Friday, July 27, 2012

English Lessons

So there I was on the train. I was fortunate enough to get a seat, and settled in to play some "Zen Dice" (aka, Yahtzee) all the way to my stop. I broke out of my reverie when I saw a lady across the way lean toward her seatmate, a wee fashionable girl wearing black high waisted shorts (with suspenders), an ivory lace top, black patent leather oxfords and bright red lipstick, and start talking to her. I could tell they were strangers. Fashion girl gave the expectant look of someone waiting for an easy question. "How many stops until Kenmore," say, or "is this the outbound train?" But the conversation was continuing. Fashion girl was laughing uncomfortably, sliding her eyes toward the side. Suddenly, the conversation was in my court. The lady across from me, the one who started it all, was reading a Chinese newspaper, and leaned over and asked the guy next to me, "How do you say..." and she pantomimed turning a sheet of her newspaper.
He said, "Changing the page?"
"So you say, 'Can you hold this awhile?'" She said, lifting her coffee cup, "I need to change the page."
He said, "Well, I'd say, 'Can you hold this a second?"
She nodded and smiled. Read her newspaper. A couple of stops later, "So you say, 'a second.'" Like, first, then second?"
He said, "No, like, just a short amount of time."
"So while, this is wrong?" And she looked confused. After all, "awhile" is an indeterminate measure of time.
"Yeah, awhile would be, like, this whole train ride. A second is better, Or, like, a minute."
"So, 'Can you hold this a second so I can change the page of my newspaper?'"
Personally, I would have instructed her to say "turn" the page, but hey. That's just me.
Which made me think of all of the slang associated with English. This woman on the train had excellent command of English, but something we take for granted-- the difference between second, minute and awhile-- were mysterious to her. Aside from that, I wondered about the day she actually asked a stranger to hold her coffee. I wondered how many people would ignore her, give a weird look, tell her something rude. I was just so glad that in that one moment, she had a sweet fashionable girl, a kind hippie boy, and a casual observer around her instead of someone who would be cruel.

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