Archive for Thursday, October 14, 2004

Life Lites

Learning new language offers comic relief

October 14, 2004

The art of communication is not easily mastered, be it in spoken, written or verbal form. But the fun from the mishaps in this art is sometimes priceless. I grew up knowing three languages, English not being one of them. When I came to the United States I hardly knew any "American English," especially the slang words and some of the phrases that are commonly used.
You can imagine the many challenges I faced in communicating with people in a foreign land. People viewed me as a foreigner but failed to realize that everyone here was a foreigner to me.
I grew up watching Hollywood movies but a lot of times never understood or caught on to some of the references made in the movies. Some of you might remember the movie, "Two Minute Warning." I saw that movie as a kid but never understood the title until after I had lived here and knew the game of football.
Even now, when I watch an old movie that I saw as a kid, I pick up on words and phrases I never understood as a kid. The challenge of communicating in a foreign language can only be realized when one has traveled to a country where that language is predominately spoken.
There is a big difference in studying a foreign language and speaking it with people who are native to it. It will expose all the inadequacies that one has despite having studied the language.
I am constantly amused by people who mimic a foreigner speaking English because they think it sounds funny. It probably does sound funny because of the accent, but grammatically they are probably speaking it the proper way, unlike those who are making fun.
These foreigners, like me, had to study the language. We had to learn the correct use of words and the proper grammar when speaking or writing. Next time you say "I don't know nothing," or "I ain't going there no more," think if that really makes sense.
One of my most favorite language "faux pas" happened during my first semester living in my college dorm. My roommate and I were studying with our backs facing each other. We were buried in our work, so there was not much talking going on.
What followed was a conversation that I remember almost verbatim. I broke the silence with a question to Steve, my roommate, "Hey Steve, may I borrow your rubber?"
Not getting a response from him, I repeated the question. "Steve, may I please borrow your rubber for a bit?" Even though I was not able to see his face, I detected a tone of apprehension in his reply. "What? What did you want?"
Without hesitation, I replied, "May I borrow your rubber? I will give it back to you when I'm done with it." I'm not sure if he freaked out or just was overcome by shock, but his response was clearly agitated. I was offended and hurt that he would not let me borrow his rubber. How unkind of him.
I continued to beseech my case, "Steve, what's the big deal? I just want to use your rubber for a little while and I will give it back to you. Why are you acting so weird? I promise I will give it back as soon as I am done with it." Needless to say, that wasn't going to happen.
After a few more exchanges, he realized that what I was referring to was an eraser. I have always referred to an eraser as rubber. I had no idea that "rubber" meant something else in America. I could see the weight lifted off him when we figured out that I really did not want his "rubber" or give it back to him after use. That was the last time I asked anyone to borrow a rubber.
By the way, I also have another story that I can't put in print, but maybe I will be able to share in a more private setting.
I have lived in the United States for about 20 years now, and I still have no explanation for some words and phrases that are commonly used. I have asked around and have not gotten satisfactory explanation.
For instance, why is football referred to as "gridiron?" What does that mean? There is a group of people in the Navy who are referred to as "midshipmen." Who are they and how did that term come about? I'm sure all of you have used the phrase, "the proof is in the pudding." I have seen pudding but nothing in it that would allude to some proof about the pudding.
Why is a flag flown at half mast as a sign of respect? How did that practice come about? Finally, some people have nicknames or variations that are derived from the original. For example, Robert might go by Robbie or Rob. Susan might go by Sue or Susie. Tell me, why does one go by Jack, when he is named John?
So, in an attempt to gain better understanding, I would like to find out if any of you know or can explain why these phrases are used. E-mail your response if you know the answers to any of those questions. Maybe I can finally put to rest my "search" for an answer to those questions.
With that, I will "make like a tree and leaf." See y'all later, alligator. And for you foreigners, Abianto, Ciao, Sayonara, Chai Jian and Vanakam.

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