Recently, my husband and I were heading back to North Bay after a weekend down south. We were taking the back roads to avoid the “Southern Ontario traffic nightmare”. We came over a hill and I yelled, “Stop!!!!!” My husband slammed on the brakes expecting to see a moose or bag of money that fell off a tractor. But I had spotted something amazing and I needed a picture. It is the picture that you see here – a tree growing out of the back of an old truck. I was captivated by this. How did a full grown tree start growing out of the back of that truck?? How long had it been there? Why had no one damaged it or tried to move it?
As I was snapping pictures, I started thinking of some smart remark to make. The first one that came to mind was, “now that is what they mean when they say ‘someone wrapped their car around a tree’.” I giggled to myself because I thought I was so clever. Then I started to think of some of our learners whose first language is not English. Boy would they ever be confused about that phrase. “He wrapped his car around that tree.” You really would have to see a picture like this to understand that phrase and the mental image doesn’t match what I am trying to say. I really mean that the driver must have had an accident but it sounds like a complicated gift wrapping idea.
We use so many phrases to express how we feel, how we see things or to get a point across. We often don’t even think of the phrase and how it sounds to people whose first language is not English. No wonder newcomers to our language get confused. How do you “wrap a car around a tree?” Really think about it. Or “he was as happy as a pig in poop.” I myself, have never seen a smiling pig but maybe you have. Here’s one I often say to describe our students, “he’s smart as a whip.” Can a whip be smart?? I was just talking to our teacher Maureen and she told me that one of our students was “really thinking outside the box.” I can see our student sitting on the floor with a box by his side, his finger resting on his cheek, looking to the sky for inspiration. AND on the box is written in bold letters, “no thinking allowed”.
This has been a good lesson for me, that I need to WATCH MY LANGUAGE. I need to start thinking in terms of what others hear from me when I speak. Do people understand what I am saying? Do my words or expressions make sense to everyone? Am I using a term that is only understood to me or is it a universal term? I can still hear my mom clearly say to me, “your room is a jackpot.” I knew exactly what she meant – my room was a mess. When I said that to my husband when we were first married, he looked at me and asked “isn’t a jackpot a good thing??” To him it meant that he won a prize. If he thought a messy room was a prize then he won!!! We all use words and phrases that make sense to us but can be so confusing for others.
We really make our language difficult. Here is a test for you. Count the number of times you say a common expression that really doesn’t make any sense. And try to think of it in terms of how a new English speaker interprets what you have just said. It could lead to a lot of funny imagery.
As the makeup of our country changes, we must all remember to watch our language. Make sure your message comes across clearly so that you are understood and so that others aren’t confused. I hope you can wrap your head around this blog…just kidding 🙂