Language Learners from Literature: Lin Nai-Nai

So far, all of the language learners in this series have been English speakers learning another language. This will probably remain the rule; but now and then, I want something a little different. How about a Mandarin speaker who is learning English? Let’s meet Lin Nai-Nai, the beloved amah from Jean Fritz’s memoir Homesick: My Own Story.

From Chapter 1

Jean Fritz was an American girl who grew up in China. She learned English because her parents, teachers, and classmates spoke it, and Mandarin because everyone else spoke it. And she sometimes also taught English, though probably not very well. Her only student was her amah or nanny, Lin Nai-Nai.

She was different from other amahs. She did not even come from the servant class . . . She had run away from her husband when he had taken a second wife. She . . . would rather be no wife than head of a string of wives. She was modern. She might look old-fashioned, for her feet had been bound up tight when she was a little girl . . . Still, she believed in true love and one wife for one husband . . .

. . . “English lesson?” she asked, smiling.

. . . “What do you want to know?” I asked.

We had been through the polite phrases — Please, Thank you, I beg your pardon, Excuse me, You’re welcome, Merry Christmas (which she had practiced but hadn’t had the chance to use since this was only October).

“If I meet an American on the street,” she asked, “how do I greet him?”

I looked her straight in the eye and nodded my head in a greeting. “Sewing machine,” I said. “You say, ‘Se-wing ma-chine.'”

She repeated after me, making the four syllables into four separate words. She got up and walked across the room bowing and smiling. “Sew Ing Ma Shing.”

Does Jean’s answer to Lin Nai-Nai surprise you? Jean was in a very bad mood that day and decided to play a trick on her nanny. It’s the kind of practical joke that language learners have to be careful about. But don’t worry: later, Jean takes it back and teaches Lin-Nai-Nai the correct greeting.

What I would say to Lin Nai-Nai . . . and to my own nannies

I would say whatever Lin Nai-Nai wants me to say. That is, I would teach her any new phrase she wants to learn. We language learners have to support each other! Since my Mandarin is non-existent, however, I might not be able to help her as much as I’d like.

On the other hand, even with perfect Mandarin, Fritz’s young age meant she did not help Lin Nai-Nai as much as she probably should have. The “polite phrases” are a good start — but “Merry Christmas” is a silly lesson for October. What about names of common objects and frequently-used verbs, so that Lin Nai-Nai could start to form sentences? These days, thanks to age and experience, I create lesson strategies (for myself and for others) automatically. But I didn’t think this way at Jean’s age, with nannies of my own.

I remember my yayas only vaguely. Most of them came from rural areas, so they understood English, but were not confident speaking it. I’m sure some of them asked me how to say certain things. (Asking a child can be easier than asking an adult.) And I would have answered and forgotten all about it, not realizing that they were being as “modern” as Lin Nai-Nai.

When Fritz tells the story of why Lin Nai-Nai walked away from her marriage, we understand immediately that her amah was a strong, independent thinker. We also know what it means that she must hide her background from the rest of the Chinese staff. But if all Fritz had said was that her amah wanted to learn English, while the rest of the staff didn’t care . . . how many readers would have seen it was the same message?

“Modern” is a weak word. Instead, let’s admit it is courageous to learn something new — especially when you are an adult and your peers think you are forgetting your place. I don’t know if Fritz fully understood this as a child, or just figured it out in retrospect, like me right now.

When my yayas were in my life, I did not give them the support that their courage deserved. I wish I could go back and do things differently with them.

Have you tried teaching your language to a foreign friend?

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