Life is full of surprises – True Stories from the Past to the Present
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He is author of two books, “I was a happy man...then one day I came across Laughter Yoga” and “Learning English through the mind and the body” and is currently working on his third book, “Life is full of surprises”. His teaching is heavily influenced by Pilgrims TT in Canterbury, where he tries to go whenever possible – sometimes as a course participant, and sometimes, on a number of occasions in fact, as a guest speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A short history of my origins
A person who has a good education is highly respected, as is a doctor, irrespective of the medicine that he might prescribe, as is a lawyer, irrespective of the laws he might break, as is an accountant, irrespective of how many books he has fiddled!
As was the case in those days, Mum being a good wife, didn’t argue about going to the UK, much as she would miss her family. She just did what was best for her husband and that meant, setting off for a new life in London. Let us not forget that Dad was also going to miss his family! In those days, families were seriously big! To count all the brothers and sisters you had, one hand was not enough. Then there were cousins, uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents, nephews and nieces. People had this strange habit of getting married young and would then set about reproducing as early and as often as possible.
Just to give you an idea, my Dad had seven brothers and two sisters in total, my Mum had three sisters and one brother. But that was nothing compared to my Dad’s grandfather who created no less than twenty-two children! That is a hell of a lot! His poor wife was certainly active during her lifetime and amazingly didn’t die due to exhaustion from all the childbearing as you might think, but from an infection caused by a banal accident!
A short history of Indian partition
However, this procedure was not so simple. In India, there were predominantly three religions; Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. They had lived together side by side, kids played with each other; they worked together, looked after each other and even got married to each other.
The Hindu and Sikh leaders were happy to have a United Independent India, as were many of the Muslim people. However, the official Muslim leader insisted on the idea of a separate country for Muslims called Pakistan. This idea was initially started by some crackpot in Cambridge, but was not hugely supported among the Muslims.
Britain however, had a policy of “divide and rule” which they had also used in Ireland and Palestine, with equally alarming results; the division of people into one sector and government-created borders which only brought discomfort and misery to many people.
Churchill was, if not a fan, certainly sympathetic to the Muslim idea of independence and it was he as much as anyone, who instigated the idea and encouraged the Muslim leader to pursue his dream of a separate state for Muslims.
The “divide and rule” policy meant that separate schools, jobs and even elections were set up to accommodate each religion and this helped to breed tension which previously hadn’t existed.
A similar system was used, not by the British, but to dismantle another great country, Yugoslavia, where once again, different ethnic groups had lived side by side for many years, then one day, stirred up by outside forces, they embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing and war, leading to the elimination of Yugoslavia and the creation of numerous countries; Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo. This story and its effects are well illustrated in an excellent documentary by the Slovenian film director, Petra Seliskar, called “Mama Europa”. In this exceptional film, Petra uses her five-year old daughter as the starting point, as she asks her mother questions to try to comprehend how the creation of borders has changed the lives of people. This approach makes the film far more audience friendly than it otherwise would be, considering the subject.
Listening with your eyes
I believe that almost every student has taught me something. Everybody has some interests and passions; it is my aim to get them to talk about it. Someone who loves gardening will give me all the infinite details necessary to pursue this activity, if I so desire. Another who works with washing machines will explain how each part of the machine operates individually and together to ensure the correct operation of the machine. The only students that taught me almost nothing were Italian politicians whom I worked with for almost twenty years. The majority were self-obsessed and only talked about themselves, emphasizing how great they were and how much they did for people.
At the other end of the scale, I had been working at the hospital for about ten years teaching doctors, nurses and other medical staff, when one of my students asked me if I’d be interested in teaching a group of deaf students. I accepted due to my curiosity, before realising that I had no experience with deaf people. I was assured that there would be therapists available to assist the students. I was told to face the students when I spoke and indeed to speak slowly and clearly, as if I needed reminding.
This would be another challenge, but I thrived on challenges, so I was looking forward to it. The students could be classified as young adults and they all had some kind of contraption in their ears, which assisted them with the different sounds. They were smiling and seemed cheerful. I began speaking and they appeared to be following me. I gave them some words which students normally find difficult to pronounce and was shocked to notice how close to perfection their responses were.
I took a glance at the therapists, as if to say, are you guys making fun of me? Are you really deaf? And so, it continued, I talked, they replied with an almost perfect pronunciation. These people couldn’t hear me, they could only hear sounds. I observed them carefully to see exactly what they did, when I spoke. They looked at me attentively, and then proceeded to imitate me. It was this that made their pronunciation so good. They couldn’t hear the sound, but by following the exact movements of my lips and noticing the subtle differences when I moved my jaw, cheeks, tongue, chin, nose, even eyes, they could reproduce a sound that was as close to anything that any student had ever produced in any of my lessons.
Thanks to these great students, I had learned how to teach good pronunciation, not by writing words on a board, not by overspending time on the phonetic charts where regional accents made a mockery of the sounds anyway, but by facing my students, getting them to watch me, observe every movement that I made, then to imitate me, to make every identical move!
Everything happens for a reason
I went along at some unearthly hour of the morning, only because I was curious to see who Mr. Bertolucci had selected in front of me. On arrival, I and a small group of others were told that some of us would dance, while the others would pretend to be drunk and overfed after the wedding meal. I said, yes, I can be drunk and overfed, I’m good at that! No, you’re going to dance, was the reply.
What? I can’t dance! You’re making a big mistake! Just go and dance, was the reply.
I found myself paired up with a tall, slim, attractive and elegant Indian lady wearing a sari. I started by apologizing for what was to come. There were five couples like us who had to dance. We began and at regular intervals, Mr. Bertolucci’s voice would bellow out, “cut”, as he expressed his dissatisfaction with the result. Our scene was supposed to last for about five seconds of the film, but it took about six hours of filming. After about four hours, I began to get the hang of it and felt far more comfortable. At the end, I was even paid. I thought to myself, this is amazing. I can’t dance, or so I believe. Yet, Bernardo Bertolucci has just paid me in cash to dance in one of his films, so I can’t be that bad.
I hadn’t realised at the time, but this was to have a major effect on my life. Firstly, I never refused to dance after that, while previously I would avoid it at all costs. As I continued to ponder on what the purpose of all this was, as I believed that everything happens for a reason, it wasn’t until about 2007 that I began to comprehend fully what had happened. Dancing had been my biggest fear back in 2001, but by 2007, not only was I quite happy to dance, but I was even using dance as a tool in my English lessons; and this had all been caused indirectly by Bernardo Bertolucci’s decision to select me, not to act the main role in his film, but to put me outside my comfort zone and force me to face my biggest fear, head on!
The language of communication
My mother on the other hand, would try to speak slowly, use different words, change her intonation, use gestures, try anything that she could to help my girlfriend understand. I was present and so acted as a kind of interpreter while my mother spoke in English and my girlfriend responded in Italian. This worked well until I had a desperate need to go to the toilet. I made my excuses to leave and told them that I’d be back as soon as I could.
When I returned, I could see from a distance that the two of them were communicating without any problem and without any need for an interpreter, so I stood back and watched them for about ten minutes, before I returned to them. They hadn’t missed me! There was a strong empathy between them, a desire to communicate, to understand and be understood!
Despite the fact that neither spoke each other’s language, they were communicating easily. Think of how many people have difficulty communicating with others in their own language! Couples are a classic example, as one of the pair uses signals to try to communicate his or her dissatisfaction in a particular situation, but the partner just doesn’t seem to be able to get it. Communication is not only about speaking a language, it’s about the desire and willingness to do everything you can to be understood.
Many Italians who work for large multinational companies often recount horrendous stories of English speakers who talk to groups of them, without the minimum amount of consideration for the fact that English is not their first language. An English teacher generally wouldn’t do this, for two reasons. One is that they are trained to adapt their language according to who is in front of them and the other is empathy. If you don’t have that, you won’t succeed in getting your message across.
The research makes it clear. 55% of face-to-face communication is based on body language, 38% on tone of voice and only 7% of communication is words. There is often no need to speak. The body movements and facial gestures tell us everything. Correct grammar doesn’t even come into the equation, yet most traditional language learning courses use grammar as the basis. This perhaps explains why most people find languages so difficult and perplexing.
I often find myself in situations where I am surrounded by people who do not speak any of the languages that I do and vice-versa, yet we somehow manage to communicate, if we really want to.
Luckily I had a serious accident
There was however, one big problem. I tend to work better, when I have deadlines. Neither the editor, nor my personal assistant who was proof-reading my book gave me any time limits on my work, so it was up to me to create my own! Sadly, I didn’t, which meant that between November 2013 and May 2014, I had written just four chapters.
Then, in late May, destiny, as it often does, came in to play! I was returning home late from a yoga session and just stepping onto a bus, when my phone began ringing. Normally, I waited until I was completely seated or at least balanced on the bus, before answering the phone. However, for some mysterious reason, I tried to answer the phone, while being totally unbalanced and as the bus sped off into the night, I managed to hit my back on a metal bar, normally used to hold onto, while standing. The pain was immense! It knocked the wind out of me! Nonetheless, I tried to carry on living a relatively normal life for a couple of days, assuming that the pain would eventually disappear, when I realized that it wouldn’t and that I’d need to visit the doctor.
The doctor touched me a few times, as I squealed in agony, then he exclaimed, “It’s OK, you’ve fractured your ribs, nothing to worry about”. Are you sure nothing is broken, I asked? “Absolutely, otherwise you would really be suffering pain, he retorted”. He told me that I was to do absolutely nothing for about thirty days. Nothing? Yes, no physical exercise, no sex, no laughing, sneezing, coughing or anything similar. I went home, sat down on the sofa and momentarily, became depressed! The summer had arrived, I had lots of free time, but I couldn’t do any exercise. What was I supposed to do? It was then, that I remembered about the famous book I had been writing. I could continue with that I suppose, as it involves sitting still for long periods of time and writing.
In the space of four weeks, I had gone from chapter four to chapter twenty-three. In short, most of the book had been written in that month. Over the summer of 2014, I completed the last two chapters, had it reviewed by the proof-reader, made a few minor changes, then sent it to the editor for examination.
After lots of time discussing and altering the text, as well as deciding on an attractive and appropriate cover, it was finally published on 2 April 2015, my first ever book, written in Italian, not English! A moment to be proud of, but if I hadn’t had that terrible accident, would it have happened at all?
You are what you eat
Professional sportsmen have trainers who help them follow strict diets with the aim of maximizing performance. Novak Djokovic the Serbian tennis player, has been following a gluten free diet for years and he believes that this is one of the main reasons why he was able to remain at the top, winning the big grand slam tournaments one after the other, while several of his rivals couldn’t keep up with him.
My dear friend Harish Chavda who sadly passed away on 23 May 2017, wrote an excellent book called, “How to lose weight and be healthy – A guide to the art of eating”. In it, he said that we could eat anything we wanted. It was not important what you ate, but how you ate! If you ate slowly, thoughtfully, focusing on what you were eating, observing it, smelling it and tasting it, you would not only appreciate the food far more, but also digest far more easily and not put on weight.
Extracts taken from the forthcoming book, “Life is full of surprises – True stories from the past to the present” (available on Amazon).
Life is full of surprises – True Stories from the Past to the Present
Danny Singh, UK and Italy