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Trying to Understand English

October 4, 2012
Austin Lyons - Columnnist , Traer Star-Clipper

On any given day at work, I interact with many people who grew up outside of the United States. In my department alone, we have people from Russia, India, Costa Rica, France, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Israel, and Syria. In fact, the small team that I work in only has one person that was born in the United States. Me! During graduate school, my research group was equally diverse, and I worked with people from Russia, Iran, China, Singapore, South Korea, and Bangladesh.

Working with people with different backgrounds is fun and enlightening. I am fascinated by the stories people tell me. For example, search YouTube or Google Images for "driving in India". It can get pretty crazy over there. It's always interesting to hear about education in other countries too, which is usually very different than what we experience in the United States. For example, my friends who grew up in Seoul, South Korea explained that high school was very academically competitive. After classes finished for the day, the school would be open for a sort of "study hall" where most students would stay and study past 10 PM!

My colleagues are equally surprised by my upbringing. Many are from large cities, so growing up in a town of one thousand people sounds pretty unbelievable for those who grew up in a city of millions. For example, if you want to go out to eat in a city like Austin, TX you can choose from BBQ, Thai, Tex-Mex, Chinese, vegan, Italian, Cajun, Indian and everything in between. So you can imagine my friends' reaction when I tell them that we didn't have so many options. Actually, we didn't even have fast food. "You had to drive 20 miles for a McDonalds?" But I point out that we had a couple of options in town, like Casey's, which makes a pretty good pizza. The quizzical response is always "You get your pizza from a gas station?" Yes, of course, and we get donuts and breakfast pizza there too.

In addition to hearing fun stories about what life is like on the other side of the planet, my interactions with non-native English speakers revealed an interesting insight. I've spoken English my entire life, and yet non-natives can hear spoken English better than I can. For the first 18 years of my life I only interacted with people who spoke the exact same dialect as me. Our Midwestern accent (or lack thereof) is the only spoken English that I can easily understand. Yet my friends from India can understand English spoken with a thick Indian accent, a Russian accent, or a Southern drawl. Even more humbling is the fact that these colleagues all know at least two languages, and many know more. I can only speak English, and I can't even understand all varieties of spoken English. For now I make generous use of the phrase "can you repeat that?"

I encourage you to seek out an opportunity to converse with someone who speaks English as a second language. I bet they will tell you something interesting. If you aren't sure where to start, ask if they can tell you more about cricket or soccer. It's okay if you have a hard time understanding; I'm right there with you. I still only comfortably comprehend north-central Iowa English.

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