Things that I think and do
Although I’ve spent a few weeks for the last four summers dealing with foreign children all day every day, I’ve never until now had to deal with someone who speaks absolutely zero English; something that I find quite surprising. How can I have got this far through life without meeting at least one person that does not understand anything I say to them?
When I’ve been abroad and this problem could potentially have cropped up there’s usually been some common language I can fall back on, or at least universal gestures. Some level of understanding has been reached fairly quickly, let’s just say that.
Not so with one kid this year. Several arrivals from a certain far-eastern country (let’s call it Japan) are now here and I can state, with no exaggeration at all, that they speak and understand NO English. None. Zilch. Zero.
(On a side note, does exaggeration apply to low amounts of something? Is it linguistically possible to exaggerate how non-existent something is? Or does exaggeration only work for large quantities of something? I always feel weird using it like this. But I digress.)
This wouldn’t usually be a problem, except that I had to check them in on arrival – a process which should take a bit less than five minutes, but which involves explanation of a PIN system for which they have to create a sequence and of the ID card system in place. As I don’t speak a word of Japanese, this took considerably longer than five minutes and required a lot of gesturing and repetition.
One of them also takes an abnormal amount of medicine every day, so I deal with him quite often. I should explain firstly that a lot of students come here with ludicrous amounts of medicine that their parents have told them they must take at the first sign of a slight cough. In most cases, this is drivel and no matter how convinced the kid is that his sugar-coated child’s paracetamol will stop him getting the plague, we’re not allowed to give them anything that we’re not familiar with.
When our hero first came in with his mobile pharmacy it contained a sheet which detailed in English what he should take and when. The problem was that I simply didn’t believe he had to take eighteen tablets a day for an illness that he didn’t really have.
A later email to his agent confirmed that this was indeed the case. We did (somewhat incredulously) try to check with the student first but after half an hour of trying to clarify his drug-taking we had learned precisely nothing. He’d be the world’s most reliable spy. Give him any top secret intel and he wouldn’t reveal it for anything, even under intense questioning.
I’m just amazed that he did not understand anything we were saying. This morning I had to impart the simple information that he had no more homeopathic medicine with him, as it had all been used. You’d have thought that the words, “finished”, “none”, “no more” or “end” would get through, accompanied by the universal horizontal slashing gesture for “over/finished” and shaking of the head.
But no. I was rewarded with a blank look, interrupted occasionally by him checking his watch – probably a special Q-branch miniature translator. He’d also be great in a game of Cheat, because whenever I asked him if he understood the straight-faced reply was always “yes”. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost have believed him.
It doesn’t really affect me much, his arrival in the office just heralds mild amusement or exasperation depending on the time of day and how long I’ve been working for. I’ve learnt to adjust timescales for him – whereas other students’ medicines could be doled out in under a minute I’ve learnt to allow at least ten, and while other kids can be in to collect pocket money and out again in two minutes I’ve bargained for around twenty-five minutes for this guy.
And I would be in exactly the same situation if I was plonked into the middle of Japan for two weeks and asked to justify my medicinal habits to a stranger speaking a weird language. I can bemoan his inability to understand my language as much as I like – the simple fact is that when he leaves, he’ll still know more English than I know Japanese. Probably at least twenty words more at this rate.