Becoming Like a Little Child

Make sure you get these strokes in the right order! **

Over the years part of my journey has been to learn some basics of the languages in the countries where I have worked. My schoolboy French was useful when I spent time in the south of France. It surprises me to think that for a time I was even reading from a French Bible. 

Living in East Asia gave me an appetite to try and learn a bit of Mandarin and did do some basic night classes. When living in Japan my wife and I had a convenient arrangement with Atsuko, a Japanese lady. She would come to our home in the morning and until mid-morning coffee break she taught us some basic conversational Japanese. After coffee we spoke to her in English. No money changed hands and the setup suited us all well. Helped us get our food from the store, buy petrol etc. I did try some more formal Japanese study by trying to memorise and write ‘kanji’ characters. Think I managed 100 or so. Each character needs memorising as to their different meanings in different contexts. They also have to be written in a certain stroke order, otherwise they don’t look right. Really an art form. When you need about 2,000 to read a newspaper it seemed way beyond my abilities. Add on to that the 2 syllabic alphabets (hiragana and katakana) of 47 characters. It amazes me that Japanese children learn to read and write. However I did persist for a while. Even went to Tokyo to take a Government graded exam. It was the lowest level and I failed. 

How did we function during our time in Japan? Am so thankful for the help of Kazunari who helped me as a translator and became my eyes and ears. Ever patient and cheerful with me. One way we earned a living was teaching English to Japanese. Customers ranged from 3 year old kindergarten kids sent by their parents to octogenarian veterans of the 2nd World War. Their thirst for English was astonishing.

Also spent a year in what at the time was West Germany. Dabbled a bit with some basic, conversational German but never really progressed. Despite spending 2 years in the Caribbean and Central America I never even attempted to learn Spanish.

Marrying a Swede one language which has been a consistent backdrop has been Swedish. I remember initially reading textbooks and practicing basic conversation with my mother-in-law who was very patient with my mistakes. Like the other languages mentioned textbook and formal learning classes only got me so far. 

For nearly 2 years my wife and I lived in Sweden and during that time I worked in a factory. Hardly anyone spoke to me in English. Although it was often a lonely experience my understanding slowly grew. Many months of silently observing, not saying much. Mainly listening. My participation in a fast moving group conversation would often be out of step. By the time I understood what had been said the conversation had moved on to another topic. Laughter or bemusement would follow if I tried to contribute at that point. All very humbling. One to one conversation was a bit more forgiving. All in all the whole experience was like becoming a little child again. Limited vocabulary also meant I expressed myself in limited, childlike ways. 

This immersive experience was strengthened by the factory piping out music and chat all day from a popular Swedish radio station. Elisabeth’s family only ever spoke to me in Swedish. This was even though most had quite good English. I am grateful for this. 

With more fluency came appreciation and respect for the culture and it’s people. A rich, learning experience. I started to read books in Swedish and gain insight into another worldview. The Anglo-American English speaking one I grew up in had dominated my cultural perspective despite travelling a lot. I started to discover Swedish Christian writers who have blessed me in a truly, refreshing way. This has added to my understanding of the depth and wisdom of God at work through other cultures. 

To learn Swedish took time and effort. For me the journey has been humbling, frustrating and at times isolating. It was worthwhile and has taken me out of my own small world. New and refreshing perspectives on life and relationships have opened up. More practically I can converse with my relatives. 

I didn’t get far in French, German, Japanese or Chinese. Despite this multi-lingual experience don’t think I have any particular aptitude in languages. Nowadays if you were to speak to me in these tongues it would seem as if I know next to nothing. One of the things in life that doesn’t seem to add up. The time, effort and any progress in languages seem to be lost if not used over time. This even applies to my Swedish, the one language other than English I have some proficiency in. It gets rusty until a visit to Sweden gives some badly needed oil and maintenance to my brain cells. Despite forgetting much the process keeps opening up your heart and mind to think and express yourself.

Most of us that have English as our first language seem to struggle acquiring another tongue. To us the widespread use of English worldwide is a two edged sword. You are falsely lulled into thinking you can make yourself understood with all kinds of people. Paradoxically you become less likely to understand the people and culture. Being bi-lingual (or more) is a blessing worth celebrating. I might discover some truth about myself that would never be realised by remaining in the silo of my own language.

If you are not bi-lingual and don’t mind becoming a child again then a new language might be just the tonic!

**Pages 16,17, "A Guide to Reading and Writing Japanese" (Tuttle, 1990)

Window on the Past

Recently I have been transcribing old letters and reports from 30 – 40 years ago into a digital form. My work at that time involved travel to many countries and reporting back to those I was responsible to as well as to friends. I am thankful to have this window. A record, a snapshot into my past. Alas this window can be murky in places. Just like memory some of the typing is now faded. For those old enough to remember such technology these documents were often a typewritten 4th or 5th carbon copy. No copy and paste in those days. Looking back having something typewritten seems very tactile compared with computers. Fingers pressing letters which hit a ribbon smashing into paper. 

My typewriter was a portable version proudly taken on planes as hand luggage. A management tool to be seen with! Perhaps like a top of the range mobile phone today except I think it weighed about 6kg. This, along with my even heavier briefcase and ‘7 Star’ diary* meant you felt a fully equipped executive. Occasional communication tools also included expensive telexes or even more expensive and time consuming international phone calls. Sometimes these calls had to be booked one or two days in advance and involved hanging around in waiting rooms for hours. Even telexes were at times re-routed via bigger cities if you were communicating from a small place. Looking back it seems such a hassle yet at the time any messages sent these ways felt really important and urgent.

Back to the transcribing of these old reports. Some of them have proved not so straightforward to import to the computer by scanning methods such as Optical Character Recognition (OCR). The faded type was just readable but provng a challenge for the software. Instead I find myself dictating to the computer or correcting /retyping chunks of gobbledegook from incorrect OCR. This meant I was re-verbalising, re-thinking and reflecting chunks of what I wrote then. It is a strange but instructive experience using words by the ‘old me’ from several decades ago… 

1. My language and even some grammar don’t sound like what I would use nowadays. This is even though English is my mother tongue and back then I had finished formal education in English. Suppose it is obvious that the experience of life and the passing of the years changes how I express myself. However it is an odd feeling to have clear evidence of this in black and white by having it sounded back to me in my own voice. 

2. How I spoke of my faith back then also seems a bit different to how I express myself nowadays. It is clear I was a product of my time and the people around me. I trust I was sincere both then and now. Hope that part of growth is to use language that is more ‘me’. Words I take more ownership of.

There is a temptation to be wistful for times past. However the good news I take away today from these faded bits of paper is that the old me is still part of who I am today! This is despite the fact I have changed, think differently and have a different lifestyle from then. Also like the old type parts of me are fading! It’s wonderful to know that, like clay, when I need a reworking I can put myself in the hands of the master potter. 

*The contents of these diaries were replaced each year and you kept the leather ring binder. All the rage in the ‘70s and early 80s.

A Big Shout Out for Metaphors

I am aware some reading this are English teachers so will tread carefully. Nevertheless claiming no expertise in English does not mean I can’t have the occasional amateurish excitement about metaphors! Also a nice thing about having your own blog is you get to choose what you want to write.  

For some English is a second, third or even fourth language* and it may be that what I say may not make much sense. However recently I was saying goodbye to a friend returning to his homeland in Asia. English is not his mother tongue but his parting comment to me was that we will meet again ‘in two shakes of a lamb’s tail’. I don’t recall using or indeed knowing of that turn of phrase but having relatives who have sheep I knew what he meant. Such is the power of metaphors that you can feel what they mean.

“…how we think about our selves and our relationship to the world is already revealed in the metaphors we unconsciously choose to talk about it”.  

The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist. 

McGilchrist also says studies on the history and origin of words show metaphors have their roots in the body (particularly the hand) and how we experience the world through it. Seems to me to make sense. We experience the world through our body though I often think it’s all in my head. Even a word such as ‘attend’ which I never thought of as metaphor. McGilchrist again… 

“The hand is the vehicle of touch, as well as grasp, and therefore the origin of the metaphor of ‘tact’. In fact to attend means, precisely, to reach out a hand towards: we reach out – ‘ad-tend’ – in order to give, as well as to take”.

The heart of what I am saying is this. If you want a refreshing dose of reality and I still have your attention, grasp what I am trying to put forward and step up to the plate. Rein in dark moods, lighten up, harness your energies and rustle up some metaphors. On the other hand you might scoff at my ideas or observe it’s not your cup of tea.

On the face of it I should probably shut up and you take all this with a pinch of salt. 

* I suspect those who know other languages will have a richer body of metaphors.