All the talk about alternate universes in my recent posts on Lost and Fringe has brought to mind an odd little exercise that I wrote, yikes, almost 20 years ago.

I took an intensive Japanese course in the summer of 1991. While about a dozen of
us, from high-school students to established professionals, learned the language in an immersion course led by the venerable Eleanor Harz Jorden, about five times as many Japanese graduate students were learning how to teach the same course. They served as aides to our main instructors and were assigned in rotating pairs to each one of us Americans as private tutors. Despite the fact that we were supposed to speak only Japanese with them, even when socializing, our Japanese being so fundamental and their English generally being so good made that difficult.

A tutor of mine, Ohmaki-san, asked me for help with the r and l problem that’s known to plague Asians speaking English. He was having particular trouble pronouncing the word “rarely” as distinct from “really”; it wasn’t just the consonants, but something in the diphthong. So he asked me to write a dialogue like the Core Conversations in Dr. Jorden’s books for him to practice. For the first time outside of a small group of young folk in Southeastern Pennsylvania, I proudly share the result...

Brian: Have you ever seen a parallel reality where squirrels quarrel?

Makoto: I have seen squirrels quarrel, but rarely in a parallel reality.

Brian: Really?

Makoto: Really. Rarely.

Brian: あそうですか.

The next time you might get the urge to make fun of an Asian native who hasn’t quite perfected the difference between articulating r and l, keep in mind that Ohmaki-san didn’t need me to explain any of the words I used in the dialogue — and then, of course, consider how much of their language you speak.


  1. Hehe, what a bizarre conversation. I like it. This post reminded me of an episode of Modern Family: Mitchell and Cameron (whom I love to death) are introducing their newly adopted Vietnamese baby and they say "And this is Lilly" and the other guy says "Um...won't that be hard for her to pronounce?"

  2. I saw that! Was it the one with Elizabeth Banks? I usually catch up on that show in bunches.