Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Shorthand: a language on its own

Marguerite, the American girl, also studied various other things on her own.  One day, in one of our free study hours, I observed her doing her homework. She was writing something strange. It was not English or French. It looked rather a bit like Arabic, very flowing and curly, but ran from left to right, while Arabic does the opposite. I could not stop myself from finding out what this strange language was.

“Meg, is this Arabic?” I inquired. “No,” she replied. “This is shorthand.” And that was how I discovered the world of note-taking using a man-made writing system.

Just as typing — and I mean typing on a typewriter, not keyboarding — has become extinct,  shorthand too is on its way out. Today, with a voice recorder embedded in our cell phone, we don’t even need shorthand any more. But once upon a time, some people came up with their own system of noting down what people said as fast as it was spoken. This skill obviously was mostly used by secretaries and journalists, who would then need to transcribe those notes into longhand (normal handwriting) or typed sheets as soon as possible. It all started in antiquity but by the 20th century, there remained two main systems, the Pitman shorthand, invented by the man of the same name back in 1837; and the Gregg shorthand, invented by Mr. Gregg in 1888. As newer inventions always improve on older ones, eventually, Gregg shorthand became the predominantly used one.

Extract from A Christmas Carol, in Gregg shorthand

Extract from A Christmas Carol, in Gregg shorthand

Basically, the idea is to note down sounds, not words. In other words, you are not concerned about spelling at all. Secondly, many sounds that are similar are written down in one way. For example, the short /i/ sound and the long /ee/ sound are all written as a tiny circle. Thirdly, the writing is very smooth and flowing, allowing the hand to move fast. In this aspect, I must say Arabic is quite close. It records only consonants and long vowels, and the reader is left to his own devices to figure out what the short vowels are supposed to be. The letters are also quite smooth and flowing, and therefore, it is no surprise that many of my later university classmates were able to take notes very fast in Arabic.

But coming back to that aha moment when I discovered a brand new language… A language unlike any other I’d read so far! I was immediately hooked. I had to learn it! I asked Meg whether I could borrow her shorthand textbook once she was done with it. She was such a darling. She immediately agreed, and even wrote down her address in the US for me to mail it back to her once I was done with it.

When I came home with my new treasure a couple of weeks later, I was a bit disheartened to find that Papa already knew what shorthand was. Ah, well, Papa was “I-Know-All” after all. Moreover, he predicted that I would be “3 points hot” (30% enthusiastic) for a while then forget about it. And at first, it did look that way. I spent hours practicing the first few lessons. Then, school work took over, and then summer fun did that too, and the book lay forgotten. But with a month left of summer, and with Papa’s mocking prediction still ringing in my ears, I suddenly remembered the shorthand book. And I spent every single waking hour practicing the skill. By the end of summer, I was done! I was able to mail the book back to Meg, who had by then returned to the US.

Today I see a similar passion for new learning in my third daughter. Alas, so few children of this generation get enthralled by a new language or skill. ‘Tis schooling, yes, it is, that has destroyed this innate curiosity and passion for learning in all children!



1 Comment »

Learning German

Goethe Institut, AmmanHomework was again at a minimum, and allowed much time for other endeavors. It was that year that I began to produce poetry in large quantities, and decided to learn German at the Goethe Institute.

I was still harboring a feeling of inferiority because my classmates in Paris were now taking a second modern foreign language, namely German, as well as a classical dead language, namely Latin, while I wasn’t. I knew that the UK had a cultural center called the British Council, and France had the Centre Culturel Francais, but now I discovered that Germany had a Goethe Institut! As expected, they offered German language classes, so I asked Papa for the permission and tuition fees.

There is one expense Papa always agreed to. And that was anything toward education. We never spent much on food: Mama always cooked and Papa loved home-made meals best. Neither did we spend much on clothes: Mama made all our clothes. However, education was a different matter. Papa drummed it into our heads: education is the best investment there is. “I won’t leave you anything when I die,” Papa had told us since our tender childhood. “You can be robbed of anything except the knowledge in your head. Therefore the best investment is in your education.” And indeed, when it had been needed, they had even sent Saadia and me to Paris for that purpose!

So he agreed immediately. I signed up for the Beginner’s class, although I had studied quite a lot on my own already. I figured that I must have been a bad teacher to myself, so I might as well start afresh. Our teacher was a good-looking statuesque German woman who put me immediately at ease. My classmates were all adults who were there in preparation for work in Germany, or for other business purposes. I must say that although many things can be self-taught, nothing beats a live teacher for foreign language. At least you know how to model your accent and intonation. So I happily drilled my verbal greetings, followed by questions and answers about where I came from and where I was going (assuming one was in an airport). Then we started working on questions about how many languages we spoke. The teacher asked each one of us in turn, “How many languages do you speak?” The man on my right answered, “Drei! (Three!)”  The teacher was surprised and asked which three languages he meant.  “Arabic, English and German!” replied the polyglot proudly.guten tag

I nearly choked. Here he was, in German 101, barely able to answer correctly very basic drills, and he claimed to speak the language! I knew way more, having covered half a book of German grammar, and yet I dared not tell anyone I knew any German! Ah, the difference between Middle Eastern braggadocio and Chinese modesty! We had been raised to despise bragging. If anyone praised us for our school work or good manners, or anything else, my parents would immediately deny it, “Oh, no, not at all! She got lucky, that’s all!  Your daughter, on the other hand, is so smart!” Whereupon, the other mom would also put down her own daughter. The way to brag was to put down your child for something unimportant but throw in a fact about something you wanted to show off: “Ah, I really don’t know what to do with my daughter! She doesn’t even know how to cook! All she does is study or read books and bring good grades… tsk, tsk, tsk! What to do with such a daughter!”

But to go back to the Goethe Institut… I really was now in seventh heaven, and would proudly carry my blue hardcover textbook two or three times a week onto a “service” car on my way to the institute. In Jordan, at least in those days, there weren’t many bus lines, but there were instead “service” lines. They were really just taxis that ran along specific routes and stop anywhere along it. They could seat two passengers on the front seat (bench) and three on the back one. At home, I’d diligently write all homework neatly in a copybook and practice my oral drills out loud.

Next thing I knew, Saadia found a Russian Cultural Center, located also quite close on Jabal Amman. She asked Papa for the permission and the tuition for Russian language classes. How exciting!  Russian! I had always been curious about Russian, from the day we learned to sing Moscow Nights back at the Ecole St Sebastien. In my attempt to read Anna Karenina in Chinese, I had enjoyed reading the Russian names that covered entire lines once they had been split into Chinese characters. I jumped up. “Me too, I want to learn Russian too!” But Saadia immediately put a stop to it. “No, you learn your German and I learn my Russian. You may not learn Russian too!” Papa agreed with her, as he always did. So, I did not get to attend Russian classes, but I would secretly flip through Saadia’s Russian textbook, and call her “maya sestra”, answer “spasiba” when appropriate, and accompany her to the movies at the Russian Center. I thought Papa just always favored Saadia. But now, come to think of it, it was possibly that paying for yet one more class might have been weighing too much on his budget.

russian alphabet

I was growing up but still considered myself a child, Chinese-style. You are not an adult until you marry. Mama did not believe in talking to us about adult matters. She did not even discuss what dishes she planned to cook, let alone our family’s monthly budget. Papa would discuss any topic with us, from literature to politics, and from science to geography, but he never discussed home finances. Therefore, I knew our family budget was very tight, but just how tight, I wasn’t sure. Aunt Lily, back in Paris, in our daily conversations, had expressed very clearly her opinion and the facts of the life of a diplomat from Taiwan, “Penniless Diplomats, that’s what we are, penniless diplomats, slapping our faces swollen to appear fat!” (Translation: if you are wealthy, you can afford to eat well, and therefore to get fat. If you are poor, you cannot be fat. So you can slap your own cheeks until they swell up and then go out and pretend it’s obesity from too much rich food.) Then she would go on describing the ceiling-to-floor golden curtains at the Venezuelan ambassador’s residence, while she had to entertain at restaurants, because our apartment just would not show well.

Another result of the segregation of generations is that we generally classified anyone we met into child (our generation) or adult (older generation). One did not cross that gaping canyon between the two generations. So when one day, one of my classmates in the German class offered me a ride home, I thought that was such a kind gesture from that elderly “uncle”. Thinking back, that guy must have been in his thirties. But to me, a 15-year-old with the Chinese age-old distinction of generations, since he had a bulging abdomen and a balding skull, he belonged to the Uncles group, and only meant to spare me the trouble of walking, catching a “service” car, and paying the fare. I learned very fast that Jordanians did not see the world in the same light I did. The “uncle” proceeded to tell me that he had learned some Chinese words. And, with an inane grin, he went on to say some garbled sounds. “What?” I did not understand it. “oh, eye-nee…” repeated he, of the foolish grin. “Sorry, I am not getting it,” I kept saying, until suddenly, after his tenth or twelfth attempt, I realized he was trying to say, “wo ai ni,” or I love you. By then, he was red to the ears. I, on the other hand, was totally furious for being such a fool and having subjected myself to such an idiotic situation. When we reached the water tower circle, I got off, thank him drily and nearly slammed the door in anger. I swore never to take a ride again with any “uncle” from my class.


High School Teachers

Our teachers at the CMS were a mixture of Britons and Jordanians. As already mentioned, the English teacher was Scottish, and the history teacher was English. The math teacher, Miss Salah, was Jordanian. She had been sent to study in England on a scholarship with the provision that she had to teach at our school a number of years afterwards. She was everyone’s favorite, friendly and easy-going, without that “I know best” attitude that no teacher should have despite its prevailing preponderance in the teaching world.

I loved Math class because all of a sudden, it was easy again. After two years of battling worksheets by weight, we were suddenly faced again with easy problems and never more than a page of homework. One day, after the whole class agonized over some complicated problem, Miss Salah wrote out the solution on the board. Then Saadia (yes, we were back in the same classroom again) called her over, and there ensued a prolonged whispered conversation between the two. Miss Salah went back to the board, and told the whole class that Saadia had offered a different solution, and it was much shorter than her own. Good job!

good teacher

Now, this is what I call a good teacher. A teacher who slams down students has a deeply seated inferiority complex. She cannot allow her own deficiencies to be seen and treats all such people, even if they are little innocent ones, with hatred and aggressivity. But if teachers realize that no one is a walking encyclopedia and that teachers are merely guides or leaders, then they would not mind the occasional little voice piping up an answer better than their own, or a question they could not answer.

The Biology and Chemistry teacher was a shy and quiet Mr. Mouse. Actually his name was Mr. Far, which meant mouse or rat in Arabic. He lived up to his name and was generally soft-spoken and mild-mannered. The girls loved to tease him and make him blush, and would decide daily who he was in love with. Personally, I doubt he would be in love with any of those loud, silly and giggly teenagers, but such games are favorites among foolish young girls. He always ended the class by asking whether anyone had any question. One day, they pushed Saadia to ask him why knuckles made popping noises when cracked. He sensed a plot when everyone tried stifling giggles and simply said he didn’t know. I am told by classmates that they tried to embarrass him a lot when he had to teach the infamous Chapter 25, Reproduction. Frankly, I must have been blind and deaf, because I never noticed anything.

cracking knuckles

Neither did Roxy, the Pakistani girl, with whom I had become very close friends. Her name had been originally Rukhsana, which had been shortened to Roxy after her toddler pronunciation. It was later changed to Um Kulsum after the famous Egyptian singer, and that is what she was registered as, but she still preferred her old name, so we complied and called her Roxy.

The two of us came from equally conservative families and had not been told about the birds and the bees. So when one day during study hour we reviewed Chapter 25 together in view of a test, the question suddenly popped up.  After spermatogenesis (production of sperm) and after oogenesis (production of eggs), how did the two suddenly come to be together in the fallopian tube? Mr. Farr had conveniently skipped that section. We looked up the textbook. Hum! The textbook also omitted to tell us how. We pondered deeply and came to the conclusion that the sperm could have gotten in through the umbilicus. Still, how did it get from the umbilicus to the fallopian tube? Maybe by swimming inside the abdominal cavity? Then entering amid the fimbriae near the ovaries, just like the ova did after plopping out of the ovaries…

the birds and the bees

I turned around and called out to a group of our classmates who were “studying” or chatting as a group behind us.  One of them, a friendly round-faced blonde with an ample chest came to help us out. We shared our question. She looked at us in disbelief and giggled until that giggle bubbled out almost as a laughter. She pointed at the anatomical drawings and said, “This goes here.”  Then she left, still giggling, and probably sharing that unbelievable news with the rest of the class. Roxy and I just sat there, with eyes as big as saucers, mouths gaping, until finally one of us, I cannot remember which, finally said, “Ugh! Disgusting!”

No Comments »