Saturday, November 8, 2008

How Do You . . . What?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

And then there was Mustafa, my marvelous, sweet, gentle giant of a student. I nicknamed him “Mustafa Mountain.” He was a heavy-set young man in his mid-twenties who towered over me so much that I actually had to look up whenever talking to him. Mustafa had a way of not easily connecting how English works with his own thought processes, but he did a lot to show me how English can sometimes be so illogical that I think it amazing anyone can learn it well.

This is what happened the first day I met Mustafa in my low intermediate-level class at the university:

“How do you do?” I said as I stretched out my hand to shake his.
“How do I do what?” Mustafa replied.
“No, no. This is a greeting: ‘How do you do?’”
“How do I do what?”
“What’s your name?”
“Mustafa Bakhtiari. You are my new teacher, Mr. Firsten?”
“Yes, that’s right. How do you do, Mustafa?”
“Why you keep ask me how I do . . . How I do what??”
“It’s like saying ‘How are you?’ Mustafa. We say it the first time we meet somebody in a formal situation.”
“Oh, okay. I think I understand,” Mustafa said with a big smile of relief spreading across his face.
“So, how do you do?” I confidently reiterated.
“Very well, thank you,” came the unwanted response.
“No, you’re not supposed to say that in the answer, Mustafa.”
“No? Oh, so what I say?”
“How do you do?”
“Huh?” Mustafa said with the saddest look of confusion I’d ever seen on a student’s face. I closed my eyes momentarily, realizing what a dumb thing I had just done, inadvertently setting the scene for total confusion ― and I knew it.
“You are asking me that question again,” Mustafa said slowly with some consternation in his voice.
“Listen, Mustafa. When you meet somebody for the first time and the situation is formal, you say, ‘How do you do?’ Then the other person says, ‘How do you do?’ too.”
“You ask question and he ask same question. Nobody answer question.”
“Yes, that’s right. Now you’ve got it!”
“I got what?”
“Never mind. Let’s try it again, okay?”
“How do you do?”
“How do you do, too?”
“No! You don’t say, ‘How do you do, too?’ You just repeat, ‘How do you do?’!”
“Please. I am trying to learn English. Not easy!”
“I know that, Mustafa. I say, ‘How do you do?’ and you just repeat ‘How do you do?’ and nobody answers that question. You just shake hands and smile at each other, okay? And then you can continue the conversation by asking each other’s names, career interests ― whatever. Do you understand now?”
“I think yes, but not sure,” poor Mustafa replied, looking quite insecure at the moment.
“Okay, let’s try it one more time,” I said, feeling this was it. It was either now or never. Taking a deep breath, I said, “How do you do?”
“How do you do?” was Mustafa’s response. I was ecstatic! We shook hands on cue and everything seemed right with the world.
“My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?”
“What do you do, Mr. Firsten?”
“You didn’t answer my question, Mustafa. You’re supposed to answer my question to be polite.”
“You say I must repeat question. I repeat question! ‘How do you do? How do you do? What do you do? What do you do?’”
“But that’s only for ‘How do you do?’ Mustafa, not ‘What do you do?’ You can answer that question!” I could feel my blood pressure rising. The word stroke popped into my mind. “Let’s try that last part again, Mustafa. All right?”
‘Sure,” he said looking down at the floor and grumbling a little. Another deep breath. “My name is Richard Firsten.”
“I am Mustafa Bakhtiari.”
“Nice to meet you,” I adlibbed.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Mustafa replied, feeling comfortable with a sentence he’d learned in his elementary ESOL classes.
“What do you do, Mr. Bakhtiari?” I went on.
“What do I do when?”
I just stared at him. I felt a little numb and kept staring. Mustafa had succeeded in sucking all the energy right out of me. I didn’t have the strength to answer his question. I knew very well where it would lead us. But I was his teacher. I had an obligation to answer his question, didn’t I?
“No, no, Mustafa. That’s not what it means.”
“That’s not what it mean? Why you ask me that if it not mean that?” I could see the frustration building up in him. It reminded me of magma rising up a lava tube in a volcano, getting ready to blow its cork and erupt.
What do you do? means ‘What’s your job or profession?’ So that’s what you should answer.”
“I don’t have job. I am student! You know I am student. All you do is ask questions they don’t mean what you ask. And you ask things you know I am not. I go home now. Maybe I see you tomorrow ― maybe!”

And with that, Mustafa turned around on his heels and walked despondently out of my classroom. I felt awful, as if somehow I’d let him down, even though I knew I hadn’t. But he did come back the next day, and he stayed in my class a whole semester, and learned a lot of English.

The last I heard, Mustafa lives in Los Angeles. We kept in touch for some years, but that didn’t last, unfortunately. He once told me that now, when somebody asks him, “What do you do?” he says, “I’m a CPA.” and always smiles as he thinks back to that crazy day in Mr. Firsten’s ESOL class in Miami.


Comment from simone lima
November 11, 2008 at 9:28 am

Awsome story! XD

Comment from HYUNSOOK
November 13, 2008 at 1:53 pm

As a second language leaner of English, I had also the same experience as Mustafa. For some time, I couldn’t get accustomed to replying to ” How do you do?” because I felt it was awkward to anwswer the question with a question. Actually, still now I avoid using that expression. Instead, I prefer just “Nice to meet you.” And I also had difficulty replying to clerk at store. Every time they ask me ” how are you today?” before checking out my stuff, I hesitate what to say. Just “Good. Thanks”. is it OK? or something else? Normally how do native speakers respond to the question?

Comment from Grammar Guy
November 13, 2008 at 3:16 pm

It’s fine these days to reply to the question How are you today? by saying Good, thanks. So you’re okay with that, Hyunsook. Of course, you can always use the old standby, Fine, thanks. How are YOU?

I really appreciate your sharing your own experiences with knowing how to reply to various English greetings, Hyoonsuk. Thanks! : )

Comment from Ismael Tohari
November 13, 2008 at 6:56 pm

Dear Richard,

You said:

“It’s fine THESE DAYS to reply to the question How are you today? by saying Good, thanks.”

My Q:

Does that mean it wasn’t fine to reply to the very question as so? If yes, what was the appropriate reply for that question then?

Comment from Grammar Guy
November 13, 2008 at 8:24 pm

I may be wrong, but I don’t recall years ago people saying things like “I’m good” or simply “Good” when somebody asked them how they were. I think that’s a relatively new answer to the question.

The more traditional replies, of course, have always been things like “Fine, thanks” or “I’m fine, thanks” or even “(I’m) okay, thanks.”

Comment from Irene
November 14, 2008 at 12:44 am

This story reminds me of the moment I made silly mistakes when I began to practice SPEAKING in English. I felt embarrased and losing face when I realized I did not understand very short and simple sentences. Althogh a sentence is short, that seems to include broad social and cultural meaning. I think English learners need to suppose the situation which is more than literal or word-based meaning and should not be afraid of making mistakes and correcting them.

Comment from Grammar Guy
November 14, 2008 at 9:35 am

You’re absolutely right, Irene! The culture in which a language is used and the specific situation at any given time should be taken into consideration when using your own language as well as when practicing another language.

Your observation about what Mustafa failed to do is right on the money. He didn’t see what we call in English “the bigger picture,” that is, he didn’t consider the situation and the cultural/linguistic points I was trying to explain. He was also being too analytical, a universal problem that many adult language learners have.

But it was nice that this story had a happy ending, which I have no doubt came about because Mustafa stayed in the country and finally seemed to work those cultural/linguistic problems out.

Thanks for leaving such an insightful comment, Irene! : )

Comment from Sue Van Etten
November 14, 2008 at 2:03 pm

Hi Irene,

There is an interesting discussion on TESL-L about what makes a good 2nd language learner. Kate Gabriele posted the message below and seems to agree with you about the importance of taking risks and making mistakes:

“Kenton Sutherland’s observations of his students’ personality type and their willingness to learn reminded me of a recent incident I had while traveling. My husband and I were trekking in the Himalayas (Nepal side). That country’s economy relies heavily on tourism. How well each guide or porter speaks English is directly related to his ability to earn a living. Each night we stayed in lodges so we had the opportunity to meet other groups and guides. One guide was especially outgoing. After dinner, he did a stand up comedy act, complete with a Bob Dylan impression. He explained that he had learned English by continually talking; he knew that someone would correct him. He noticed his peers were too afraid to pactice English and they would only speak it after they drank some of the local brew.

As teachers, I am sure we have all had contact with students who seem more willing to risk embarrassment than others in the class. I would like to find ways to encourage and reward this type of behavior, while realizing that a teacher cannot change the basic temperment of any individual student.”

Sue Van Etten

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