You Keep Using That Word…

I made a minor statement on a site I frequent, and I got a reply that struck me as rather odd–both in its content and its somewhat aggressive tone.

I made the comment that English isn’t easy for foreigners to learn, and gave an example of phrasal verbs to illustrate my point. The response was… odd.

So, I thought I would share my experience and insight on EFL (English as a Foreign Language) with the O-Deck at large.


The thing that most native English speakers don’t understand is that English isn’t a single language in the way that French, German, and Chinese are. Each of those have a very long history and a high degree of isolation (German maybe less than the others, but still significant).

In the course of my teaching, I often have the opportunity to explain the basic history of English. This is usually prompted by a situation where I have to explain that “well… this word is actually French, and that word is Latin, and we often use them in combination with this other word that comes from German…”

The simplest way I can explain it is that English is the bastard child of a bastard child. There are linguistic historians out there who can explain the details far better than I could ever hope to, but it boils down to this: English is a mutt. And a slut. It was born of the random fucking of multiple cultures, languages, and dialects, and it will hop in bed with any language that tickles its fancy.

It’a also a theif. English will blatantly steal any word or phrase that it finds interesting. We like it? Fuck it, it’s English, now.

I express this in rude terms (something English is excelent for, by the way), but I want to stress that this is one of the things I absolutely *love* about English. And I believe that this is one of the most significant reasons that it has become the lingua franca for the world. French used to be the universal language. But the French became too wrapped up in preserving the “purity” of their language. The world doesn’t want a “pure” language; it wants a slut that accepts any and all comers.

From the Other Side

For about 25 years before coming to China, my work and play revolved around English. I was a competitive speaker, a performer, a speech and drama coach, a published author, a copywriter, an editor, and more. I had a mastery of the English language. And then I came to China and started teaching it to people for whom it was not their mother tongue. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was brought down a few pegs. I was suddenly confronted with people for whom the very basis of the language was utterly alien. Culture guides language, language guides culture and thought.

For example: In which direction does time move?

Ask anyone who speaks a European language, and they will say “Forward, (of course!)”. Things are “ahead of you” or “behind you”. You “move forward” or “go back”. You “look ahead” and “look back”. We have “foresight” and “hindsight”.

In Chinese, time moves down. In Chinese, “next week” is “down one week” (xia ge xing qi –下个星期). Tomorrow, however, is “bright day” (ming tian–明天).

Chinese language “thinks” in a very different way from English–and most European languages.

Put Down the Dictionary

One of the most frustrating things I have to deal with is “the dictionary”.
In a recent Forbes article, Amelia Friedman recounted this typical interaction with undergraduates:

We don’t need to be bilingual because we already have the skills we need in the global marketplace.

We know how to use Google Translate, we’ve traveled abroad in college, and we watch Anderson Cooper at least twice per week.

[emphasis added]

The most common thing I say in my classes is “Put down the dictionary!” I don’t care how advanced you think your “universal translator” is… it’s wrong. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone thrust their phone in my face, open to the dictionary app, saying “But the dictionary says…” only for me to respond: “The dictionary is wrong. If you say that in America (England, Australia, Anywhere), nobody will understand you.”

N.B.  Sometimes it’s “amazo-fucking wrong”.

Turn Up, Turn Down, Turn In, Turn Out

One of the areas where communication breaks down is phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs (as I noted in my previous post) are real and integral parts of the English language. They are also one example of how English is a difficult language to truly learn.

In the thread that spawned this post, the commentor referred to phrasal verbs as “crazy colloquialisms”. This is a serious misunderstanding of the English language (and, frankly, language in general)

A phrasal verb is when multiple words (a phrase) combine to mean something different from the meanings of the individual words. English isn’t unique in this, but it’s still a factor that makes English difficult to understand.

Phrasal verbs are not something that is “outside” common speech. They are inherent English phrases which use words in ways which do not fall within the expected parameters. They are, quite frankly, the way we speak.

No matter where you go in the world, you will turn in reports, look up information, ask out pretty women, call in sick, turn down invitations, and run out of beer (Goddammit! Who drank all the beer?!)

That’s a Horse of a Different Color

Idioms: It’s a love-hate relationship. I absolutely love idioms. Not as much as I love colloquialisms (look down yonder), but they make me as happy as a pig in shit.

On the other hand… teaching them as EFL is… well… problematic (to put it politely). While some idioms can be explained, the vast majority of them are simply “common cultural knowledge”. I will say, with authority and conviction: “This phrase means X. I don’t know why, don’t bother asking”.

This is, of course, true of any language. The first time someone said “ma ma hu hu” to me, I had no clue what they were saying. Then a “helpful” (read: snarky asshole) co-worker translated for me. It means… “horse horse tiger tiger”. Ummm…. what?? “Just so-so”. Not a single person I have asked (all native speakers) has been able to explain to me why “horse horse tiger tiger” means “Just so-so”. It’s just an idiom.

As My Granpa Used to Say…

Colloquialisms are, I think, the best part of English. I loves me some local sayings.

For those who don’t know, a colloquialism is a “colorful saying”. They are frequently regional or local. Unlike slang (see down yonder), colloquialisms have a long lifespan–as evidenced by the fact that they are commonly preceded by the phrase “As my grandpa used to say…”

While colloquialisms can nestle into any grammatical corner, the most common (and most fun) fall into the range of metaphors and similes.

“He’s as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”


“You’re trying to fit ten pounds of shit into a five-pound bag” (recently proven impossible by Mythbusters).

The one I remember from my dad was “She’s five-foot tall and three axe-handles wide” (she’s short and fat).

Because they are regional or local, even native speakers won’t always understand colloquialisms. I ran into that somewhat frequently when I was living in Texas and Virginia (I’m a Wisconsin boy). But then… they often didn’t understand what I was saying.

Between native speakers, colloquialisms are either easy to figure out (there’s enough shared culture) or easily identified as colloquialisms–at which point we just say “What the fuck does that mean?”

Foreigners, however, frequently lack an inherent “feeling” for the language that lets them know that a set of words should not be taken literally. And they certainly don’t have the cultural and regional understanding to correctly interpret what’s being said.

That’s sick

Sick? You look healthy to me.

Slang. Oh gods… slang. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

Slang is the bane of anyone trying to teach EFL.

One of the core intents of slang is to make itself unintelligable to “old people” and “uncool people”. So… basically anyone who deals with language in an international context.

Slang has a half-life shorter than most transuranic elements.

I don’t teach slang. I will often refer to slang–but almost always to show how it causes breakdowns in communication, and shouldn’t be used.

My example: At a previous job (selling boats) I did a photoshoot. 3 models volunteered their time in exchange for copies of the photos (TFP; Time for Print (that’s jargon)). After weeding out the bad shots, I sent copies of the photos to the models. I also posted copies online. One of the models commented on a photo of hers with this: “That makes my legs look sick!”

I was taken aback. I thought the photo was quite good and showed her in a positive light. Why was she saying that it made her look ill or deformed? I e-mailed another one of the models and asked her what I had done wrong. She replied: “Sick means really good”.

That’s when I knew I was officially “old”.

The First Shall Be Last, and the Simple Shall Be Complex

Nothing has advanced my understanding of English more than spending 3 years teaching it to Chinese students.

You think you know English? Okay… Find a non-European who is just learning English and try to explain these words to them:

  • very
  • so
  • the


Explain the difference between “a”[uh] and “a”[ay].

“I have [uh] pencil.”

“I have [ay] pencil.”

To Wrap It Up…

One of the things I stress to my students is that language is not words; language is ideas. I loves me some colloquialisms, but I will get down-right violent about the complete wrongness of using “literally” to mean “figuratively”. It’s not about the words, it’s about the ideas.

Language isn’t about rules or definitions any of the shit the textbooks insist is ultra-important. Langauge is about communicating. There are a bazillion tools out there to teach people vocabulary and grammar and all that other textbook stuff.

Those tools will tell you that “The vodka is good, but the meat is rotten

English is like the game of Go: An hour to learn, a lifetime to master.

English is a very forgiving language. For daily interaction, we really don’t give a rat’s ass about details. Can I understand what you mean? Great!

When you step into anything more complex than buying a slurpee or taking a taxi to the beach, however, it’s a whole different ballgame.

Is It the Culture or Is It Me?

One of the things that they don’t teach you in your high school foreign language class, is that language is only… maybe… 50% about the words and the grammar.

Or… let me clarify:  Communication isn’t about words and grammar.  It’s about understanding.

God’s help me… I’m giving my taxi ddriver directions on how to get me home from Kunshan.  If I don’t show up for work tomorrow, it’s because I ended up somewhere in Hubei[1].

These are the replies I got:

  • Do you need help to talk to the driver?
  • [my address in Chinese] (from person A)
  • Give him Google map
  • [my address in Chinese] (from person B)

Every single person who replied took me seriously.  I had to specifically reply to them and say “I was joking”.

They understood all of the words I said.  And they understood the grammar.   But the actual meaning–the fact that I was using hyperbole (joking)–was lost on them.
This isn’t because they don’t know English.  2 of the people  who replied teach English (and they’re very good at it).   It’s because many ideas don’t translate with the words.
To Americans (and one or two Brits), hyperbole is very common; we use it in every third sentence.  I know, I know… My mother used to say:  “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times:  Don’t use hyperbole.  Not a single person will understand what you mean.”[3]
Never in a million years did I think she’d be right–until this very second.
I’ve been in China for 3 years, and I’m still surprised when people that I know can speak English are blindsided by (what native speakers would consider to be) the most basic uses of the language.

[1] Hubei is like… a bazillion miles over yonder.  It’s a completely different province.   Basically, I was saying “My taxi driver doesn’t know how to get from Waunakee to Lodi[2].  If I don’t show up for work tomorrow, it’s because I ended up in Las Vegas[2].

[2] Substitute with:  2 cities that are right next to each other, and someplace a thousand miles/kilometers away.

[3] Sorry for using you in my silly example, but things carry more weight when they come from Mom. Forgive me?  🙂

Thinking in Chinese

shuiOne of the most difficult things about trying to learn Chinese isn’t learning the words, it’s learning “how Chinese thinks”.   Languages are an integral part of a culture, and they reflect how that culture thinks.

In English, we have prefixes and suffixes that help us to understand what a word means.  Written Chinese has what are known as “radicals”.  They are, essentially, their version of prefixes and suffixes.

The character above is the radical for water.  It goes on the left, and it means that the word has something to do with water.

So… If you take “work”…


…and you add “water” to it, you get “river”.


And…  If you take “air”…


…and you add “water” to it, you get “steam”.


But…  If you take “sheep”…


…and you add “water” to it…    you get “ocean”.




JCPenny-LogoJCPenney is available in China!   They even have free delivery for orders over $100.

They list prices in Chinese Yuan, and their prices are about 15% those for comparable shirts here (A dress shirt from JCP is about 125 CNY, a Timberland shirt from a local website is about 700 CNY).   And the largest shirts I can find are designed for anorexic dwarves.

Well… I know what I’ll be doing shortly after payday:  Buying shirts that fit–and last longer than 3 months.

Hurray for the internet and a global economy!

Whiteboard 0001

Click to embiggen
Click to embiggen

An integral part of my teaching process is the whiteboard.  I am constantly bouncing in and out of my chair as I write things on the board and then come back to discuss them with the students.

The image at the left is what I wrote during part of a class.  You can see the huge diversity of topics.

This was part of a one-on-one class.  The student (an adult man) is mid-level in his English skills, but incredibly inquisitive.  I come to class with 3 hours of lesson plans, and sometimes don’t have time to do any of them–because he has so many questions and topics to discuss.  I love classes like this.  I wish every class involved the students walking in with a bushel full of questions, and me spending all my time doing my best to answer them.  Honestly… If I get through an entire 2-hour class without deviating from the lesson plan, I’m half disappointed and half angry.  It means that I haven’t engaged the students enough to get them thinking on their own and/or the students just don’t care.

As anyone who knows me will attest, it’s not difficult for me to stand up and talk for two hours.   But… that’s not what I’m here to do.

Today, I prepared a lesson based on this article.  In two hours we read the first 8 or 10 paragraphs.  We spent the rest of the time debating international politics.  In English.   The first part isn’t a big deal.  Everybody does that all the time.  The second part, however, is.   Discussions like this require not only an understanding of vocabulary, but the ability to put complex thoughts into a language that isn’t your own.

In contrast, I spent quite a bit of time this afternoon in my Chinese class trying to understand how “I feel quite cold” and “This tastes quite delicious” are (grammatically) almost identical.  There’s only one word that’s different between the two (“cold” vs. “delicious”).

As I continually tell my students:  Language isn’t about words, it’s about ideas.    You can learn every word in the dictionary, but if you don’t understand the context and subtext, you won’t understand the language.   Most European languages “think” the same.  The rules may be different, but the basic way of approaching language is reasonably similar.   Chinese and English are completely different at their very roots.  The languages don’t “think” the same way.

I have an amazing respect for Chinese people who have learned even basic English.  It is, arguably, the most illogical language on the planet–mostly because it’s not a single language; it’s an aggregate of dozens of bastardized interpretations (and outright thefts) of hundreds of other languages, pushed together and treated like it’s… well…  logical.

Don’t get me wrong:  one of the things I love most about English is that it is so wonderfully complex and illogical.  That’s what makes it the most flexible, versatile, and fun language in the world.

And, oddly enough, as someone who has loved the complexity of English since grade school, it took me coming to China to truly appreciate just how beautifully fucked-up our language is (and I say that with a strong sense of pride).  I have learned more about English in the past 3 years than I ever did in 12 years of public school and 5 years in university.

Einstein insisted that you do not truly know a thing unless you can explain it to someone who doesn’t know it.

I have always understood what he meant, but it has taken on a much more personal meaning since I’ve come here.

And I still have so much to learn.


IMGP9707Okay… technically it was the day after Mayday.

May 1st is International Labor Day.   It’s a national holiday here, so everyone is off of work.  I went into Shanghai on Friday (May 2nd) to take some photos and have lunch with a friend.  I ended up not getting very many photos.  Lunch ran long and the place I went to after lunch was butt-ugly (you’d think a place called “Plum Garden” would be pretty, wouldn’t you?)

The photo at the left is one of the shots I did get.  It’s a couple little shops on a side street.  I have no idea what they sell, but I liked the look of the building.