with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Teaching English – Can You Please Me?

Dr. Alex’s determination to learn English is amazing. He attacks it with a passion that delights and humbles me. I feel so insignificant against such concentration and determination. I am teaching both he and his wife English.

Dr. Alex is a lyrical and wonderful storyteller. He explains that one of his hobbies is to write funny stories about himself and his life. Sound like someone else you know? Within this web page are three of his short “tales” he has worked for months perfecting into English.

Tales from Alex

My Discovery

When I was a student, I was young, tall, strong, clever and in a word “attractive.” Now I am only attractive. One nice summer evening I accompanied home a young woman. She was very pretty with big grey eyes, long brown hair, and a charming smile. Certainly I wanted to make an impression on her. I was such a fascinating traveler in my tales – and my imagination – that I did not look where I was going. All of a sudden, someone struck me in the forehead. I found myself flat on the ground.

“What happened?” I asked. I really did not understand why I was on the ground and why my companion was dying with laughter. I jumped up quickly and got a blow to my head again. Only the second time I understood. I did not see the signpost standing in the middle of the sidewalk.

At that time I discovered some laws for myself:

1. If you want to catch the fancy of a woman, you must not tell tales.

2. Even if the woman is very pretty, you must not lose your head!

3. Only a man in love will tread on the rake twice!

Dr. Alex is a dreamer who makes dreams come true. Much of our dialog during our lessons twice a week are filled with his dreams and plans. He speaks only of his childhood in Russia, rarely of his family and work left behind. I’ve learned only recently of the struggles he and his family, among the millions of other Russians, suffered when the Communist Party collapsed. As his English improves, he shares more and more, but most of his energy is concentrated on getting to Canada, so looking backwards is done only under pressure. “Always look forward” is one of his many mottos.

Alex collects sayings from all over, enjoying translating English phrases into Russian and Russian cliques into English. Usually they are positive in nature, ringing bits of truth and hope from a sad past. He punctuates his English with these bursts of “silver linings” and “the grass is greener”.

The poet within him comes through even when he discusses his recent sad past.

He is a pediatric heart surgeon and an anesthesiologist, spending most of his life in the distance Far East of Russia, closer to China than Moscow. The hospitals of Russia were supported by the government and when they collapsed, Alex and his co-workers went months without a paycheck. They did what they could to survive, but mostly they starved. Even without pay, the hospital still had a responsibility to the community. People were still injured, sick, and dying. He kept working as best he could, and luckily his versatility kept him and his family going even in the worst of times.

Divorced, and remarried, he has a daughter who is an anthropologist and a son who is a pediatric surgeon like his father. Not long before leaving Russia for Israel, Alex married Anya, a anesthetist and cardiac care nurse, and now they have a four year old daughter. Determined not to continue to suffer under the horrors crushing the life out of Russia and not wanting to raise his new daughter under a Russian flag, they looked for a way out. With a Jewish wife, the easiest route was through Israel. They are now desperately awaiting confirmation for a new life in Canada.

Russian immigrants were some of the first Zionist arrivals here in Israel at the turn of the century, bringing a new spirit and enthusiasm for creating Eretz Israel. With the fall of the Iron Curtain and the destruction of the Russian economy and communist lifestyle, the past few decades have brought floods of Russian immigrants to Israel, many of them intellectuals, scientists and medical workers.

Lacking the Dr. Alex helps me carry boxes back from the post office. Photo by Lorelle VanFosseninterest or enthusiasm to learn Hebrew, Alex isn’t eligible to work as a doctor. His dream is still on Canada. He could get a job as a nurse or some technician in a hospital, but his lousy Hebrew pretty much excludes him from even those jobs. He focuses instead on survival, learning English, and immigrating to Canada. He and his wife clean apartments in Tel Aviv, a labor intensive and ugly job, but it puts food on the table and gives them time to take English classes and prepare for Canada. They live in a small apartment with his sister’s wife and her husband and 12 year old son, along with his wife’s mother and father, recently arrived from Russia. It is crowded, but they are family and determined to stay together.

All day long Alex works on his English. He has classes several times a week at a local school, studies on his own, listens to English speaking lessons on cassette tapes, and studies twice a week with me. My apartment is among several he cleans. One morning, I heard him talking and I thought he was addressing me. I got up to investigate and found him washing dishes and chattering away in his almost musical sing-song English in synch with the tape in his walkman.

“Good morning, Mr. Smith. It is nice to meet you.”

“Good morning, Mr. Jones. I’m very glad to meet you.”

“Mr. Smith, let me intrah-duce you to Mr. Johnson. He is our say less manager.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Johnson.”

“And this is Mr. Anderson. He is our sailor epi-sentative.”

I started laughing and Alex whirred around embarrassed at being caught at his opera of words. I apologized and he proudly explained what he was doing and recited the introductions again at high speed, stumbling through the “sailor epi-sentative” again.

“Alex, it’s ‘sales representative’ not ‘sailor epi-sentative’.”

“That is what I said but I say it fast like good English speaker. Sailor epi-sentative.”

“But that doesn’t make sense. You can say it fast but you need to say each word separately. SALES REP-PRE-SEN-TATIVE.”

Learning the Art of Compromise

Learning the Art of Compromise By Dr. Alex

Every family has a funny story about their child. My parents also have a funny story about me. I do not remember it, but my parents remember it well and remind me often.

I was 4 years old. We lived in the South of Russia in a small town with my grandmother. She had a big apple orchard. The trees were bending down with apples. They looked appetizing, but they were very green, because it was too early in the season. My Grandma told me, “Don’t touch them! It is too early.” But I was only 4 years old.

The next day my Grandma found unusual apples on the trees. The apples were not just green, they were now green and white. “Maybe it is a rabbit gnawing,” She said, “But it is too high for a rabbit.” She looked at me very attentively, and asked, “Do you know what happened to the apples?”

“Yes,” I said.

“What happened to the apples?” She asked.

I said, “You told me not to touch them, but you did not tell me not to eat them.”

It was the first compromise in my whole life!

He absorbs words like a sponge, but every once in a while he stuns me. When we started working together last October, he only knew “See Jane. See Jane run. See Jane run after Dick.” He knew the basic alphabet and pronunciation and very simple words. This was good as I certainly didn’t want to get into the ABCs and why “C” has so many different versions of itself, and when they need to be used in which way, and why “I” comes before “E” but not always. I would rather work on verbs and sentence structure and developing descriptive terminology, which is what we did. During one of our early classes, Alex was trying to make a point, struggling with gestures and drawing pictures on scrap paper, when he popped out with “The quintessential!” I fell off my chair.

I don’t think I learned that word until after I turned thirty. Amazing. Yes, some words are the same in Russian as they are in English, but not many. Alex is incredibly intelligent and quick witted, and luckily for me, he studied Latin along with his medical training so there are many words in English he can connect back to Latin.

English, I’m coming to understand, is a garbage language. Piled together in one lump called English are bits and pieces as well as influences from all the European languages, Arabic, and even words lifted from Hebrew and Yiddish. The American version of the language also acts like a magnet, attracting words from all over the world. Don’t forget that many people excuse their choice of swear words with the preface, “Pardon my French.” Did the French invent the best cuss words or what? As foreigners landed on American soil, they brought their version of English and/or their own language and it all got incorporated into what we speak today.

I’m sure that within a few generations the mix of the Mexican, Asian and South American languages will find their way into English, too, and add to the mishmash. For me, tutoring English, I’m relearning much of what I vaguely recall from school and gaining a new understanding of how screwed up English is.

With all the different words coming from so many different languages, the rules of spelling and pronunciation come from those languages. So the rules aren’t hard and fast. The letter E has a lot of sounds and is often found without sound. “The” is pronounced “thugh” not “thee” and “though” is really “tho” and “rough” is really “ruff” – all thanks to the influence of the French, who tend to add way too many letters to their sounds and for whom we can blame for many of our strange spellings. A lot of the “shun” words like “association”, “action”, “composition”, and such come from the Spanish, influenced by Latin.

The word “assassin” comes from the Arabic family name, “Hassinite”, which was the first “family” to claim the honor of inventing terrorist acts. I’m certainly not the expert on the crimes of the English language, but tutoring it has certainly brought me a new form of respect and added a lot of jokes to my repertoire.

English Literature verses Medical Facts

Lately, Alex and I have been reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We’ve been discussing the meanings behind the different phrases we’ve read like “This is a private matter, and I beg of you to let it sleep.”; “I’m done with that person.”; “It froze the very blood of the two gentlemen.”; “…that you felt in your marrow kind of cold and thin” and “the hair stood upon my head like quills”. What wonderful phrases, and the literal picture of someone looking like a porcupine….it gave us a few laughs. Alex had a challenge picturing the image of the two gentlemen with frozen blood running quickly away from the scene. As a doctor, he knew there was no physical way that was possible.

I asked Alex and his wife to come up with a few Russian phrases and translate then into English. “Don’t pull a cat’s tail” means to talk non-stop. “To make from a fly an elephant” is similar to our making a mountain out of a mole hill.

“Bear service”, Anna explained, was like having a big bear help you do something, which means to them a useless action or thing. She tried to give me an example of waiting in line to get something at a store and then the person behind the counter is totally useless and can’t help you, they would call that getting “bear service.” I tried to connect that with “bull in a china shop”, but she said no, it really meant that it might be better to have a bear behind the counter than the stupid person standing there doing nothing.

For ignorance and stupidity, they say “I don’t have a queen in my head” and “You don’t have butter in your head.” Or maybe you do have butter instead of brains. I’m still trying to figure that one out, especially the part about the queen. But my personal favorite was the term for someone who is really happy and excited about something. The Russians say they have “full pants”. She didn’t know the history of where that term came from, but it definitely leaves the imagination wondering if it comes from having a full load in your diapers or the satisfaction of a full stomach.

At Alex’s next visit, I asked him about “full pants”. He explained that the source of this phrase dates back into history when many people across Russia were migratory. They used to have lots of pockets in their pants and coats for stuffing full of everything they needed as they moved from place to place, usually food and basic supplies, but also their “riches”. A man with “full pants” had a good load and was considered content with his means because he carried his “means” with him. Interesting. A couple days later, Anna arrived and laughed as she told me that her four year old daughter had suddenly cried out, “Full pants!” while laughing over something.

The generations keep picking up our speech, don’t they.

The Volcano By Dr. Alex

When I was a schoolboy my family lived in Kamchatka. There are three volcanoes near my town. These volcanoes are not as tall as you might have thought, but they are not as low as it seems. One of them is located 20 km from the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatka. The volcano’s name is Avacha. It is only 3,628 meters high.

In our school we have a tradition. Graduates used to climb to the top of the volcano before graduation. We climbed to the top for 8 hours. The ascent was very hard.

In a difficult moment, I asked myself,”What am I doing this for?” But when I stood on the top, it was splendid!!! I thought that this volcano was so big and I was so small! It was so strong and I was so weak but I was standing on the top!

Compared to the volcano my lifetime is nothing – gone in an instant. This sense was so strong that I still feel it every day of my life!

I shared with them my two personal favorites collected from my travels through the Southern United States over 20 years ago. “I’m as happy as a dead hog in sunshine” caught my attention right quick. The whole idea of a dead hog laying in the hot sun, well, I don’t believe there is any connection with happiness there, both on the side of the hog and the person observing him. Icky! And smelly! Maybe it is meant to be satirical, but it wasn’t said that way.

“Ice cream don’t grow hair,” also confused me. In my experience, I know a lot of bald people who eat ice cream and it hasn’t worked yet, so the statement is true, but what does ice cream have to do with hair? I have no idea how to explain that and a lot of other strange things Americans say, but I try.

I asked Alex to critic the book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so we could discuss the different categories of books like fiction and non-fiction, romance, science fiction, mystery, and so on. He emphatically explained to me that he didn’t like books like this. I told him I understood but why kind of books didn’t he like.

“Like this.”

“Yes, I understand, but this is a classic and I want to know what category of books is this one in?”

“It is classic awful.”

I laughed. “What?”

“Awful books. That is its category.”

I told him to look up what he thought “awful” was in his Russian to English Dictionary. We often do this to make sure what he said is what he meant to say.

The many synonyms in English are confusing. While translating a Christmas letter from my best friend, Susan, he came across the phrase telling that “Trent has become quite the Civil War buff.” I had to explain Civil War, which to him just means any old war fought within a country’s borders, and he wanted to know which war was it. I laughed at how arrogant Americans are to refer to “The Civil War” and think the rest of the world should know it is OUR civil war. Then we hit the word “buff.” Do you realize how many definitions there are for that word? I had to explain to him that “buff” means a color, muscular, a hobbyist, to polish, to practice, and of course, naked as in “he is in the buff.” Imagine his confusion!

Alex flipped through his ratty old Russian to English one-way dictionary for the definition of “awful”. His little book is so sad looking, the color is washed out of the binding to a kinda of pale toast and the pages are curled and torn, falling out in places. I’ve offered to get him a new one, but he tells me that he has good ones at home. He carries “his friend” with him everywhere. He usually only wants to go from the Russian to the English and not back, so it works for him. One of our first lessons was teaching him not to apologize every time he went to his “friend”, the dictionary. It took a while but I encouraged him to use it and to make mistakes. It is part of the learning process. If you are embarrassed or sensitive about making mistakes, you will hold back and it slows down the learning process. The more mistakes, the more you learn.

He finally dug up the right word and in a little boy face and voice he admitted that “awful” should be “horror”. But he still insisted that it was an awful book. In some ways he’s right. How did such an awful book ever become such a classic? I think it has to do with the same fascination humans have with car accidents.

I worked with Alex, my first English student, to learn as many descriptive words as possible. I think it is really important to understand how to ask for the name of something. When you don’t know the name, you should be able to describe it so someone else can name it. I have a short term memory problems and I learned this trick a long time ago to compensate when I can’t remember the word for something.

Alex grasped this quickly and our conversations started expanding very fast. From very basic sentences, within a few weeks he had enough descriptive terms to make his point even when he didn’t have the noun he needed. He is determined to speak English with the fluency and ease of Brent and I. Right away he learned all the little throw away things we say as our mind is racing along with the rest of our thoughts like “by the way” and “if you would be so kind” and “I was wondering”. He learned all the polite phrases like “how are you”, “thank you very much”, “would you be so kind”, and “would you please.”

graphic of a man lost at an intersectionA few weeks ago we were working on how to get help on the street when you are lost. I printed out a map of downtown Seattle and along with a couple of calendars friends sent me from home, and we pretended Alex was lost at Second and Pike and he wanted to get to the Public Market.

He started out with, “Excuse me, if you would be so kind, I am in need of assistance and I am lost, can you help me.” I stopped him there, explaining that by the time he got that all out, four hours would have passed and no one would stop to help him.

“Try this: Excuse me, can you please help me.” Short and to the point. So he practiced it over and over to get the patter down pat. “Excuse me, can you please help me. Excuse me, can you please help me. Excuse me, can you please help me.” Finally, he was ready. We got into our “lost on the streets of Seattle” positions and I cued him to start.

“Excuse me, can you please me?”

I fell on the floor.

When I recovered enough to talk, which took a few minutes as every time I would start to open my mouth all I could think of was how to explain the difference between “please help me” and “please me” and I would be back on the floor rolling around choking, I finally made it clear to him that this was not the kind of thing he wanted to say on the streets of anywhere, let alone in Seattle on the corner of what once was a major prostitution locale, though it has since been cleaned up.

No matter how busy I get here in Israel as I become more ingrained in the community with friends and teaching other topics besides English, I treasure the time I spend tutoring my two students. They test me and my knowledge and abilities all the time, and provide me with lots of laughs to talk over with Brent and friends over dinner.

Tel Aviv, Israel

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