Monday, July 8, 2013

English is a Difficult Language

If you want to have some fun try getting one of your teaching friends (high school would be good), and ask to be a guest lecturer on food preparation. Make sure that you take your camera with you and it would be even better if it recorded video with sound.

Now ask the class the following question: How would you prepare chocolate chip ice cream with frozen vanilla yogurt and a bag of chocolate chips? It actually is a trick question because you really should say “How would you prepare a frozen dessert with frozen vanilla yogurt and a bag of chocolate chips?” You can’t really make ice cream with frozen yogurt. It’s still frozen yogurt.

No matter which one you choose you will have some interesting stuff for The Tonight Show or even Letterman’s stupid pet tricks. The facial contortions alone will be worth their weight in gummy bears. It would work really well if you could interview each student one at a time so the others don’t hear each participant’s answers.

I would think that if you asked the same question of some people that don’t have English as their first language that you might actually get quite a few to respond with something along the lines of that you would take a bowl, spoon in some frozen vanilla yogurt, open the bag of chips and sprinkle some on top and then eat the dessert with a mixture of yogurt and chips in each spooned portion.

Sentence structure and word placement make English a tough language not to mention that some of the sounds are hard for people who grew up with a different first language to actually phrase. Italians find the “th” sound in the word the difficult at first. I remember that when I visited northern Italy on a ski trip and had the benefit of a friend’s friend (that’s not a typo) guide us around the town of Courmayeur, Italy. Eddie, my Toronto contact gave me a letter to take to his dad in Courmayeur, where Eddie’s dad was head of the ski school office.

When I arrived in the office there was only Eddie’s dad and me. He spoke Italian and French and I spoke English and had one year of Italian in high school which was more than a decade ago. When he read the letter his face lit up and the phrases started pouring out like lava from an erupting volcano. I did understand part of one phrase which was that if I needed any more money to come and see him. Shortly thereafter a sweet young French-Canadian female instructor walked in and helped with the translation.

Eddie’s dad then took me to the main ticket office where he introduced me to Eddie’s childhood friend, Gioacchino (pronounced Joe a keno). Gio, we always called him Giacchino, was learning English from a teacher born and raised in London, England and she just kept pounding on him to make the “th” sound instead of the “da” sound which was more common to his native Italian. Trying to explain off-colour jokes to Gio proved to be an exercise in futility for me.

I still can’t figure out how I got through customs with the two bottles of homemade Grappa that Eddie’s dad gave me on our departure—one for me and one to share with Eddie. Grappa in a frozen glass is pretty good otherwise it's a bit like drinking jet fuel. It does burn with a really clean blue flame.

Really nice people and I found that to be true in other parts of the town. I went shopping for oranges in a local store seeking some fresh fruit which was missing from all the restaurant menus.

When I asked the lady in the store how much she looked at me sort of sternly until I told her I was Canadian and tried a little Italian phrase—Che costa e (translates to how much is this). Well you would think that her long lost nephew just arrived in the store asking to buy oranges because I got the history of blood oranges and she bagged them for me, carefully gave me the correct change and sent me on my way with her head moving up and down like a bobble doll with a great big smile on her face.

I learned a valuable lesson about life and languages on that trip. If you just make a little effort to speak to people in their own language and show apologetic body language, they will do everything in their power to assist you. It seems some of the Americans visiting the town thought that if you raised your voice and spoke more slowly in American (apparently they don’t speak English) and also enunciated in an exaggerated manner that somehow people who spoke another language would immediately understand you.

In today’s modern world nothing has given people more problems than 3rd party support contacts that are based out of India for North American businesses or telemarketing contacts from (who really knows where they are) speaking English but not one that I can easily understand. I try but I politely say no thank you and just hang up. It isn't worth the effort. Companies like McAfee, Norton, Dell and Bell Canada have or will lose my business because they insist on farming those parts of their business off-shore.

English is tough enough to understand from someone of your own region so we don’t need to be adding to the problem especially when it comes to technical stuff that has a language all of its own. That high school class up above there will probably be able to tell you what a terabyte and a flash card are but ask them what a slide rule is or an analog clock is and they might give you the same twisted face they did with the Chocolate chip ice cream exercise above. Ask them how to actually use any of them, including an analog clock with Roman numerals, then be prepared to use up another flash card, maybe two.

If you see someone having a difficult time with English, stop and help them. Show some patience and you will at least get a smile in return. I think that is why Canadians are well-liked all over the world. We like to help others. I had a boss once who told me that once like it was a bad thing. He didn't make it anywhere near retirement age and I’m still kicking the boards with a smile on my face.

Being nice to people has its own rewards. Speaking to others in a manner that they will understand better is all about being nice.

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