everybody’s at disadvantage speaking with their second language

So I’m at a bar on Saturday with the other jiu-jitsu students after one of our own promoted to nidan, or second degree black belt. We rented the back room in one of the nightclubs on Boylston St, less than a block from where I work. The outside’s full of scheming scenesters with unbuttoned shirts; the back room is quiet and full of fellow students. One of these has just returned from a year in Israel, where he practiced krav maga four hours a day six days a week. He has a friend with him from Paris, who has black belts in karate and jiu-jitsu. The Parisian speaks good enough English to point across the bar I’m leaning on and ask, “What’s tonic water?”

“Well,” I begin, “it’s water that’s … tonic. Y’know, like in … gin and tonics?” My voice tightens, already apologizing for my own words.

The visitor asks the bartender for a glass of tonic, with ice, a straw (“a pipe”) and some lemon. He stirs and takes a sip. “It’s like a Schweppes,” he declares.

One of the reasons I want to be a writer – and one of the reasons I suspect I come across as a pedant – is because I’m always looking for the best possible way to convey something. I’m never satisfied with a “clear enough” explanation. When I give directions, they have to incorporate street names, landmarks, turns and fail-safes (“if you hit Trinity Church, you’ve gone too far”). When I describe someone, you not only need to know what they look and sound like, but which celebrity they resemble; if I can describe them in a way that makes you chuckle, so much the better. And when someone who speaks perfect conversational English asks me what tonic water is, I need something better than “it’s got quinine in it.”

I care more about whether something’s evocative than whether or not it’s true. Not that we can ignore truth – nothing turns me off more than the line or description that rings false – but it waits its turn behind the image. If I share a common language with someone but not a common culture, I want to find the words that bridge that history.

The bartender produces the gin and tonic I didn’t order. I was thirsty anyway. I slide a packet of bills across while the Parisian describes the search for a valid form of identification for the bouncers outside. “In the States they check your ID,” he explains. “In Paris, they check your shoes.”


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