Throughout my 10 years of hosting international exchange students I have grown my extended family by 17 amazing people from around the world. Not only do I consider all 17 of these students “my boys,” but I also consider their family part of my family.
During the last 10 years we have also come to laugh quite often at words, pronunciations, phrases, sayings and other challenges a language barrier presents. The word “presents” is one of those. It is a word with two meanings. It may be common knowledge to us, however, the slight difference in how it is pronounced is confusing to many of our foreign friends.
One of my early experiences with American idioms and exchange students was in 2010. I was about to leave a basketball game where I had been taking pictures for the Sentinel. I texted one of my boys and asked what he wanted for dinner. He said anything would be fine.
Granted, this was only my second year, but I was a teenager once too. And I learned really quick that when they say, “anything will be fine,” that doesn’t always mean anything will be fine. So I asked him again what he wanted for dinner. I received the same reply.
At this point I was ready to head home so I sent him one last text to say that if he didn’t tell me what he wanted I would just give him a knuckle sandwich. His reply had me laughing so hard I cried. He replied with, “Yes, I’ll take that. I’m sure it will taste fine.”
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of idioms that foreigners aren’t taught when learning English. They learn many from movies and songs, but most aren’t learned until they have their feet on the ground in America.
It isn’t only phrases that confuse them. Of course, the southern accent makes learning another language much more difficult. One of my boys used to ask if I could make the music “harder.” I knew what he meant, but I still had fun with him. Another one had asked who “cut the garden.” That one took me a little longer to understand. He meant, “mow the yard.” In Europe a yard is known as a garden.
One of their favorites to learn and attempt to perfect is the word “y’all.” They often practice it in the early months, trying to say it with a true, southern accent. By the time they return home, they mostly have it down. They have also learned to remove the “g” from the end of several words or talk a little slower. They certainly learn the language and the culture.
I wish I had written all of these sayings down over the years of hosting and supervising international exchange students. I could have written a book. There isn’t a week that goes by that we aren’t laughing until we cry over something one of the boys asks or says. But that is what it is about - the experience, the learning and the laughter.