Part 5

“Mothers for Sale”. And other Dilemmas of the English Language

When Solange and Fernando arrived in Princeton, New Jersey to study for their graduate degrees, their English was good, but there were some traps awaiting them as they started settling into the town and studying at the university. Living in the country where English is spoken as a native language is different from speaking it in Brazil.

Before being admitted to their universities, they had to take the TOEFL test. TOEFL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language and is required of foreign students seeking admission to English speaking universities. All four skills are tested, speaking, listening, reading, and writing. There are practice workbooks and tapes you can study from before you take the test, and this they did for a long time. They both did well on the test, but they found the listening comprehension to be the hardest part. “The hardest part is listening comprehension because you are listening to native speakers speak very rapidly using idiomatic expressions, some of which are totally unfamiliar”, said Fernando. It was just a foretaste of what was to come.

“Yes, the TOEFL test and the GRE test (another test they had to take, which is for graduate students) weren’t too hard “, Fernando remembers. “But once we started living here and trying to speak and understand English in every day situations, it was a different story. Trying to buy something from someone with a pierced tongue who is speaking very rapidly can be frightening” . A pierced tongue? When setting up housekeeping in the beginning, Solange and Fernando went to buy a microwave oven in a store with all the up to date appliances and electronics. To their consternation, the only sales clerk they encountered was a young girl with a pierced tongue who was speaking at the speed of light. They found a microwave oven they loved, but misunderstandings and frustration ensued with the language, especially when the clerk told them that their microwave oven came with a “mail-in rebate”. Many manufacturers offer special promotions on some of their products. When you buy something, you can mail in a card to the manufacturer who will then send you back part of the cost of the product. This is called a “mail-in rebate”. As Brazil doesn’t have this peculiar practice , when the young lady with the pierced tongue started to explain “mail-in rebates” Fernando and Solange were totally lost. Finally, trying to sort it all out, they tried to explain it to each other in Portuguese. The girl said “yes, that’s correct”! Well, they knew for sure that she didn’t understand Portuguese, so they looked at each other and burst out laughing. The girl started laughing too which helped to ease the tension.

Solange and Fernando knew they had to get to English classes quickly because, even without a pierced tongue, “mail-in rebate” would have been difficult to understand, and who knew what was awaiting them on their next purchase? “We started studying with a private tutor at the university’s International Center. We wanted to improve our accents, listening comprehension and conversational skills”, said Solange. The English classes at the Princeton’s International Center stress conversation. Grammar is studied as part of the conversation, and lots of time is spent on correct pronunciation. Idiomatic expressions form a big part of the classes. These are difficult for everyone. Fernando said, “We still don’t understand why you “get on a train” and “get in the car… we are not on top of the train/car”.

Shop clerks were not the only ones who gave them a headache with English. Even some of their distinguished professors were difficult to understand. Solange took a class in International Trade with one of them, who is widely renowned as a scholar in the fields of Economics and International trade. Many of his words were said with either the first parts or the last parts left out. “I especially remember the word “advantage” which was said without the “ad”. I kept trying to figure out what ‘vantage’ was”, Solange remembers.

As they continued to live and study here, their English improved and they felt more confident when they had to deal with shop clerks (pierced tongues or no!) and distinguished professors who talked funny. But always there would be something to trip them up. Chrysanthemums are perennial flowers that bloom here in the autumn. They are called “mums” for short. You always see lots of signs in the autumn saying “mums for sale” “I was amazed the first time I saw those signs” said Solange who had lived in England knew that “mum” means “mother” there. She didn’t yet realize that here in the USA we say “mom” with an “o”. “It didn’t strike me that they were talking about the flowers”, she said with a laugh. “Even more odd was when a friend of mine asked me, ‘do you like mums’? Of course, I thought, who doesn’t like mothers? Most of them anyway. There might be some you would want to sell, but probably not too many”.

More adventures with Solange and Fernando soon.

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