Remember when back in April, I was all gung-ho to begin English conversation tutoring with a Chinese physicist who was at Princeton University’s Plasma Lab for a year as a Visiting Scholar?  I even got two posts out of the introductory materials I was given to get started with.  (“Hints on English Pronunciation for Foreigners” on April 18, and “Bonus for Foreigners: Why English Is So Hard” on April 19.)  I should have known better than to count chickens, or even count on one chicken, before the hatching.

Li-li and I met, by email prearrangement, on a Saturday about five weeks ago at the Princeton Student Center.  Li-li is not his real name. Also there are many Chinese Visiting Scholars at the Princeton Plasma Lab (“PPL”). So I’m not compromising him with anything I write here.  I’m also certain he will never read this post.  (He can read English, with some difficulty, but prefers not to, if it can be avoided.  He can also write it, with some errors and much consulting of dictionaries and grammar books in two languages. But I tell you this after five hours of attempted conversation with Li-li. I knew nothing about him when we began.)

Fred, the director of the volunteer tutoring program, had suggested we meet at the Student Center because Li-li has no car.  (Fred is not a real name either, although the person to whom I refer as Fred was entirely supportive and helpful throughout my Li-li experience and probably wouldn’t mind if I accurately identified him. But still.  I used to be a lawyer. I’m careful.)  Meeting at the Student Center was all very well for Li-li, because the university bus from PPL to the main campus runs every half-hour and stops just outside the Student Center.  But for me to reach it, I first have to park in a town garage a block and a half from campus (not free) and then walk up and down campus hills for what feels like about ten minutes although may be somewhat less. (I’m not a mountain goat anymore.)  Once, it rained. Nonetheless. I had no idea how old a Visiting Scholar might be, and perhaps an aging Chinese scholar might have more aerobic or orthopedic difficulty with Princeton’s up-and-down paths than I.

Li-li was able to identify me because there was no one else who looked more than twenty-five anywhere around the Student Center. He himself was slight and I guessed about twenty-two, although he turned out to be actually twenty-eight.  We met once a week for about an hour and a half, for five weeks. I gradually moved the meeting place closer to where I park by explaining (slowly) with the help of a campus map that he was young and I was old and therefore it was only fair that he meet me at least halfway or somewhat more than that.  (Don’t the Chinese have great cultural respect for the old?)

Our last two meetings took place at Panera, across Nassau Street from the university, and therefore actually in town.  With some hesitation, after I had (slowly) read the offerings on the board aloud to him, he chose a lemonade which he did not drink but carried away with him past several garbage bins, presumably to take home on the bus. The next time, after I had again done a (slow) recitation of the board, he chose a mango smoothie.  He knew the word “mango.”  I asked (slowly) if he knew what “yogurt” was (because that was the base liquid for the smoothie) and he said yes.  He even eagerly tasted it. But he definitely didn’t like it,  Was it too sour? He didn’t know what I meant by “sour.”  Too “sweet”?  He wasn’t sure what that word meant either.  Too” thick”? He looked at me in puzzlement.  But he carried the barely tasted and apparently disfavored smoothie away with him too.  Was it that men didn’t eat or drink with women where he came from?  Did he feel it was impolite to partake of anything during a kind of “lesson?”  But by the afternoon of the mango smoothie, I had stopped wondering.  I wanted out.

The thing is, you couldn’t converse with Li-li because he couldn’t really speak.  He had a minimal recognition vocabulary and an even smaller one available for speech.  Moreover, his pronunciation made what he did try to say incomprehensible. I was not supposed to be tutoring him in acquisition of the English language. We were only supposed to be conversing together, during the course of which I expected to have to correct pronunciation or grammar.  And I do understand that English has several consonants difficult for the Chinese tongue to pronounce.   But Li-li mangled or swallowed vowels and diphthongs as well as consonants, and also inserted vowels of his own making between syllables of words and between sentences — which made his speech musically interesting to listen to but virtually impossible to understand. Example:  I asked him where he was living in Princeton.  “Near Macclefield,” he said.  I had never heard of Macclefield.  Eventually, he printed it out for me on a napkin.  He was trying to pronounce the name of a nearby shopping center:  “Market Fair.”

He had arrived in September and would go home the following September. He had entered the free tutoring program at the end of April — after seven months in Princeton.  “Why didn’t you sign up before?” I asked. He was ashamed of his English, he said.  “So why now?”  His supervisors at PPL had sent him; they couldn’t understand what he was saying about the work he was doing.  It turned out, after I asked, that he couldn’t really understand them, either. “So have you learned anything during your time here?”  Not very much, he admitted.  When I asked how that would affect his progress towards his doctorate  — which he expected to earn in China in May or June 2016 — he said it wouldn’t.  His year in Princeton didn’t count; it was just a way of getting a pre-paid year off in another culture.

I don’t think he initially came with such fraudulent intentions. He probably had actually thought he knew enough English to survive a year in an English-speaking university, and probably China did too, because they bankrolled the whole thing.  A Visiting Scholar is not enrolled at any level at Princeton and is not evaluated. He’s not a Princeton graduate student or a post-doc. He is simply an advanced student, working on a foreign doctorate, who is allowed to be at Princeton and to work for a year in his field under supervision, on recommendations from faculty in his own country. Li-li must have been an outstanding Physics doctoral candidate in China to have qualified as someone for whom his government was willing to pay transportation, Princeton tuition, and $1600 a month living expenses. (Princeton provided a room in a student house for $800 a month. Naturally, the other occupants of the house were Chinese.) But you cannot learn if you don’t understand the language.

I tried.  He had an iPad, which he could switch from Chinese to English. When we first met, he said he wanted to learn what he could because he hoped to return, after obtaining his doctorate, as a post doc, and post docs have to teach as well as do research. So I went beyond the parameters of the volunteer “job” description.  I invested hours on the Internet locating and printing out pages of consonant exercises for “r” and “l” and “s” and voiceless “th” and voiced “th” for him to practice between our meetings.  I found a lovely English lady on YouTube who spent fifteen minutes of Internet time on “lalalala” and “l” words.  I told him about wordreference.com. We located a thesaurus on his tablet. (These last two measures were intended to help enlarge his vocabulary.) When he came back the following week, he hadn’t practiced a thing and had even lost the websites I’d found for him.  I suggested viewing reruns of TV programs, listening to radio, speaking out in stores instead of pointing.  But he went on hanging out with Chinese grad students, Chinese post-docs, and other Chinese Visiting Scholars — and never spoke or listened to English at all, except with me.

He went to New York on weekends — with other Chinese.  He accompanied a Chinese friend on a scam of a bus tour run in Chinese for Chinese that used up seven hours on the road getting them to Niagara Falls (apparently a big deal for inland Chinese), where they had a morning on a boat for photo ops. Then more bus-riding to Boston, where they drove quickly past MIT and Harvard before getting on another boat for a half-hour tour of Boston Harbor and the waterfront.  Then back on the bus for seven hours more of looking at interstate highways. On his phone, he showed me small photographs of the Falls taken from a distance, of which he was very proud.

He was currently spending quite a bit of time studying for the knowledge test to get a New Jersey driver’s license. Then he would be able to learn to drive in the car of a Chinese friend and also pass the driving test before going home.  “What do you need a New Jersey driver’s license for in China?” I asked. He very haltingly tried to explain that if he had a New Jersey license to drive he could just exchange it for a Chinese one for a small fee.  But to learn to drive in China was 6000 yen, or about $1000.  And then it cost even more to actually get the license after you passed the Chinese test.

“But Li-li,” I said.  “What good is a Chinese driving license if you don’t have a car?  You’re still a student.”  It wasn’t going to be a problem, he assured me.  After he got his doctorate, he would get a job and in a few months of savings have enough for a car.  “New?  Or used?” I asked. “Oh new,” he assured me.  Everyone he knew bought new.  Poor Li-li.  He didn’t know I remembered everything he’d ever said, or tried to say.

I put early loose talk about heart-felt hopes for a post-doc in America together with later revelations of his clear intention to buy a new car in China — which he would be licensed to drive — as soon after he got a job as he could.  To this I added (1) his disinclination to follow through on any suggestion or any result of internet research I had offered; (2) the cost of parking in the garage every week; (3) the value of my volunteer preparation time and time with him in a mutual agony of incomprehension; (4) and the fact that Princeton in the afternoon was getting very hot and would get hotter as we moved into summer — and suddenly decided I had had enough.

I sort of liked Li-li, despite really not knowing him at all.  But whatever his original intention had been when he applied for a year in America, he had soon seen that not much learning was going to happen, given the state of his English, and (it seemed to me) had begun to use his time at PPL as a sort of cover for just hanging out with his countrymen in a foreign culture, thereby occupying space and consuming teaching time that Princeton could have offered to another — and ripping off the Chinese government as well.

I emailed an SOS to Fred.  He knew exactly what to do.  Here’s the responsive email he sent me:

Hi Nina:
Sometimes it happens and it’s not your fault. I suggest you tell him that unexpected new plans will require you to be away for extended periods of time for the foreseeable future and you can no longer continue tutoring — and perhaps I can find another tutor for him. After you do that, let me
know. If he contacts me again I shall unfortunately not have another tutor available who can tutor during the summer months. Probably this is best: no hard feelings.

Thank you for your gallant efforts!  It wasn’t a failure on your part.  Frankly I don’t care to assist someone trying to rip off the systems on our  dime. Hopefully I can find a much better match for you come September. Have  a great summer.

Best regards,

Disappointed to learn I immediately followed Fred’s suggestion?  (Chicanery at an illustrious American university?) I’m disappointed in me, too.  But Li-li will survive the loss, and hopefully also pass his driving test, so that he goes home with something he didn’t have when he came. I mean, you have to draw the line somewhere.  Sauve qui peut.  (Save yourself if you can.) Or, less selfishly put, you can’t win ’em all.

Maybe, as Fred suggests, I’ll have better luck next time.



You may have noticed.  I’ve been slowing down. Skipping days, even on my self-imposed every-other-day schedule.  Or else quoting a lot, so that I need to write less of the piece I post.  And now that spring has sprung, any thoughts I may be having about TGOB are definitely guilty ones. Poor blog. It’s fighting for my time and interest with so many competitors:

1.   What I really want to do right now is try on all my summer clothes from last year, decide most of them are out of date or no longer fit properly — and go shopping for new ones! For several weeks, since the sun first showed itself, I’ve been wasting at least an hour a day poring over the spring/summer collections on view in the emails Eileen Fisher (upscale clothing line) has been sending me almost daily — not to mention paying considerable attention to the weekly invasions of my email box by Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter about, among other things, the carefully “curated” items she is wearing this spring. Of course, almost all of this viewing matter is priced in the stratosphere but gives clever old ladies (like me) plenty of ideas as to what to look for elsewhere.

2.  I want (and now need) to install the AT&T microcell I purchased three weeks ago for over $200 to enhance cell phone (mobile) reception at our house. (Princeton has not permitted AT&T to put up a sufficient number of towers within its domain, so that indoors we get no more than two bars out of five on any cell phone, and a concomitant inability to hear anyone properly, if at all, even in the more receptive parts of the house.)

Moreover, if my installation achieves its goal, one of us can save fifty or sixty dollars a month by also transferring his (or her) landline from Verizon (our phone company) to AT&T, which will provide landline service through the microcell for twenty dollars a month. (The AT&T acronym stands for American Telephone and Telegraph, an out-of-date moniker, but long ago incorporated and now too well known in the US to change.) Strong as is my desire to keep at least one of our two monthly $70 to $80 payments to Verizon in the bank and pay AT&T only $20 a month for that landline, this reputedly easy installation has been awaiting my undivided attention since purchase.  Anything involving technology, registering long strings of numbers, and crawling under desks to plug colored wires into the correct apertures produces so much nervous apprehension  that I’m always telling myself I’ll do it tomorrow. (And no, Bill can’t do it because he says he doesn’t understand any of that.  He got through medical school and a five-year residency at Harvard, so go figure. But based on extensive prior experience with teaching him how to use his iPad, from which he is now inseparable, I believe him.)

3.  It is the first of the month and my desk (from which blog posts also issue, when they do) is covered with bills to pay, both electronically (mine) and with checks, envelopes and stamps (his).  This is something I need to attend to, sooner rather than later, but can also put it into the “I want to” category because if I don’t, the fact that my desk is a mess of financial obligations will keep me from doing anything else on said desk.

4. We have had a really bad stay-at-home-because-of-various-quite-serious-ailments-I-didn’t-blog-about-winter and I have been going stir-crazy. (This was the “dealing with the rest of it” in the blog’s subtitle.) Now that the ailments (which were not mine, at least not the major ones) have subsided and/or gone away for the present, I have expressed a desire to go somewhere for a while next winter and Bill has eagerly responded with a desire for the south of France!  Aix-en-Provence, to be specific. (Near the world’s largest plasma physics lab: Be still, my beating heart.  But also near Marseilles and bouillabaisse, and Avignon, past summer home of popes, and the general Frenchness that is everywhere in France — food, language, ambiance!)

Unfortunately, for travel to Aix (if we can even afford it) we will first need to train. Neither of us is the walker I used to be (and he never was), so we both now have prescriptions for physical therapy — mine for a bad knee, his for balance and general weakness through disuse — and are committed for the next twelve weeks or so to going here and there in Princeton to various physical therapists three times a week…and recovering afterwards.

5.  Should France remain the preferred destination (if otherwise feasible), I will need to do a major brush-up on my French, which at its best sixty years ago was a bookish sort of French (un francais scolaire). What especially needs work is my ability to understand the French when they speak without making special kind allowances for me. (“Tu comprends, Nina? Tu comprends?)  Without subtitles, for example, I am lost in French movies, except sometimes for the love scenes.  And I don’t expect to be involved in any love scenes with a Frenchman this time round. More probably, when I speak or ask questions (which I can manage, albeit like a foreigner), I will need to comprehend the answers.  (“Plus lentement, madame, s’il vous plait.”)  

6.  Also, my passport needs renewal.  It expired at the end of 2009.

7.  Now that I am facilitating a small meditation group that arrives in my driveway every Tuesday at 3, I feel obligated to set a good example: twenty minutes every day even when the group isn’t there.  Well, nearly every day.

8.  There is also my international student. (Every Wednesday afternoon at 3, for an hour — but on campus because he has no car, which means it’s at least an hour and a half for me. (Parking downtown is a bitch.)  He is a young, very sweet Chinese Visiting Scholar with whom I volunteered to converse (and correct his conversation) until he goes home in September.  Unfortunately, we cannot converse, because I cannot understand him.  (Nor can anyone else, which is why his teachers sent him for conversation tutoring.) So every Tuesday after meditation, I am doing conversation homework: seeking out things we can try to talk about (his work in advanced physics is impossible) and online aids to pronunciation — this week “r”, “l,” “th” and “s.”


There’s lots more, but you probably get the idea.  Since I’ve never been able to multi-task or compartmentalize — you will perhaps now kindly forgive some blogging sloth until I find time to think of something interesting to post.  You can certainly speed things up by providing ideas. All suggestions welcome!  Don’t be shy. What would you like me to write about next?



[I take no credit for what follows.  It’s part of a package of materials I was given last week after I volunteered to do one-on-one tutoring in English conversation for the Davis International Center at Princeton University. My international student for the next five months will be a visiting scholar from China, who has come to work at the Princeton Plasma Physics laboratory.

International students at the University must read and write English at an acceptable level or take a remedial course.  Being able to speak so that others can understand is something else.  And then there are the idioms!  I’m meeting my student for the first time later this morning, and so won’t know what his conversational problems may be until then.  In the meanwhile, however, here’s something for you to enjoy.  We anglophones are so lucky!]


I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through.

Well done! And you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead —

For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)

A moth is not a moth in mother

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose and lose —

Just look them up — and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart —

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!

I’d mastered it when I was five.

T.S.W. (Only the initials of writer are known)



People who read each other’s blogs sometimes make the mistake of thinking they know each other pretty well.  But blogs are deceiving.  What a blogger omits gets left out of the picture. Here, for instance, are a few oddments you may not have thought of in connection with the author of TGOB.

1.  Geoffrey Chaucer was master of the English language circa 1400. (If you’re wondering what this has to do with me, read on.)

2.  English 715 years ago (aka “Middle” English) wasn’t exactly a foreign language, but some — including me — might call it close to one.

3.  “Middle” English pronunciation was also something else.  It was spoken just before what linguists call “the great vowel shift”  — an oddity occurring with all English speakers in the early 15th century (don’t ask me why) that moved our vowels a notch further forward in our mouths from the point where Europeans sound out the same vowels.  Example:  the color that you get by mixing blue and yellow used to be pronounced “grain” (and spelled “grene”); after the shift, it began being pronounced “green” and still is, except perhaps in Ireland. (In fact, Middle English does have a faint Irish lilt.)

4. Why am I telling you this?

  • First, to take a break from sex, love and death, which I seem to have been writing about quite a bit lately.
  • And second, because starting tomorrow I’m taking a six-week course in Chaucer designed for retired Princetonians.  (Or non-retired ones who have their days free to do as they please.) Just Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  And just the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.  It’s being given by a renowned Professor Emeritus from Princeton University named John Fleming who has no idea I’m blogging about him and his short course.

So many people have signed up for Professor Fleming’s course that it’s being held in the former courtroom of Princeton Boro. (That is, it was a courtroom before the Boro merged with Princeton Township to become just plain Princeton. But you don’t need to know all that local political history to understand this Chaucer thing must be a very popular subject here in Princeton to fill a courtroom, however small by courtroom standards.)

5.  The subject seems to have been so popular there had to be a lottery for seats, and I won one of them!

6.  In 1954 I took a course in Chaucer and everything he wrote, including The Canterbury Tales. I was in graduate school  at USC. (Southern California, not South Carolina.)  I still have the textbook and my notes for the exam but can’t read the notes or any of my marginal commentary anymore.  So I bought the currently recommended text and will bring both to class, like the goody-goody I used to be.

7.  My having had a course in Chaucer sixty-one years ago does give me a leg up on the pronunciation, believe it or not.  I checked myself against an online spoken version of the first twenty-six lines of the Prologue, and I wasn’t bad at it.  I missed the beat fairly often but got most of those retrograde vowels right.  Here it is, if you’d like to try yourself:  http://www.nativlang.com/middle-english/middle-english-canterbury-tales.php

8.  Or, if you’d rather not bother with all those vowels, this is what the beginning looks like:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote |
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, |
And bathed every veyne in swich licour |
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; |
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth |
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth |
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne |
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, |
And smale foweles maken melodye, |
That slepen al the nyght with open ye |
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); | (
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, |
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, |
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes; |
And specially from every shires ende |
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, |
The hooly blisful martir for to seke, |
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. |
Bifil that in that seson on a day, |
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay |
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage |
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage, |
At nyght was come into that hostelrye |
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, |
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle |
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle, |
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde,
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste.
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse,
To take oure wey ther as I yow devyse.

9.  What saddens me is that I can’t remember the name or face of the Chaucer professor back in 1954.  I liked him quite a bit, perhaps because he admired a proto-feminist paper I wrote about Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde, centered on her declaration that she was her own woman. And now he’s gone, gone with the wind — blown clear out of my mind, both the look of him and any way of identifying him.  I didn’t even write his name in the textbook, perhaps because I thought I might sell it again afterwards, although how I could have sold it with all those handwritten illegible notes in it I can’t imagine. I think his last name began with a W, but I’m not sure.

10.  And if all this messing about in the faraway past sounds too odd for you, think of it this way:  Maybe after our seemingly endless freezing winter of Northeastern discontent, I just can’t wait for those soote (sweet) shoures (showers) of Aprille and those smale foweles (birds) to maken melodye.  Reading about it in Chaucer, even in Middle English, speeds it up.  By the time the course is over, the shoures and foweles will really be here.



1.  No matter how old you are, some things you don’t forget.

Last Sunday, Bill and I went to a neighborhood meeting for people interested in joining Community Without Walls. We all had to affix to our shoulders a paper tag on which we had printed our names. At the end of the meeting, we got into conversation with a man who hadn’t taken off his tag yet. The name on it ended with a “cz.”

“Polish?” Bill asked.

Yes, he was from Poland, said the man. He was fit and spry, but his face didn’t look as if he were very much younger than we are.

“Forgive me for being nosy,” I said. “But were you in Poland during World War II?”

He nodded again.

“You must have been a baby,” I went on.

“Not such baby,” said the man. “I still remember bombs. So many bombs.”

“Bombs?” Bill asked. “Did Germany bomb Poland? I thought it was very quick. Hitler marched in and Poland surrendered.”

“He must mean Russia,” I said to Bill.

The man ignored this. “Germany not bomb?” he said. “They were bombing all the time. Lost 25% of Luftwaffe over Poland. Of course Poland lost whole air force, too. Bombs, bombs everywhere. Even now,” and here he looked up at the clear blue of a Princeton summer sky, “even now, when I hear sound of propeller — whrrrr whrrrrr – I am frightened. I duck. Even now.”

He and his Polish wife are both scientists. They’ve lived and worked in the United States ever since completing their university studies. Although they do return to Europe twice a year, their preference is to rent an apartment in Paris for a month in September, and again in April. His wife is fluent in French.

“They’re lucky, “ said Bill after we got home. He was thinking Paris. “We’re luckier,” I said. “We don’t have to duck.”

2.  No matter how old you are, you can still learn something new.

The man we met after the Community Without Walls meeting who came from Poland did not have clear handwriting. Or maybe I just need new glasses. I had to squint to make out the name on his paper shoulder tag. It looked like Kaganovicz.

“KagAnovich?” I asked uncertainly.

“No,” he replied. “KaganOvich.”

“I thought the accent was on the second syllable,” I said.

“Third,” said the man. “In Russian it’s on second. You’re Russian?”

“Her parents were,” said Bill helpfully.

“Ah,” said KaganOvitch. “That explains it. Russians say KagAnovitch. But in Poland, always KaganOvitch.”

While I was digesting this phonetic difference, which I hadn’t known before, he added something. “There was a KagAnovich. Lazar Moiseyevitch. Famous Old Stalinist. Murderer. Killed many people. But Russian. I’m Polish. KaganOvich.”

“Lazar Moiseyevitch KagAnovich,” I repeated. “I shall have to remember that. At least long enough to look him up.”

“Just remember KaganOvitch,” said KaganOvitch.

And you see, I have!