The stress of getting things right


If you’re like me, one thing you do not need is more stress.

At least I thought so until a recent encounter with a Japanese English instructor.

“Your stress is all wrong,” she barked. “Step it up, please!”

I had just agreed to make a video of some dialogues for one of her classes. Before my speaking partner arrived, the woman in charge asked me to read her script out loud. She said I should read it as a native speaker would. And then she told me . . .

“You’re missing almost every single word! What’s wrong with you?”

Now isn’t that a tricky question? One that I have been spent most of my life trying to answer. Yet in a calm voice I replied: “Uh, I was born and raised as an English speaker. I think my way is OK.”

She disagreed. She next cracked open her Japanese-English dictionary to show that my stress did not match that of the book.

Stress, stress, stress. . . . I flushed and tried to argue that words in isolation are sometimes tweaked awry when plugged into a sentence . . . that situations and emotions may change things even further . . . that regional dialects may add their own complex nuances.

“No,” she insisted. “The dictionary cannot be wrong. The problem is you. You have to say it the right way, or my students will be confused.”

So I practiced saying things her way and then heard her gloat, “You’ll realize your mistakes when George comes.”

George, the other native speaker, soon arrived, and — unfortunately for the peace of mind of anyone within hearing range — read the lines exactly like I had.

The woman tore at her hair. “How can you expect Japanese students to learn,” she screamed, “if you won’t speak properly?”

George had the dictionary shoved under his nose while the woman lectured him on the importance of doing things “right.”

So our filming went like this: She had George and I mimic her cockeyed, dictionary English, which sort of sounded like a bird being whacked with a stick, until we could parrot her well enough to make the video.

“That lady is out of her mind,” growled George later over coffee. “I’ve been speaking English for 40 years and should know how to use my own tongue!”

“Let me introduce my tennis coach,” I said back. I said it back five times, for it’s one sentence that our drill instructor claimed I had goofed.

“And I’d like to introduce her to a pound of common sense. Since when can a dictionary tell you how to talk? How can you force living language into the brackets of a syllabification?”

I felt like saying parts are easier to teach than wholes. Especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.

But instead I said, “Please give my regards to your dentist.”

“Yeah, yeah. Tell me, when is Japan going to get past this tinker-toy approach to language learning? Don’t people know there’s more than one acceptable intonation pattern? That there’s more than one acceptable word order and inflection? Don’t they know — damn it! — that there is more than one acceptable way to communicate?”

I wished to comment that most Japanese love rules, and in this land prescriptive — or rule-based — language study will always reign supreme.

Yet, I remembered our dialogue and repeated, “Could I trouble you for another melon?”

“I mean, how about their own language? It must be as free and flexible as English.”

Sure it is, I almost said. But it too is guarded by prudish, high-brow rules, with the result being that many native Japanese speakers will fluently tell you, “Japanese is hard. Gosh, not even I can speak it right.”

Somehow, when I recited, “I believe I’ve stepped on your cat,” he got my point. He then shared a memory:

“I once had this Japanese teacher from up north — Tohoku. The best teacher in my language school, bar none. Every other teacher would put you to sleep in six seconds flat, or less. Yet, this lady made the class fun, and we learned from her.

“But she was forever hounded by the rest of the faculty until finally she just quit. Why? Because she had a Tohoku accent and did not speak the nationally approved dialect, like they did. They took that as more important than teaching skill.”

I nodded. “I sometimes get carsick. How about you?”

“And the worrisome thing is that I fear this attitude will never change. I mean, won’t our video drill sergeant give birth to an entire new generation of wild-eyed word demons?”

“There’s a fly in my soup. There’s a fly in my soup. There’s a fly in my soup.”

“And take this love affair that so many teachers have with ‘American’ English. Tell me, what IS American English? Bill Clinton, for example, does not talk like George Bush, with or without the ‘W.’ They don’t fit the dictionary either. But this lady would never correct the president. So what does that say, huh? That it’s OK to talk funny as long as you’re the boss?”

Or, I considered sharing, if you’re the leader of a first-strike army. But my remark was: “Your mother dances divinely . . . divinely. . . . divinely.”

“Just when will Japan get it straight? There is more than one acceptable way to speak. After all, we are people, not dictionaries.”

I wanted to say not to worry. Language is too vibrant to be locked in a box of rules. Form can only shape content so much. After that, what works, works.

I told him, “The goon on the moon eats always with a spoon.”

He stared at me. “Just what is wrong with you?”

This time I at last had an answer: I’d had way too much stress.