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Copyright (c) 2009 Lynda Stucky
Imagine coming to the United States with the purpose of relocating for a new job and new opportunities. Of course, learning a new culture and a new job is hard enough. If a speaker has a good grasp of the English language, he/she is definitely at an advantage. But if he doesn’t, he may find himself struggling to understand the oddities of the English language.
Even speakers who have an excellent grasp of the language can struggle with some English skills. Some of the high level skills that a non-native English speaker must learn and understand are knowledge of the subtle aspects of English. Most jokes, sarcasm and expressions or idioms are filled with difficult meanings. Knowing the meaning of words is not necessarily enough. To understand a joke or an expression, one must be knowledgeable about what’s behind the words, the context, double meanings, and reference points.
English is filled with expressions that if taken literally, will make no sense to the foreigner. Consider the following:
I will try to save face.
She is all black and blue.
Today is a red letter day.
Humor and sarcasm are also high level skills that require a huge amount of knowledge in order to understand. They usually contain a play on words that if the listener doesn’t know double or triple meanings of words, it will be confusing. There are often deviations of conventional linguistic rules. There are creative puns, and culture-specific or context-based meanings. Without the knowledge of the context or the cultural situation, the joke can be completely lost leaving the listener scratching their head, wondering what they missed and feeling left out.
Then there are English oddities that we Americans accept as normal since we grew up with them. But to a foreigner, it makes English sound strange and whacky. Our language is filled with unique words and phrases that often seem inconsistent to a non-native speaker. Here are just a few crazy examples of oddities in the English language that came to my Inbox from an unknown author.
– If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn’t the plural of booth “beeth”?
– If you have a bunch of odds and ends, and get rid of all but one, is the one left an odd or an end?
– If teachers taught, why didn’t preachers “praught”?
– Why do we ship things by truck and send cargo by ship?
– How can a “slim chance” and a “fat chance” mean the same thing, while a “wise man” and a “wise guy” are opposites?
– Why do we drive on parkways and park on driveways?
– A house can burn up as you watch it burn down.
– A form is filled in by filling it out.
– An alarm goes off by turning on.
With such confusing phrases, no wonder English is difficult to master! If English is not your native language, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification when you are unclear of the meaning of something. In fact, that’s good advice for everyone. And for those of you who enjoy using expressions and jokes, you may want to consider your audiences level of understanding of the English language before using them too frequently or being sensitive to your listener by providing an explanation of the punch line or the meaning of an expression.