Monday, August 16, 2010

English as a Second Language

Aliens, 1985

Quiz Time!

Do you know what these words mean in English?

  1. Trolley
  2. Carrier bag
  3. Hob
  4. Doorstops
  5. Lollies
  6. Chippie
  7. Minced beef
  8. Torch
  9. Jumper
  10. Plimsolls
  11. Trainers
  12. Pillar box
We lived there, but we didn't speak the language.

In 1985 our family of nine crossed the border to a different country, where we got free health care, subsidized transportation and an education. Our dress, manner and accent gave us away as foreigners, but EVERYONE was nice to us anyway. Never once did we feel anything but welcome during our year in England. Nobody scuttled away in fear, or insinuated that we were there to take advantage of their lifestyle (even though we were) when they heard our R's. In fact, people sought us out because we talked different.

Classmates invited our kids to tea from the first day, their parents offering to come round for them—which they did—in taxis, because they didn't own cars. Shop keepers offered free sweets to the American children, and asked where we were from. Most of them had never heard of Utah. When we explained it was in the west, we were always asked if we knew their brother/aunt/second cousin in California. Neighbors didn't know why we were there, how long we were staying or if we were there to steal their job. Without knowing our circumstances or intentions they just acted neighborly.

They came for Thanksgiving and tried cranberries, and for a 4th of July barbecue, where they ate chicken marinated in 7-up. Why would we change our family traditions because our neighbors didn't share them? And why would we suddenly embrace Guy Fawkes Night as a major holiday when we'd never heard of it? Sure, we went to the party and ate beans and chips around the bonfire, but no one expected us to understand the Gunpowder Plot just because we lived there. And no one asked for our passports when we called our chips French fries.

Our year in Yorkshire was nerve wracking enough without persecution. I was embarrassed to ask for Q-tips (cotton wool) and molasses (treacle) and then not understand the replies. How was I to know their apple cider was alcoholic? Or that polite friends offered to pay petrol money for a ride to church? That a few pence should be left next to their telephone when you used it to make a local call? We committed faux pas after faux pas: wearing an inappropriate Halloween costume, expecting restaurants to be open on Christmas Day; swearing when we didn't even know it . . .

I can't imagine how horrific our year would have been if our kids had been frightened that our names were on a list of possible illegal immigrants. Or if we were suspect because other Americans had smuggled drugs. While we lived in York my tooth broke. After the dentist made me a crown, I asked for the bill. His office staff was not set up to take money or insurance, so I was treated like a Brit—for free. What if it was in the newspaper the next day that hoards of Americans were coming to England just for free dental work? Some might be, but I wasn't. My denial could have been lost in translation.

We searched out people who were like us, people who talked our language. We went to church to find them, discovered a restaurant that served decent hamburgers, found a store that sold root beer. The familiar was comforting. It seems logical to me that any immigrant family would feel more secure moving to an area where they would be understood, where they could communicate.

Axel (my grandpa) came from Sweden when he was 17. He met Agnes (my grandma) when he moved into her mother's Swedish boarding house. Agnes taught him English; eventually they married and moved away from the local Swedish community. Twenty years later he was called on to offer a public prayer in church. He was so embarrassed by his accent that he stopped going to avoid being humiliated again.

While I agree that new immigrants should learn our customs, culture and language, I think we need to be patient and not pass judgment on first generation immigrants. English can be tricky, even for Americans.

Quiz Time Answers
  1. Trolley: Grocery cart
  2. Carrier bag: Shopping bag
  3. Hob: Stove
  4. Doorstops: The ends on a loaf of bread
  5. Lollie: Ice cream on a stick, like a Creamsicle
  6. Chippie: Fast food joint
  7. Minced beef: Hamburger
  8. Torch: Flashlight
  9. Jumper: Crew necked sweater
  10. Plimsolls: Indoor gym shoes
  11. Trainers: Running shoes
  12. Pillar box: Mail Box

Pillars of the community, 1982

Coming up: A Year in York


kenju said...

You are so right!! I have never lived in a foreign country, but I'd hope the natives would be patient with me as I was attempting to learn their language and idiosyncrasies.

Debbie Couture said...

It's nice to see someone writing something favorable about immigrants. My son in law is from Guatemala and I have neighbors who dislike immigrants-legal or illegal. You present a nice view. He has learned english very well. He does enjoy the local Guatamalan Restaurant.

Christie said...

Amen, sister. Amen.

The Grandmother Here said...

Yup. I had trouble with the language when I moved from Canada to Alabama.

Grandma Kc said...

VERY well put!

~j. said...

Each time I read you, I love you so much more. This is a brilliant post.

Mrs. O said...

I love the relatability of this. I do. Had to share it.

Kim said...

Well said! What a great post.

- from an immigrant now US citizen who loves marmite and sausage rolls, and many other strange things.

P.S. I must say 90% of the time I have felt very welcome here.