Lanugage Traps for Foreigners

31 05 2011

Language and culture can be tricky, and there are a lot of unhealthy traps that a foreigner can tumble into without even trying. The Swiss friends with whom we are currently traveling in the United States have gotten a massive dose of both in the past couple of weeks.

Heading off into uncharted linguistic territory.

They have been pretty good sports about it all, even if, as is sometimes the case, the joke happens to be on them. And even if most of the information goes in one ear and out the other because it will be useless to them when they get home in 6 days.

In my previous post, I mentioned my role as the color commentator as we pass landmarks, cruise through national parks and drive down Main Streets of small towns along our way. And some of the stuff we have been talking about really does merit a blog post.

Cultural connotations can be difficult to understand in the language of origin, and most are more or less gibberish in some other language that doesn’t have the words for it. Here is a short list of a few things I have recently tried to explain… I have listed them in the order of least difficult to most difficult to describe in a foreign language.

See how many of these you can do in a language that is not your own, and let me know your foreign friends’ comprehension and/or reactions:

  • Why are there little red flags on the sides of American mailboxes?
  • 100 miles does not equal 100 kilometers, and 100 degrees Centigrade does not equal 100 degrees Fahrenheit (but that 100 degrees F is still hot enough….)
  • The difference between “hash browns” and “hash brownies”.
  • How drivers at an intersection with a four-way stop sign organize themselves so that chaos does not ensue in the middle of said intersection.
  • What are trailer parks, and how do you identify their human declination, “trailer park trash”?
  • The micro- and macro- economic benefits of 24-hour shopping. (And the fun of a 3 a.m. soccer game in Aisle 6 of your local supermarket using a can of tuna instead of a ball.)
  • Why it’s completely appropriate to dance with some guy to live music in some stinky bar in some little town in the middle of nowhere out west and then later ask to borrow his cowboy hat for a photo opportunity. (Prerequisite: alcohol.)

And here is one I haven’t even attempted on my Swiss friends yet, but know from past experience with other Germanic peoples that it’s pretty much impossible:

  • Major League Baseball.

    Does not exist in Europe.

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2 responses

31 05 2011
Leanne Shirtliffe (Ironic Mom)

This is cracking me up. I love seeing things from a new perspective.

Also, are there not 4-way stops in Europe?

1 06 2011
Evelynn Starr

There are no 4-way stops in Europe as far as I can tell. Or at least my friends have never encountered one. Such intersection challenges are usually solved with a roundabout or a traffic light.

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