Maria Holland

Please Pull the Doorknob Behind You

In Uncategorized on March 13, 2010 at 1:52 am

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t done anything with my life yet.  I wonder what my legacy will be when I leave this world.  I worry that I’m never going to make a difference in the lives of others. 

Today is not one of those days.  I created the facebook event for No Pants Week: Spring 2010 last night and, 24 hours later, over 50 people have RSVP’d as attending.  I think this is the 10th biannual Skirt Week/No Pants Week – each one involving more people and going global in new ways.  Yes, it’s nothing huge . . . but it is mine.  And I think that a week without pants is a good week indeed.  So get ready, everyone, to go PANTSLESS from April 4th to April 11th!

In my daily perusal of the news, I came across an article by Nicholas Kristof proposing a novel concept called Teach for America.  I had many problems with the article, but one paragraph left me completely stunned:

Here’s a one-word language test to measure whether someone really knows a foreign country and culture: What’s the word for doorknob? People who have studied a language in a classroom rarely know the answer. But those who have been embedded in a country know.

::Pregnant pause:: 

I have no idea how to say ‘doorknob’ in Chinese.  Or Spanish (and it’s not one of those words that I can’t remember – I never learned it).  In fact, I can’t recall any situation in any language when I’ve wanted to say ‘doorknob’ but didn’t know the word for it.  ‘Doorknob’ is such a useless word!  In fact, besides calling Kristof “dumb as a doorknob” I really can’t think of any practical uses.  I know how to ask someone to open the door and I know how to ask someone to close the door, but neither of those phrases involve the word ‘doorknob’. 

Sietze and Koen, the new Dutch guys, had a housewarming party tonight.  The apartment was packed, mainly with foreigners, offering me a perfect opportunity to conduct a survey.  The results:

  • No foreigner knew the Chinese word for ‘doorknob’
  • Two of them eventually hazarded a guess, but both were wrong
  • Several of them (all of whom I consider fluent in English for all practical purposes) didn’t know the word in English
  • At least two people couldn’t think of the word in their native language and had to ask fellow countrymen for help

With the exception of some non-native speakers knowing the word in English, no one knew the word in a second language.  This is quite remarkable, considering the incredible language skills of this group as a whole.  As I mentioned, most of them have only slightly accented English and occasionally conjugate verbs incorrectly in the past tense (but who doesn’t?).  A lot of them consider themselves fluent in other languages as well; while no one would probably identify themselves as such in Chinese, I did ask people who have lived and studied in China for several years. 

I thought this was really interesting.  How could someone posit this as a litmus test when my experience finds it universally untrue?  Do any of you have any insight to offer on this?  I read through most of the comments and, while only a few people commented on this part of the article, their responses lined up with my observations tonight:

Mr. Kristof, I have been fully immersed in non-English speaking countries for the last five years, and in so doing have picked up fairly sophisticated conversational skills in one language and decent ones in two others.  My learning has been on a fairly need to know basis, as new words come into my lexicon based on the need to use them in everyday life.  I have no idea what the word for doorknob is in any of those three languages, have never even thought about it, and have never had the slightest inkling to use that word in a sentence. As a matter of fact, I don’t know when I last used it in the English language, or ever have, except in looking at real estate and admiring the vintage glass door knobs in old houses, more recently available at Restoration Hardware.  It is quite easy to ask some one to open or close a door…and I can do so in all three languages.

I have tried to think of a similar test, but am finding it quite hard.  Any suggestions?  The best thing I can come up as a test of immersion is knowledge of vocabulary that has no direct translation to your mother tongue.  Spanish, a language I’ve mostly learned in classrooms, is relatively easy for me to translate back into English, although occasionally there are slight differences in connotation.  My Chinese vocabulary, on the other hand, includes lots of words that I find hard or impossible to translate into English.  慢慢来 and 教友 are two phrases that come to mind (Take it easy?  Church friend?), but there are more.

And now . . . I have officially said and written the word ‘doorknob’ more tonight than in the rest of my life combined. 

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  1. Okay – good job on the “doorknob” thing. Now you just need to come up with a nicer way to encourage people to join your “Skirt Week/No Pants Week”. It just doesn’t work for you to say, “So get ready, everyone, to go PANTSLESS”. And why in the world would you invite guys to this? Do you think we’re going to wear kilts? And finally, is this “Skirt Week/No Pants Week” really your idea? I like it overall, because I think ladies look much better in skirts/dresses (or frocks, for Grandpa), but you just need a more PC name.

  2. Haha, Dad, I knew you wouldn’t like No Pants Week. It started out as Skirt Week but then guys complained that it was excluding them, so we changed it to No Pants Week. If you look at the facebook event, you can read the description and see that anything that doesn’t cover the ankles OR divide the legs is fair game, thus shorts are acceptable menswear.

    It was definitely my idea, way back in high school when I thought that wearing skirts to school for five days was actually a feat.

    I think you’re totally missing the point in saying that we need a more PC name. The whole brilliance of No Pants Week is that it’s an attention-grabber. You probably missed out on the Drink Naked parties last year, but those were even more fun. The jokes are endless . . .

  3. I don’t even know how to say doorknob in English…..

  4. Oh Maria, you make me laugh. I fully intend to participate in at least one day of No Pants Week, just for you.

    I keep logging on to skype, but it must be at times that you are either asleep or unavailable. :(

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