Learning (or, in my case, trying to learn) another language was high entertainment.
Immigration isn’t easy, isn’t fun.
These days, it can also be life-threatening. 

In English, I rarely if ever used a word the wrong way. I was a serious reader very young and had a big passive vocabulary. By passive, I mean I knew a lot of words but had never used them in conversation. I knew what they meant and how to spell them, but not how they sounded.

I had no idea that Too-son and Tucson were one place. Or that ep-ee-TOME was really an epitome. I remember those two examples because of the hilarity they caused the adults in the area. I was all of 8, but adults were not all that nice to kids. They still aren’t.

My feeble attempts to properly learn Hebrew was even more entertaining. I am sure that my fumbling attempts to learn the language, having caused hysterical laughter, probably played a part in my never properly learning Hebrew. I was so embarrassed by my errors, it didn’t seem worth it, especially since everyone knew at least a little English.

My first big discovery which occurred during my second day in the country was that Zion (Zy-on) means penis. In Hebrew, the pronunciation is actually tzee-own. So if you say that Israel is the “Land of Zion” using your good American pronunciation, you will reduce Israelis to tears of laughter.

They can be a rough crowd.

To add another layer of problems over the difficulty of just getting the words out through my teeth (which were not designed for all those gutturals), many words in Hebrew are very similar to each other but have different meanings. For example, sha-ah is an hour. Shannah is a year. And there you stand saying, “My Hebrew isn’t good. I’ve only been here for two hours.”

After a while, I spoke English and used Hebrew words as needed. Eventually, more Hebrew found its way into my sentences, though complex ideas never made the cut. I could say simple stuff. I could buy groceries. Chat about the weather, as in, “It’s really hot.”

The alternative was “It’s raining hard,” because you only had two seasons: hot and wet.

Eventually, I got to a point where almost everyone could understand most of what I said, sometimes without laughing, but not with joy. My accent made their ears hurt and they preferred English. It was less painful.

You might consider this when you meet immigrants who are trying to learn English. I mention this because having been on the other side of this experience, a bit of kindness to people trying to work through a difficult life transition while learning a new language and culture can go a long way to make them feel less lonely, threatened, excluded, and generally miserable.

Scape-goating our immigrants is identical to scapegoating our grandparents. Unless we are Native Americans, we are all immigrants.

FOWC with Fandango — Scapegoat

Categories: Anecdote, Humor, Immigration, language, learning, Marilyn Armstrong

Tags: , , , , , , ,

36 replies

  1. A gold star for this post! I know all sides of learning languages. I’m one of the lucky ones who learn them ‘just so’ but countless are the traps we are all falling in all the time, things we mean but are expressing to their contrary. Hero Husband is a great provider for ‘His’ dictionary, ie creating wrong new words which keep us laughing. I too am so full of words that I sometimes mix them all up and make a laugh-cake out of them. But I am not afraid to make a fool of myself and I’m very good in ‘speaking around an expression’ until the other person knows what I mean. And the older I get, the less I tend to worry about ‘doing it right’, as long as the other party gets the gist.
    And concerning immigrants, we have a saying ‘We are all strangers, in nearly all the places on earth’. More understanding and generosity would make things so much easier for everybody.


  2. I always find it interesting that many Americans who complain about people not speaking English do not, themselves, know how to construct a proper sentence, use correct punctuation, or accurate word usage.


  3. good article. Like you, I had a lot of words I read but hadn’t heard spoken as a child. Penelope and calliope. didn’t end like nope. Arkansas and kansas pretty different. My spanish improves with usage. I remember a high school classmate in spanish class wanting to say she was embarrassed. Used embarasada, which means pregnant and added to her embarrassment.


    • Words that are very similar from language to other language but mean something quite different are a major source of embarrassment. My son learned fluent Hebrew in a month. After 9 years, I had a solid 800 words that I could speak, with a passive understanding of about 2000 more which I understood but could not get out of my mouth. It’s hard as an adult trying to shift languages, especially in a hostile environment. We haven’t made it easy for newcomers.

      And I really thought “Tuck-son” was a different place than “Too-son.”

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The only time I’ve encountered the ‘English barrier’ was when I was employed at my last job. It was at a predominantly Spanish speaking clinic. I learned more Spanish there and had compliments on my accent, although they might have been making fun of it, I don’t know. I found that many of them could understand English and could speak it, but refused to for the reasons you’ve listed…they were afraid someone would make fun of them. Adults SHOULD know better, but then I presume all adults are MATURE, which isn’t the same thing at all. And thanks for the “Zion” lesson. Now every time I hear that word you KNOW what I’m going to think. Because Utah “Zion” is pronounced as the “penis’ alternative. Aw. 😛


    • It’s pronounced that way everywhere that English is spoken, so it was more than a bit of a shock to realize that is wasn’t the same word.

      I think many foreign-language speakers are embarrassed by their accents and limited vocabularies. And most of us don’t exactly help them, either.


  5. I spent two years in Slovakia teaching English for the Peace Corps. Slovak was a difficult language for me to learn, but my university students told me that English was the hardest language for them, followed by German.


    • English is hard because our grammatical “rules” have more exceptions than functions. We’re such a basket of words from all over the language map, too. Hard to learn, and also, hard to change unless you learn a second language early in your life. Kids who learned a second language in childhood become much better with languages.


  6. Ahhhh … you should come to Canada. We have people that have lived here all there lives who don’t speak English. I know this because they come to Home Depot to buy stuff and I have to figure what the hell they want. This is the result of a political policy Justin’s dad (Pierre) started called ‘Multiculturalism’. These days we are subjected to TV advertisements (propaganda) telling us that “Diversity is Strength”. Wrong. Diversity is divisive. And expensive. If there’s ever a war around here I’m not sure which direction these Diversive folks will be pointing their guns.
    You saw recently our wonderful Prime Minister welcoming people walk across our border – illegally. This has cost us over a billion dollars – putting these people up – so far. Some have been calling them ‘Refugees’. This is a lie. They had jobs, clothing, shelter, money – smart phones – nobody was shooting at them. They just want to come here to feast on our Social(ist) systems. They’re off to great start. If you go to any Medical Clinic in Canada I bet over 70 to 80 percent of the people in there that English is not their first language. They never paid into these systems, but they are not shy on using them. On the counter is a sign listing 8 languages that we will provide Interpreters for. As far as I know they aren’t being stopped at the border yet.
    I am not a bigot or a racist. And I love to help people. BUT this is outrageous. Socialism run amuck. Even after we get rid of this moron Trudeau, we are still stuck with his mess.


    • The kind of open borders we had 200 years ago was based on countries that had much more land than people. Times have changed.

      Now a bit of common sense needs to be added in. NO country has worked this one out well. It’s a problem everywhere. It would help if we tried to fix the native country so everyone isn’t running somewhere else to get away from wars and hunger and disease and desperation. Maybe your immigrants are better off, but ours are just this side of starving. It’s not a pretty sight and it is going to keep getting worse. It’s one of those things where (gasp) international cooperation would have made a big difference.


      • I apologize for my rant. I work every day with people from every culture, country, sexuality, lifestyle and consciousness. We all get along fine. The difference is they’ve applied the wisdom “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” They are integrating. Others are not.


        • There are always a few who just can’t integrate. We had a couple. She was a programmer, he was a genius. She wanted to go home to Moscow and never learned enough English to have any kind of conversation. But she was the only one. Everyone else, whether they were from Pakistan or Kurgystan or Bolivia learned enough to fit in with a very strange group of people (no one is a lot stranger than a pile of nerds trying to build something no one has ever built before).

          But there were a few who just wanted to go HOME and speak their native tongue and eat the food they loved. Often, they were more or less dragged here by a spouse.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. I work in a company with a large immigrant workforce – it’s a bit of an eye opener to be honest. Even though I’m English working for an English company based in England, I’m actually in the minority because I don’t speak Polish or any of the other assorted Eastern European Languages we have here.

    It can be a HUGE barrier in trying to get my work done, but generally we muddle through. By far the biggest issue however is the vastly differing work ethics and culture.


    • I remember living in Israel, understanding Hebrew (everyone’s “other” language — I actually think that there were no more than a few people actually native to the country), writing my notes in English, and then sending everything out for translation and hoping they got it right! I think a lot of people see international “lines” that have always existed, as if god came down and drew the lines, planted the languages — and voila! There’s our world. But it has been constantly changing forever. Our current countries will last until they don’t and in a hundred years, no one will understand anything because languages are changing that fast.

      In the high tech world and at universities and hospitals, people come from ALL over the world. I had my heart surgery done by an Indian in a Jewish hospital staffed by people from every country in the world. And it will be more like than as the years roll on.

      It really IS time for people to cope with a world that has a lot of languages, cultures, styles, and governments. But of course we won’t. Excuse me, I have to go yell at the squirrels.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Many good points Marilyn. We are a country of immigrants.


  9. Such very important points, Marilyn. It’s interesting too that when people are busy not wanting immigrants or asylum seekers (often using their failure to speak English or the host coutnry’s language as reason enough not to admit them), there’s the assumption that the unwanted are making a bee-line for all the ‘good things’ the host country has to offer. There is little thought or sympathy as to how devastating it is for anyone to have to forsake their homeland even if it has been reduced to a hellhole by foreign invaders and manipulators (often the very host countries doing the complaining about the immigrants). All part of the notion that they’re ‘swarming’ in to take what is ‘ours’ from us.


    • That’s the REAL issue, isn’t it. Not that we are so wonderful, but that the places from which they are coming are so terrible. We can always find the money for war, so how come we can’t find the money to fight hunger and disease — and NOT start wars? I have always thought that the amount of money that gets spent on arms could solve most of the world’s problems.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely it could. Billions are just exploded across the Middle East. What kind of brutish ignoramus detonates money all over the globe and turns previously functioning nations – Libya, Syria, Iraq to name a few -into war zones and tells such appalling lies about them to satisfy corporate interests and makes us all believe it’s a bloody good thing?


  10. We English speakers can be a bit arrogant expecting everyone to learn English but also expecting people to understand us when we travel abroad. I recall the feeling of frustration I had trying to communicate when David and I travelled through China and Russia. I decided that in future I would be more tolerant towards the non-English speakers that I met at home. It is not a nice feeling to know what you want to say but not be able to make anyone understand. English is a confusing language even for those of us brought up speaking it. It must be hell for someone who didn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tas, ARROGANCE is the key word here.

      – Sometime during the 70’s, I was in my early 30’s, already logged 5 plus years in radio/TV News (major markets) and was on Boston TV multiple times every day. Brief backstory to my arrogance: I believe I was reviewing a film or talking about the cast of a film. I wanted to praise the young leading actress – the ingenue. I, with complete confidence, described her as the “EN-ja-noo. I walked off the set, smugly proud of my work. The assignment editor, a Lou Grant type, summoned me to his desk and loudly corrected my botched prounciation. Yes, I was profoundly embarrased. Lesson learned!

      – During the late 50’s, working as a salesman in a department store’s children’s shoe department, I became fed up with a verbally abusive customer. I collected the shoe boxes and snarled as I walked away, “What a SCHMUCK!!” Fellow workers smiled.. Inside the storeroom, the manager called me over, calmed me down and explained what “Schmuck” meant. Lesson learned.

      – Back to the 70’s. A fellow TV News Colleague – on the air during the holidays, wished our Jewish viewers, “Happy CHOO-Na-Kah”. The General Manager rushed onto the news set, angry and red-faced before quietly correcting the anchor’s blunder. She didn’t think it was a big deal.

      -In an old episode of “The FBI” (original series w/ Effrem Zimbalist, Jr.), Steve Forrest guest stars as a Russian secret agent on assignment in Arizona. On the phone with a colleague, Forrest, the Russian says, “I’ve eluded the FBI. I’m in TUCK-son”. The phone is bugged. The secret agent is quickly tracked down because of his “TUCK-son” blunder.

      I’ve learned we all blunder when using words we don’t fully understand. We used to call them “ten dollar” words. We should give pause before making fun of immigrants navigating our very complex language.

      I’ve blundered a lot on my overseas trips. My Paris visit, in the 60’s, could be exhibit A of “The Ugly American” butchering the native tongue.

      Our Commander-In-Chief routinely slays our national tongue. He doesn’t get it. He doesn’t care.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Traveling abroad is a real eye-opener for everyone. I know not everyone wants to go or can afford to go, but anyone who has the option to not only travel but to spend more than a few days and become really acquainted with the place, it’s worth a lot. It changes your life in many ways, both big and tiny. It also improves your willingness to try eating different food!

      And, I should add — we should send KIDS abroad — maybe Mexico which is close enough to keep parental anxieties under control. Children pick up languages so easily compared to adults. A long summer in Mexico, living with actual Mexicans and not at a fancy resort where everyone speaks English and the culture is standard American — I think most of them would come back speaking at least basic Spanish with a vastly improved understanding that our world, our country, is NOT the only one — or even the best one.


      • We should send kids overseas. A local high school here teaches Japanese and until recently each year some kids went over there and stayed with Japanese families for a week or so. My friend’s son aged 13 went on one of the trips. He was keen to go back again but for some reason, it was decided that the kids should not stay with families but in hotels or maybe hostels. I’m not sure. Anyway, it made the whole thing too expensive so the trip was cancelled. I found this bizarre. I thought to stay with families so they could experience Japanese life was the whole point.


        • I would have thought so too. A hotel is just another hotel, no matter where it is.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Tas, Marilyn and I were discussing this yesterday, including sending your kids overseas where they can receive exposure to other cultures. It would be a REAL education. Nice, if you can afford it. Should be done during adolescent years when so many behavioral traits are foundered. It will certainly give you a more balanced view of the world as you grow older. It would give us more sensible people to navigate our country, our world — especially during times like this. We might have even avoided our current political crisis — if we had more sensible people in the political arena and consitutents supporting their political choices.

          Liked by 1 person

          • There used to be a lot of exchange student programs although it required a lot of fund raising for kids to participate. It worries me if they are now turning what was supposed to be an experience of home life in another country into just an overseas holiday staying at hotels and going on tours.

            Liked by 1 person

    • We have a president who speaks gibberish.


Talk to me!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Travel with me

Travel snapshots from Toonsarah

Thoughts & Theories

My Personal Rants, Ravings, & Ruminations

France & Vincent

Writing Magic, Myth and Mystery

Barb Taub

Writing & Coffee. Especially coffee.

This, That, and The Other

Random musings on life, society, and politics.

Keep it alive

A look at life, achieving good physical and mental health and happiness

Covert Novelist

Just another WordPress site

Salted Caramel

Blogging, Motivation, Lifestyle and much more.

Sarah's Attic Of Treasures

Making My Home A Haven is important to me. Sharing homemaking skills. Recipes and food. Bible Studies. This is a treasure chest of goodies. So take a seat. Have a glass of tea and enjoy. You will learn all about who I am.

Green Screen

The Environmental Movie Podcast

bushboys world

Photos of my world and other stuff I hope you will enjoy too. Photos taken with Canon PowershotSX70HS Photos can be purchased.


Independent views from someone who offers some historical context

My Blog

Just another site

National Day Calendar

Fun, unusual and forgotten designations on our calendar.

Cee's Photo Challenges

Teaching the art of composition for photography.

Trent's World (the Blog)

Random Ramblings and Reviews from Trent P. McDonald

Views from the Edge

To See More Clearly

serial monography: forgottenman's ruminations

wandering discourse, pedantic rant, self-indulgent drivel, languorous polemic, grammarian's bête noire, poesy encroachment approaching bombast, unintended subtext in otherwise intentional context, unorthodox unorthodoxy, self-inflected rodomontade, …

draliman on life

Because sometimes life just makes you stop and think

The English Professor at Large

Posts about old Hollywood, current concerns



The Day After

Musings, Photography, Writing, and More



Chronicles of an Anglo Swiss

Welcome to the Anglo Swiss World


Your Source For The Coolest Science Stories

A Day In The Life

People, Places, Nature, LIFE!

Curious Steph

explorations on the journey of living

%d bloggers like this: