Sunday, February 07, 2016

Learning English kind of sucks.

“Hey my man.” 

photo credit: wiseGeek

I have to admit I got a funny look on my face. Because this is not a greeting I’m often met with. Especially from an older gentleman I don’t know at the East 67th Street Library. I was there for English Language Conversation. New York Cares sponsored the event and invited native English speakers (such as myself) to chat for a couple hours with recently immigrated adults.

But Mitchell (we’ll call him Mitchell) had come prepared with questions. He wanted to know whether "Hey My Man" was friendly or some kind of insult. Apparently they keep saying this to him at the deli. 

I leaned over the head of the table with my little group gathered around: Parvin, a woman from Iran, and Mitchell and his wife from Myanmar. I wrote out "hey.my.man" and said it's definitely friendly. Suddenly, the three of them all started to try to repeat after me, you know, to learn a new friendly greeting. I shut that down fast because you can go to hell for less. I could only imagine Mitchell's conservative sixty-something wife in all seriousness hey my manning the deli guy. 

Mitchell jumped in with another question. He wanted to know what to say to strike up a conversation with someone on the bus.

I scratched my head and said something about how you’d have to be careful you didn’t come off as suspicious. No one knew what suspicious meant, so I had to figure out how to explain it.

Eventually, I decided the best way to strike up a conversation with a random stranger on the bus would be to complain about the weather or the temperature in the bus. But I said you’d have to keep your antennae up and make sure the person you were talking to was on board with the whole idea. I stuck my fingers on the top of my head to make sure we all were on the same page about antennae.

Then I taught my group the following important vocabulary words:
  • Townhouse (how exactly it is different from an apartment building and still called a townhouse even if in a city. Also, the no mix n' match rule applies. No one will understand if you say "housetown.") 
  • Sedimentary Rocks (apparently why you can't build subways in Myanmar)
  • Snarky 
  • Fly-Over States
Each dutifully wrote their new words down in their notepads and my heart went out to them.

It was about an hour in, and I was getting pretty cocky about my English language skills but then the questions seriously leveled up.

Parvin wanted to know what it was called when you say a poem in a sing-song voice, somewhere between singing and speaking. 

I thought about cantors … but do cantors cant? I mean really, would anyone ever say “He was up there canting all night?” I don’t know, but I decided not to mention the word “cant” because of the extreme danger of mispronouncing the vowel in cant and going horribly wrong.

I flirted with “chant,” but when I muttered “maybe chant?" under my breath Mitchell proudly defined “to chant” a synonym for “to protest” -- as in the newscaster saying “The protesters chanted ‘Black Lives Matter’ while marching up the street.”

It's understandable why he’d think this, but when I tried to explain what chanting really meant and brought up shamans, magic and football fans, everyone became extremely confused as to what this had to do with reading poetry. I backtracked with great alacrity and wild hand gesticulations.

In the end, I went with the very unsatisfactory “recite.” As in, "you recite poetry in a sing-song voice."

At that point, Mitchell's wife piped up something about southern accents and the different words used in the south. I immediately made trouble for myself when I responded, “Y’all fixin’ to watch the Super Bowl?"

Of course I then had to define “y’all” and of course I had to then go and say it meant basically the same as “you guys.” And of course everyone then wondered if you could say “you guys” to mixed company. 

And they would not accept “well… sometimes” as any kind of good answer.

I need to practice up on my English.
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