“Do you have a gun also?” enquired Utari during our break from navigating the choppy waters of English usage. Unable to source anchovy fish cakes (my pupil having confessed her great partiality to teri, by which she apparently meant anchovies), I obtained a herring substitute from Tesco’s and was trying hard to play a perfect hostess, Google having enlightened me that, in Utari’s homeland, fish cakes were a popular snack.
“A gun? Of course I don’t have a gun – it’s illegal. Unless you are licensed.”
“Wave … Waverley, she is licensed?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“So she is illegal?”
“Because she shoots.”
“Shoots? I don’t think so, Utari.”
“But she said.”
“What exactly did she say?”
“Oh, Utari, ha, ha, ha! She’s always saying this; it means ‘must dash’.”
“O-o-o-o; awful – awful-ly confusing.”
“Yep, English is full of idiomatic expressions.”
“Idio, idio … ?”
“Matic – idiomatic; English has thousands of them. They have a figurative meaning beyond their literal translation.”
“Yep, they can be quite hard for a non-native to decipher: you just have to learn what each means. Do you remember when I said that we might as well wrap up?”
“That’s a good example of an idiomatic expression. Now, take ‘bite off more than you can chew’.”
“Thank you, your teri, it is not like at home but I like. But I think I never take such a big bite.”
“I don’t think, Utari.”
“No, no, we put the negative in the main clause – I keep telling you. But this was another example of an idiom: it means to take on more than you can actually manage.”
The pseudo-teri fishcake suspended half-way between the plate and Utari’s mouth, my pupil mouthed the new expression with great concentration: “Take bite off more than you can chew.”
“No, no, drop the take.”
Utari nodded and repeated the troublesome idiom several times. Although our break turned out to be gratifyingly – albeit unexpectedly – educational, it was time to press on if we were to cover the topic planned for that morning. “So what have you learnt about the young people in Britain, Utari?” I had earlier supplied her with carefully selected newspaper articles, which she was supposed to read before going to bed the night before.
“I think they … they are not very modest.”
“I don’t think they are modest, Utari! But why don’t you think they are modest?”
“Because … because … I cannot say. Read this please.” With this, Utari, her physiognomy betraying what looked like embarrassment, pointed at a sentence from a piece from The Guardian. The sentence went like this.
We all know about the media fixation with sex, but Phin’s view is that parents could do more.
“It is not modest; in Java, we respect parents.”
“No, no, Utari, they didn’t mean it like this.”
“But they said.”
“No, no, it just came out wrong. This boy, Phin, thought that parents could do more to educate youngsters about the importance of not rushing into sex. You see, it’s not enough to know what you are trying to say.”
“No: you must always stop to check if you are actually saying it. But people sometimes don’t; I’ve told you I have millions of examples.”
“Well OK, it’s a bit of a hyperbole, but I have plenty.”
“Hyperbole – it means exaggeration. That’s what this prominent labour politician said on Radio 2. He was lamenting the violence in the lyrics of rap songs.”
It is appalling, and so are the listeners.
“Our listeners, they are good usually.”
“But that’s the whole point, Utari: he was trying to say that listeners were appalled. Or this; I found it in The Times Educational Supplement.”
He accuses teachers of double standards when dealing with black and white pupils.
“He didn’t mean … ”
“No, no, Utari, our pupils aren’t chequered! He meant ‘when dealing with black as opposed to white pupils’. Now, this one has been penned by a well-known columnist writing for The Sunday Times.”
70% of children have televisions in their bedrooms, as do almost half of five to seven-year-olds.
“So, so … are they not … ”
“Don’t worry, Utari; when I last looked, five- to seven-year-olds were children. I think she meant ‘and, of those, almost half are between five and seven’. And this was in The Guardian.”
It’s a slim tower, so the shadow will be short.
On this occasion, Utari emitted a gratifying chuckle. “The shadow, it will be narrow?”
“You bet; the slimness of the tower has nothing to do with the length of its shadow. I remember a brilliant contradiction by a reader whose comment was published by The Sunday Times.”
People protest when football gets its biannual monthly showing.
“Occurring twice a year.”
Another chuckle was an unmistakable sigh that Utari had grasped the point.
“You see, I keep banging on about the importance grammar and punctuation, but lucid communication is about more than that. Obviously, vocabulary also plays a crucial part, so you have to put all those ingredients together, but you can still drop the ball.”
“I think I cannot: I do not play.”
“I DON’T THINK I can, Utari, I DON’T THINK I can! It’s another idiom; it means to make a mistake. What I always say is that there is no substitute for logical thought; you need to read back and edit. And then edit some more. It’s more tricky with speech, of course, but you can still correct yourself after you said something silly. How about this little ditty?”
If you write, then think and edit,
You deserve enormous credit;
If, however, you do not,
What you pen may go to pot.
“No, no, it’s another idiom, Utari; it means going to the dogs.”
“Some of our people, they barbecue dogs. They make kambing balap.”
“No, no, Utari … oh never mind!”