If My Life Were a Language, It Would Be One Without Auxiliary verbs

The word auxiliary comes from the Latin auxilium ‘to help.’ An auxiliary verb is just that: something that influences tense, mood, and voice of other verbs. It’s a helping verb. It exists in English in the form of do, be, have and a handful of others that don’t show up as frequently (see, do not show up as frequently). French also has two auxiliary verbs, être (to be) and avoir (to have), as does German and Spanish. Russian, Chinese, and Thai, however, have no auxiliary verbs. So why do some languages have them, and others don’t? What’s the difference?

What if I wanted to ask in Chinese ‘why do some languages have auxiliary verbs, and other’s don’t?’ My grammar would turn out to be ‘why some language have auxiliary verb’? (I’ll admit, I don’t know how to say the second clause without making it into a second sentence) Sounds ridiculous in English but 為什麼些種語言用助動詞? Why do some of our languages have plurals and others don’t? Why do we have relative pronouns? Why does language exist? And how do we wrap our minds around this besides the common Chinese answer of 沒有為什麼 (Literally ‘No have why’)

Today my small friends finished their second textbook, and asked me what the word ‘congratulations’ meant (thank you, chapter on weddings in my Chinese book). Our last lesson had to do with farms. This was easy as pie for these kids, and I went around the table asking them one at a time, “What do you see on the farm?”

“I see pig on the farm,” one said.

“Pigs, I corrected. How many pigs do you see?”

“I see three pigs,” the student said.

The next student struggled to find the plural of horse. “I see horse,” she said.

“Horses,” I corrected. “How many horses do you see?”

“I see two horses,” the student said.

The next student fell into a trap. “I see four sheeps,” she said.

I gave her a sad, understanding look.

“Four sheep,” I corrected. “One sheep, two sheep, three sheep, no sheep.”

“Why?” one of the students asked.

“Because English is weird,” I told them, using the Chinese word qí guài instead of English.

During my time in Thailand and my time in Taiwan I’ve noticed that people who speak these kinds of languages — languages without plurals, without articles, without conjugated verbs, without auxiliary verbs — substantially struggle with English. At the same time, when I’m learning Chinese I can basically guess at a word and understand it. As for writing the characters, it’s a lot simpler than people make it out to be. There are only so many radicals, and most characters are made up of other characters. Once you know how to write 500, you can learn how to write 500 more pretty easily. It doesn’t help you guess the meaning when you run into a character you don’t know, but it does make it a lot easier to remember the words. As for English? Phonics make sense, but only to a point.

When one of my students was three she told me she loved me. I said, “I love you, too.”

“I love you, three!” she said. While a native English speaker might understand this to be a joke, my student literally had thought that loving someone was quantifiable in integers. Eventually she learned how to say “I love you infinity” and, following that, “I love you infinity-two.”

A group of second graders has trouble with rhyming. They explain to each other in Chinese that words rhyme if they have the same spelling at the end, such as redbed, and fed. I am careful at this point to explain in Chinese that this is not always the case. I write down their, they’re, there, where, hair, mare, dare, care, lair, pear, pair. I read all of the words to the students and ask if they rhyme. The students struggle.

In Chinese there are only a limited number of sounds. 是 (be) 市 (city) 事 (matter) 式 (style) 時 (time) 十 (ten) 使 (messenger) 世 (world) 失 (arrow) 食 (food) 試 (try) 濕 (wet) 實 (truth) and 獅 (lion) are all phonetically spelled ‘shi.’ Even with tones and context, it can get confusing.

So is either better? Both work at their job: they allow us to communicate. Using letters or characters or pictures we are able to convey our history, our emotions, our needs, our thoughts. To those of us who have to study for the GRE and find out the meaning spendthrift is the exact opposite of one who is thrifty with their money wonder why we need so many ways to convey something, when other languages have simplistic and straightforward ways to communicate. In some instances there exists only one way to convey a thought. In English, that is almost never the case. It’s frequently untrue in English. It’s extremely rare in English for this to be the case. This virtually never happens in English.

Native English speakers may shrug. Who cares? We get they all mean the same thing.

But imagine if you had learned from a text book, “This rarely occurs in English.” Now tell me what clues you can get from the other sentences, if your vocabulary is not very expanded.

We’re different people in the languages we speak. My partner, bilingual in English and French, is easy going and sarcastic. When he speaks French he isn’t easily brought to laughter, and he more frequently uses honorifics. He’s quieter, more introspective. In English he’s boisterous and the life of the party. In English I am serious and straightforward. In Thai I’m cute and giggly. In Chinese I often speak in a higher tone of voice and go out of my way to be more respectful. I feel like a different person.

So what is it about language that changes us? What is it about the stringing together of letters or phonemes and vowel sounds that changes the way we think about the world? And why do some languages have auxiliary verbs, while others don’t?

Either way, if I had to be a language, I would be Chinese, I think. Maybe Japanese. Something systematic and straightforward, with the ability to shift and change. And lyrical. Don’t forget lyrical.


The Case of the Missing Beer

The other day I bought two beers from 7-11 for $45 taiwanese dollars each, about $1.50USD. Is this expensive for crappy beer? Probably, I never bought beer in the United states.

The total came out to $90 NTD, and I handed the young new 7-11 worker, who wore a surgical mask to protect him from colds and pollution, the pink bill that was folded in one corner. With my gym bag, my drawstring pouch, and my iPhone attached to my hands, I didn’t have much time to smooth out the bill. So I just handed it to him. He handed me back my $10 coin and I spent the next forty five seconds trying to get my headphones untangled from my gym bag so I could stuff everything into one place.

It was a Tuesday night. I had work the next morning. I don’t drink beer often, but why not? Sometimes you just have to relax and knit and work on your writing. I don’t subscribe to Hemingway’s write drunk, edit sober, but I had some intense editing to do. And I hate editing. If I could only write first drafts from now until the end of time, and submit them and have them be perfect, my life would suddenly be devoid of any problems.

Although I couldn’t see half his face because of the surgical mask, I couldn’t help but feel judged by the young 7-11 man selling the foreigner two large cans of beer at 8pm on a Tuesday night.

I went to a friend’s house with my laptop. I drank the beer.

And then I woke up at home with zero memory of the night before. I had written about 700 words. About ten minutes of writing.

I called my friend. “How much did I drink?”

“Only the one beer,” he said. “You took the second home.”

It was Wednesday. My longest day at work. I played games, sang songs, colored. I had no hangover. I drank 1.5 gallons of water and had three cups of tea from a brand new Taipei cup I bought at starbucks. I thought, what happened to the other beer?

“Are you sure I didn’t drink it?” I asked my friend.

“When we left my house you bought spaghetti at 7-11 and then I put you to sleep,” he said. “No way you drank the beer.”

I remembered the empty container of spaghetti. There was a vague memory of pouring half a can of parmesan cheese over it.

For some reason the missing beer bothered me. Where had it gone? I spent good money on that beer. I came home from work. I cleaned my room. I looked in the fridge. I checked the recycling and my trash. I called my friend and asked him to look in his house. I checked my drawstring bag and my gym bag. I got out my book to read and promptly fell asleep at 7pm with my lights still on.

On Thursday I woke up, went to work, and bought two beers from 7-11. I drank them both. Through some laws of medicine, physics, and probably dinner, I was tipsy but not drunk, and certainly not to the point where I couldn’t remember the night before.

I came home with the world spinning and got into bed. I looked under my bed. I checked my sheets again. I went through my underwear drawer. I talked to my roommates.

That second beer had vanished. Poofed. As though a wraith had come and stolen it in the middle of the night to place on someone’s forehead.

This issue bothers me far more than it should. Where is my beer? Where did it go? Did I leave it outside? My friend swears he was with me from ingestion of first beer to sleep that night. He says I took it home. It wasn’t in his fridge, or my fridge, or in my room, or in the recycling or garbage. It had simply vanished.

Losing periods of your life is weird, especially when it’s due to something so little like a single can of beer. It’s a scary, weird, paranormal experience, like someone has gone through and wiped clean a whiteboard with all these memories on it.

Now there’s chicken in my fridge. I opened the fridge this morning to make breakfast and sitting on the eggs was a package of raw chicken. I blinked at it, wondering, is that my chicken? I’m the only one in my house who cooks. It would make logical sense for it to be my chicken. I vaguely remember buying chicken some days ago, perhaps the day I bought the beer. At the same time, I’m not quite sure. It’s a phantom memory, a memory placed after the fact. Logically it would make sense for the raw chicken to be mine, so I remember buying raw chicken.

I spent five minutes staring at the chicken. What do I do with it?

Did I trade in my beer for chicken?


Why I Read

  1. I ran out of purple yarn
  2. The children are asleep
  3. Blue light keeps me awake
  4. Going to bed before 11 is ‘unhip’
  5. I’m trying to avoid watching Frozen in Chinese again
  6. I need something I can “rewind” easily
  7. There’s nothing on Netflix
  8. There’s nothing in the fridge
  9. There’s nothing new on facebook
  10. It’s raining.
  11. It’s sunny.
  12. It’s cold/hot/various degrees of too humid/cool/rainy/etc.
  13. If I move my cat will start meowing again
  14. I can’t think.
  15. I can’t stop thinking.
  16. The face mask is supposed to stay on for thirty minutes.
  17. My partner is talking about his last visit to the doctor
  18. I want to forget about the weird spiny insect on my windowsill
  19. Etc.

2017: Mostly same same, but a little bit different.

In the dearth (I’m sure) of blog posts about the new year, I want to share with you a little story involving college level reading material, a thirteen-year-old, boarding schools, and character limits.

At the beginning of December I got hired for my second tutoring job in Taipei (the first being a pair of twins I’ve been with for over a year).

This time the job is kind of surreal. I’m helping a girl and her family apply to boarding school – reading through essays, helping the girl study for her prep tests, helping her build writing skills, etc. As such I’ve gotten to look over some of the questions that boarding schools ask of thirteen-year-olds to write.

Of important note in this process is that thirteen-year-olds (who are applying for 9th grade admission next year) hold a stark difference to the college and grad school applicants that have also been struggling with applications that were likely just due this past month (mine were).

Boarding school applications require parent statements. And this implies that the parent, you know, will read all the student’s essays. So in addition to the horror of splitting yourself open for the world (admissions office) to see your bared soul, you’ve also got to show this to your parents.

And the questions aren’t easy. “Please describe a challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it” in 500 characters or less. “Describe a time you had a conviction that you no longer had. What changed?” “What is a pressing issue facing your generation today?”

When I was a wee toddler being trained on how to get into college (I’m only exaggerating a little here) by my father, he told me and my sister something that amazingly has stuck with me through the years. It’s something everyone tells you that boils down to the same thing: everyone applying everywhere has the same test scores etc etc etc what makes you different?

Well, according to my Dad, beekeeping.

See, when my Dad applied for grad school (and all of this is his account, so all of it is probably pretty not true) he put in his application essay that he was a beekeeper. The admissions officers remembered him because one of them was an apiarist and this was supposedly the reason my Dad got in. Now this is neither here nor there, but even if it’s not true it holds an important lesson: things that are unique about you stick out. Things that are the same about you don’t.

Not that it’s really bad to stick out or blend in. We all need to be able to do both sometimes. But for the last month I’ve been counseling a girl in what her so-called “beekeeping” is. I’ve been working with her to fine-tune her essays. I’ve been helping her study vocab. I’ve been making her read stories that I didn’t read until after graduating college (whoops) that she’s been a good sport about trying to get through. I’ve reread stories from early high school with her. We’re working on it, and she’s working hard, and she’s making a lot of progress.

It’s a new year, and I went to see her again today. Not much has changed. I took the same route. I dressed the same way. The weather was much the same. People act like there’s a magic around New Year, but there’s not, really. The same way that 2016 is behind us, so is everything. So is pre-8pm January 1st for me. Every second is behind us. And yet here I am still, writing on my blog.

Last year I had 14 goals for 2016, and I completed 10. While (only slightly) inebriated, I came up with a list for 2017 that is much the same. Read 12 books. Dance when I feel like it. Try to self improve.

And Jesus. When I think the world is against me, think about if I had had to share my grad school essays with my mother, and if grad school had required a parent statement.