I learned Spanish as an exchange student in Mexico when I was in high school. Since that first experience, I have traveled extensively in Spanish-speaking countries, read widely in Spanish, delivered talks in Spanish, published in Spanish, conducted research in Spanish. So it would be all too easy to assume that I am completely fluent. If only.
Learning a second (third, fourth, etc.) language is a foray into new vocabulary but also into the many subtleties of linguistics and culture with booby-traps everywhere. Let’s take for example the simple word “bola” in Spanish. In its simplest form, it means “ball”. Bola de cristal, crystal ball. Bola del mundo, globe. So far so good, right? But “hacerse bola” (become a ball) means to confuse oneself in Mexico. “No dar bola” (to not give a ball) means to not notice something in Argentina. “Parar bola” (stop the ball) means to pay attention in Colombia. In some countries, “Contar bolas” (tell balls) means to fib. So, my point? Until one masters the local meanings, you only hear the literal meaning as noted in parenthesis above. And that can be very confusing indeed.
We take much too much for granted about language and communication. If someone has a high TOEFL or IELTS score, we assume they are fluent. We hear someone speak to us in fluid, clear, correct English and we assume they understand everything. Think about the tribulations of an international student trying to follow a professor or class discussion in the US when they have learned English from textbooks. How does a student from Turkey find the meaning of “throwing someone under the bus”? How does a student from Japan make sense from someone talking about “hitting it out of the park?” How might a student from Bolivia interpret “pushing the envelope”? Or a sarcastic, “Give me a break!” These are expressions that are embedded in American culture and that many of us mistake for, well, English. Just think about how culture-laden English is and the challenges this presents to international students in the classroom! Perhaps my favorite example comes from an article that appeared in the New York Times many years ago by Yilu Zhao recounting how upon arriving at Yale from China found it impossible to understand what her peers at Yale were saying until she realized that the word “like” didn’t mean anything at all.
Next imagine the challenges of reading English text for non-native speakers. When is “dove” a bird and when is it a leap into water? When is “invalid” something that is not accurate and when is it someone who is incapacitated by illness? When is “row” a location in an auditorium and when is it an athletic activity or an argument?
And as though the above wasn’t challenging enough, have sympathy for the student from Italy who studied British English and then attempts to decipher American English. The thought causes me to flash back to a brief moment of paralysis when a taxi driver in London instructed me to put my suitcase in “the boot”. There is British English, Singaporean English, Scottish English, Kenyan English, American English—each rich with cultural idioms and idiosyncrasies.
What happens with we hear a word or phrase that makes no sense to us? If we are following a conversation or (worse!) a lecture or discussion in the classroom, we are often derailed. Typically, we lose the thread while our brain detours in search of meaning.
So my plea here is to admire those students who attempt to study in a language other than their first, to recognize the additional time required to process the ambiguous and unfamiliar, and to listen to ourselves and begin to recognize those strange and unique Americanisms as we speak.
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