Thursday, May 4, 2023

theatrical review

Ever since reading Leo Rosten's humorous Hyman Kaplan stories in childhood, I've been interested in fiction set among adult students of English as a second language. So I went to see Berkeley Rep's production of English by Sanaz Toossi. The author is American of Iranian descent; the play is set in Iran in 2008, in a small class of advanced students preparing to take the standardized TOEFL.

The play's gimmick is interesting. The class rule is "English only," and the students and teacher speak mostly in their sometimes halting, heavily-accented English. But sometimes they revert to Farsi (one of the students gets a lot of black marks for this, the others mostly get away with it; the student wonders why the teacher hates her so, but doesn't get an answer), and that's mostly represented by idiomatic English. Though actually the students are good enough at English that it's sometimes hard to tell when they're switching to Farsi-represented-as-English.

Gradually the viewer gets to know the students. The older woman who's learning English because her son has moved to Canada and she wants to be able to speak to her granddaughter who's being raised English-only. (She leaves her son constant voice mails and wonders why he never calls her back.) The bubbly 18-year-old woman. The angry woman who's failed the TOEFL several times but has to learn English for her career (she's the one who gets the black marks). The only man in the class, who eventually reveals that he was born and spent his early years in the US, so he actually counts as a native speaker though his English is halting. The teacher, who lived in England for several years and doesn't say why she returned to Iran.

Their attitudes range from fascination with English-language culture to a burning resentment at the necessity of learning it. The struggle to communicate, both literally and figuratively, dominates. The play is pretty quiet but the interactions are intense (each student has at least one scene alone with the teacher). It's well-written and the run, which ends this week, is pretty much sold out.

Despite their frustrations, the students are quite good. I've studied five foreign languages at one time or another (three in school, two in adulthood) and even at the best of times I couldn't be a fraction this good in any of them. My last formal study was an Italian class I took prior to visiting that country. I found the artificial conversation sessions agonizing (I hated acting improv when I took that, and this was the same thing only in another language), and the teacher's habit of constantly correcting even small errors in a condescending tone threw me off, so I quit the class. Nevertheless I managed to have a couple of actual conversations in actual Italian while I was there: I was so pleased with myself.

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