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From The Tower Of Babel

A language class in Norway made it evident that everyone conforms to the stereotype of their nationality.

From The Tower Of Babel
illustration by Saurabh Singh It's strange going back to school after almost a quarter of a century. The students who have enrolled for a short summer course in Norwegian are all middle-aged. They are also truly international, of different shapes, colours and accents. Conversation turns bizarre.

"Where are you from?" I ask the tall woman sitting next to me.

"I am from Mehiko," she says in her sing-song voice.

"Where?" I ask, surprised to discover a neighbour from an unknown country.

"Mehiko," she repeats.

"Where's that?" I ask, miffed that I've never heard of such a country.

"In Latin America," she replies, her sweetness turning to pity at my ignorance.

I know Latin America well enough to know there's no country called Mehiko there. Wait a minute, she must mean Mexico. But obviously she couldn't pronounce it properly because the poor woman probably lisps.

"Oh, you are from Mexico," I say, nodding in understanding, both of her country and her speech defect.

"No it's Mehiko," she says. "You foreigners get it wrong."

I didn't know that. Then it struck me, of course the letter "x" is pronounced as a sort of "h" in Don Quixote.

"I never knew it was pronounced Mehiko," I tell her.

"It isn't. It's pronounced Mehiko," she says enunciating the word carefully, but my untrained ear can't detect the difference till she patiently repeats it several times. The closest spelling would be Mehkiko.

Most languages have trick consonants and vowels that foreigners find impossible to pronounce. Norwegian is full of them. The word "Bonner" can mean farmers, beans or prayer, depending on the tone you use. All of us give up trying to identify the difference. But not the German student, Johanna. She makes our teacher say them six times. Then she mimics him carefully, getting it right on the third attempt. Teutonic precision.

In the very first class, it becomes evident that each and every one conforms to the stereotypical image of their nationality. The scene is straight out of Mind Your Language. Never have I felt reality imitating television as much.

It starts with the surly Black American girl in mtv clothes and outsized dark glasses. After ticking our names against his list, our teacher says with a flourish: "So, now we can get started on our course."

"No, you cain't," the nasal American drawl twangs through the room like a gunshot.

Everyone turns in astonishment. Lars, our polite, decent teacher is taken aback. He raises his eyebrows in shock. The unsaid question hangs heavy in the room—why not?

"Because you ain't call my name."

Maria's name wasn't called because it wasn't on the list. "Are you sure you are sitting in the right class?" asks Lars.

"Yuh man, I in class 4. You guys got many class 4s in dis school?" she asks rudely, the epitome of the tough Black girl from a rough neighbourhood.

If Maria is a mean talker, Cornelia is the typical earnest, informal face of Tony Blair's Britain. After she introduces herself, she chirps "But call me Conny, please".

"OK Corny," says Lars in his Norwegian accent and I start giggling.

But Conny's friendliness freezes when Patrick says he is from Wales.

"See, how he says he is from Wales, not the UK," she says tartly.

But Patrick is unflappable. He explains to the class that Wales is another country with its own language, flag, territory and passport.

The two Kurd brothers look at him enviously, the two Martinas from Slovakia nod knowingly.

To lower the political temperature, Lars begins teaching. Our first lesson is reading the time. That's easy. But we soon discover Norwegians have the most complicated way of telling the time.

Plump, sexy Katerina from Greece loses her patience. Says she: "I am a qualified nurse. I am 38 years old. I have seen the world. But now I feel stupid because I can't tell the time. You need a damn degree in mathematics first".

We all nod in agreement. It's unnecessarily convoluted. For instance, 7.25 would be said as "five minutes to half seven", 8.17 would be said as 13 minutes to half nine.

"Why can't you just read it as it is and say 8.17 or simply say about 8.20?" asks Anastasia the Russian, crossly.

"Because we imported the clock before we could count beyond 15" retorts Lars with typical Norwegian humour. But Katerina is in no mood for jokes. "I really have to know how to tell time. For two months, I have been trying to figure this out and it's driving me crazy. You know, if I don't give medicines at the correct time as the doctor orders, my patients will die." "Which hospital do you work in?" I ask innocently. But my intent is hardly innocent. I am a crafty Indian after all. I want to make a mental note of the name of the hospital I should avoid.

Frenchwoman Dominique is least interested in hospitals or telling the time. She is bored by Katerina's insistence and announces: "I don't wear a watch, so nobody asks me the time. If I want to find out what the time is, I ask the man sitting next to me and if he can't speak French, I just lean over and look at his watch." Of course this stereotypical French femme fatale would only sit next to a man.

I also notice the Pakistani Saleem Akhtar sits silently in one corner of the class, while I sit in the centre, lecturing almost as much as Lars. I behave like an Indian bureaucrat in a United Nations forum. I talk to everybody, but I haven't exchanged greetings or even a single word with Saleem. But one of these days, I will surprise everybody and invite him to walk the high road with me to the cafeteria.

(The author can be contacted at anitapratap@yahoo.com)
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