American was on the defensive. “I didn’t do anything wrong. It was her fault, and you know it.”
The English gent explained, “Yes my dear fellow, but you threw the wrong bitch out the window!”
Une fois, un Américain alla en Angleterre. Dans un bus de transport en commun, il aperçut une Anglaise et son petit chien assis, occupant deux sièges. Il y avait du monde dans le bus et des personnes qui se tenaient debout. L’Américain, étant malin, eut une bonne idée. Il demanda à l’Anglaise très poliment,
“Madame, si vous mettiez votre chien sur vos genoux, une des personnes debout pourrait s’asseoir.
À son grand étonnement, l’Anglaise ne tint aucun compte de sa demande. Gênè, il répéta sa demande. L’Anglaise le regarda avec dédain et resta toujours désagréable. Les américains ne perdent pas de mots, ils sont des hommes d’action. Embarrassé et étant assez américain, il prit le chien, le jeta dehors du bus et s’assit.
Il y avait un Anglais en face qui remarqua tout ce qui se passait. Il dit,
“Les Américains! Quoique vous fassiez, vous le faites mal! Dans la rue, vous conduisez du mauvais côté. Au diner, vous prenez la fourchette avec la mauvause main. Mauvaises habitudes, mauvaises coutumes, mauvaise morale! Et maintenant, regardez ce que vous avez fait.”
L’Américain était sur la défensive,
“Et qu’est-ce que j’ai fait? C’était sa faute, et vous le savez!”
L’Anglais lui répondit,
“Oui, oui. Mais vous avez jeté la mauvaise chienne du bus!”
[English version below]
Je connaissais une petite fille très riche. Un jour, son professeur lui a demandé de faire une rédaction sur une famille pauvre. La fille était étonnée:
“Une famille pauvre?! Qu’est-ce que c’est ça?”
Elle a demandé à sa mère:
“Maman, Maman, qu’est-ce que c’est une famille pauvre? Je n’arrive pas à faire ma rédaction.”
La mère lui a répondu:
“C’est simple, chérie. Une famille est pauvre quand tout le monde dans la famille est pauvre”
La petite fille a pensé:
“Ah! Ce n’est pas difficile”
et elle a fait sa rédaction. Le lendemain, le professeur lui a dit:
“Bon, lis-moi ta rédaction.”
Voici la réponse:
“Une famille pauvre. Il était une fois une famille pauvre. Le père était pauvre, la mère était pauvre, les enfants étaient pauvres, le jardinier était pauvre, le chauffeur était pauvre, les bonnes étaient pauvres. Voilà, la famille était très pauvre!”
I once knew a rich girl. One day, her teacher at school asked her to write a piece on a poor family. The girl was shocked. “What in the world is a poor family?”
So she asked her mother, “Mummy, mummy, you’ve got to help me with my composition. What is a poor family?”
Her mother said, “That’s really simple, sweetheart. A family is poor when everybody in the family is poor.”
The rich girl thought, “Aha, that is not too difficult,” and she wrote up a piece.
The next day, her teacher asked her, “Well, let’s hear your composition.”
Here is what the girl said, “A Poor Family. Once upon a time, there was a poor family. The father was poor, the mother was poor, the children were poor, the gardener was poor, the driver was poor, the maids were poor. So the family was very poor!”