Monday, November 9, 2009

E.S.L. -- English as a Silly Language

I was talking today with my friend’s sister, Dawn, who teaches English as a Second Language. It occurred to me that learning English as an adult must rank up there as one of life’s more difficult challenges, alongside passing the bar exam or scaling K2 or getting poetry published. Learning formal English is one thing. Learning all the idioms, slang and grammatical exceptions is quite another. I can empathize. I recently spent three weeks in Australia. I had enough trouble understanding the Australian language and it’s much more closely related to English than, say, Arabic or Chinese.

I have highlighted below some of the more difficult challenges I see facing today’s ESL students. In an effort to be helpful, I will try to translate complex passages (look for italics).

English has to be more full of idioms than any other language. Given that it’s the only language I speak, I should know. For instance, I could have an axe to grind, a stitch in time, turn on a dime, be fit to be tied, take you for a ride, throw caution to the wind, throw you a curve, throw in the towel or throw down the gauntlet. Translation: I could have a grievance, do it now, make a quick turn, be angry, fool you, take a risk, surprise you, give up, or issue a challenge.

And then there is slang. For instance, I could say to my BFF, “I know you want to go to Mickey-D’s because you’re jonesin for a Big n’ Tasty, but I’m afraid it’s going to give me a J-Lo.” (Clarification: I could say this. I never would. If I do, please shoot me.) Translation: Friend, I know you want to eat some dead cow at a fast food establishment, but I’m afraid doing so will give me a large butt.

Then there is the added complication that while foreigners have trouble speaking English, many Americans have difficulty as well, which only confuses those trying to learn the language. Take this quote: “One of the very difficult parts of the decision I made on the financial crisis was to use hardworking people's money to help prevent there to be a crisis." --George W. Bush. Translation: Obama 08!

So how about a shout out to Dawn and all of her students for attempting to acquire a language that many Americans, presidents even, still struggle to master. Nice work!


  1. It's so hard to post a comment since I have to disable the "No Script" auto block that actually shows me where to post my comment.

    BUT....what a wonderfully musically written piece. So much rhythm! And I applaud you completely for your excellent choice of topics. You're purty durn good at this writin' stuff.

  2. I'm not sure what you mean by the "no script" auto block. I'll have to look into that (maybe when I get my "dummies" book!). Thanks for the compliments -- just trying to find something to do to pass the time until things starts happening on this Third Way blog that I'm following.... :-)

  3. I'm just glad I learned this dern language at the age of 5 and have no memory of the wretched experience.


  4. Interesting!
    We had an American teacher on our English courses and it was so much fun! When we asked something he would usually try that word or sentence how it sounded and then have us a reply 'correct or not'.


Mmmm, comments - nom, nom, nom, nom!


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