A husky Cambodian pulls his moto across traffic along Battambang Cambodia’s riverside promenade. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” It’s a ridiculous question to ask a tall American and his blond daughter. The man continues before we bother to answer. “I am a teacher and have a grammar question for you.” We step back, seeking escape, but the guy talks fast. “Can you tell me how many auxiliary verbs are contained in the English language?”
His question halts my retreat. I try to remember what auxiliary verbs are, but I cannot. I look to Abby; she shrugs. “Does he mean irregular verbs?”
The moto guy props his foot on the curb and peers up from under his thick hair. “No, auxiliary verbs, as in ‘Do you want to go to the store?”
Abby and I consider options on our fingers. “Could, should would? How, what, where, why?” Clearly, we have no idea.
“Do you have an email address, I’ll see if I can find out for you?” I’m putty in Mr. Moto’s hands, but also curious to refresh my grammar. The guy pulls a brochure from his satchel, The Slarkram English School, and formally introduces himself – Mr. Bunnarath Som – in rapid, florid English. His brochure includes web links, photos, and that oddly constructed English peculiar to Asia. Having visited the school, and if you like what we are trying to do, you may feel inclined to make a small donation to further our work there. Such convoluted sentences would annoy me back home; here they simply enhance the foreign wonder of our afternoon stroll.
Mr. Som pulls out a binder with color photos of him teaching students the world’s power language, distributing certificates, building houses for local farmers, and buying sewing machines for needy widows. His salesmanship drives the hard side of my brain to figure he’s a con artist. I pocket the brochure and we wave goodbye.
The following morning, on the other side of the river, Abby and I walk to breakfast. A guy pulls up on his moto and asks if we speak English. Oops, same guy pestering same tourists. This second encounter strengthens my doubts. I check him out online. If Internet presence confers legitimacy, Mr. Som is everything he claims.
Since we are leaving town we cannot visit his school. Still, I make good on my promise and email him that, according to Reference.com, English has 23 auxiliary verbs: is, are, was, were, am, be, been, will, shall, have, has, had, would, could, should, do, does, did, can, may, might, must and seem.
I leave Battambang with a firmer grasp of English grammar and a healthy awe for this man’s clever way of soliciting aid for his efforts. I also find myself using more auxiliary verbs. They induce a lyric cadence to my mother language even as they obfuscate meaning. I am not sure that Mr. Som does teach exactly as he claims, but if he would operate the school as he seems to profess, his students should learn his strategy could help everyone. That awkward sentence contains six auxiliary verbs. It also has that ring of an Asian translation I’ve come to fancy.