I was invited to eat dinner with the family of my friend, Lina. Lina and her family were Italian immigrants right off the boat. Lina’s mom made the best chicken minestrone I had ever had. Each spoonful had a strong presence of chicken. It was delicious! When I uttered the words, “Colonel Sanders, eat your heart out,” Lina’s dad pushed himself away from the table, totally disgusted with my comment, and went into the master bedroom. Lina’s mom asked her what I said and what it meant? Lina asked me. I had to stop and think for a while. This was an expression I grew up with. Hmmm! After some thought, I explained to Lina that no matter how hard anyone could try, I have something better. Lina explained this to her mom, who in turn explained to her dad through the bedroom door. Lina’s dad immerged with apologies for his misunderstanding.
Yu, a young second grader from Korea, asked me how to spell the word, lunch. I spelled it out: L-U-N-C-H. Yu then said that she wondered why her mom spelled it R-U-N-C-H. My intent was to tell her that her mother hears the letter L as an R in her language. I started out by saying that her mother “did not know . . . . “ Yu immediately jumped to the defense of her mother and said that she was smart; she knew everything. I had to backtrack and explain that when I tried to learn an East Indian language, some of their letter sounds did not exist in the English language. I did not know how to pronounce them at first and still have difficulty with them. Perhaps this was what her mother was experiencing. Phew! All was well!
I was watching the news on TV with my former mother- and father-in-law. There was a story featured on the expansion of prostitution in downtown Toronto. The word, “prostitute” was spoken several times. My mother-in-law asked me what a prostitute was. My in-laws were devout Muslims. I was wondering if I should even attempt to explain in front of my father-in-law. I took a deep breath and explained in ever so clean language that prostitutes were women who sold their bodies for money. My father-in-law smiled and said, “Nice girl, Kelly. You use good words.”
Long story short, you should never assume what an ELL knows of our language. Idioms are not literal. Most ELL’s are struggling with literal meanings to get by. Idioms, I can imagine, could be a scary challenge. It is wrong to assume that intelligent people of any nationality have a complete command of the English language and it’s spelling. How would you pronounce the Arabic combination of “dh” or “ddh?” Get the picture? Off-color vocabulary is not usually the first to be learned by persons just entering our country either. These words have to be handled delicately and with finesse, depending on who is within earshot.
Do we spare our ELL neighbors the exposure to our language? Would that be protection or isolation? What is your stance? Send it via my Contacts page and be eligible to win a voucher for a free e-book version of "The Yellow Sea Lioness" or "The Orange Chihuahua" -- your choice!