Many eons ago, I was working at Disneyland. Suddenly, upon the audience exiting, I saw a tour group pressing their hands and bodies against the wall of the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln theatre. “America The Beautiful” was playing. They were feeling the vibration of the wall and humming. I saw a few people in the group signing, and I was excited to see this.
Never before has my awareness been heightened about how difficult the English language is, more than when dealing with deaf culture. Sign language isn’t universal. As I was hand-spelling English words with my fingers, it became quite obvious the deaf tour group was foreign, as I was trying to sign to a person who didn’t speak English.
The other day, I saw a little boy point at the doggy in the window and declare to his mother that even dogs have first names and middle names… and the one he was looking at was named Jack Russell. I had to laugh. It was pretty interesting for him to put that together, without realizing that was indeed the breed of the dog. And while this would be a cute observation just watching any kid declare this, it was interesting because this child was speaking fragmented and broken English. It made me realize that we use hundreds of words each day, and perhaps of all languages, English must be the most confusing.
We have homonyms like THEIR, THERE and THEY’RE. Those are probably just as confusing as the synonyms little and small. We have street slang, business lingo and never mind the made-up words and acronyms texting technology has created for us like LOL, LMAO and BFF.
In everyday English, we use French words on our American menus for cuisine isn’t French at all, like “Soup Du Jour” at a truck stop diner. And we use terms like ‘bring home the bacon.’ We don’t literally mean stop at the grocery store and pick up a pound of the breakfast meat, but rather bring home your paycheck.
We have cutesy supplements we add to people’s names, like Kelly-Belly, Sher-Bear, Silly-Billy and Slim Jim. It does not mean that Kelly is fat, Sher is a grizzly, Billy is silly or Jim is too skinny. But I guess to someone just learning English for the first time, this might be confusing as they may think we’re offending someone or criticizing them, when we’re merely accenting with adoration as we say their name.
Then we have names for things in the animal kingdom like CATFISH, BULLFROG, FOXHOUND, SPIDER MONKEY and BIRDDOG. And none of these animals have actually mated with one another to create such an animal hybrid species. How do you explain THIS to a person who is learning English? It may not make any sense and only further confuse the process of learning our language.
Foreign people are not deaf, but I have observed human nature take over in people shouting louder as if to get their message across.
Many people complain about pressing 1 for English, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on voicemail systems for other languages and having DMV tests and voting ballots instructions in other languages. Basic street signs in other countries don’t accommodate the English-speaking to tell us where to go or how to do things But the one thing which has become obvious to me is that there is a Universal language:
a smile, a wave, music, dance, animals, nature, food and kindness. These are the things which bring people together, unite us in joy and unite us in spirit. And it’s these things which you really don’t need words for at all.