Navigating the English Language

Even when traveling and working in English speaking countries, there will be differences in communication. Common words can have different meanings, be short hand jargon or slang, and body language plays a crucial part in conveying meaning. April, a WorldTeach American Samoa volunteer, talks about the challenges and humor involved in navigating a "new" English language. 

With my students on Halloween

When I speak, it’s not difficult to figure out where I’m from. If the slow pace and slight drawl don’t tip you off, the “y’alls” and “might shoulds” will do the trick. Maybe this is why I’ve always found accents fascinating. Or maybe I’m just looking for justification for my bizzare speech. Either way, I spent far too much time in college comparing my accent to that of my yankee friends. And learning the proper use of important collegiate terms like “wicked.”

Since moving to Samoa, I have learned a whole new dialect. For example, in Samoan, the letters p and b are interchangeable. A student may call himself Billy one day and Pili the next. Which, to Samoans, is all the same. But to his poor white teacher, it’s all very confusing. This p/b swap has caused more than a few moments of hilarity in my classroom. One day, about to embark on a editing assignment, I asked my students “What is a peer?”

“It gets you drunk!”

And just like I learned the northern use if “wicked” in college, I’ve learned the Samoan use of “too” this yer. You see, in Samoan, “so” and “too” are the same word. So ask someone about a hike: “Oh, it’s too far.” Inquire about the weather: “It’s too hot.” (This last one somehow seems to double as an excuse for my students to fall asleep in class too…)

Now if that were the extent of the complexities of Samoan accents I would be a much happier camper. But like all things Samoan, it’s never as simple as it seems.

In Samoa, a facial expressions is like a passport. You won’t get anywhere without it. An eyebrow raise means yes; it also serves as an all purpose greeting.

This took me a while to adjust to. I spent weeks feeling like everyone on the island was getting fresh with me when I passed them on the street. Imagine if a catcall suddenly just meant hello! And when I started teaching the problem only got worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my students were especially sassy with me. I would ask a student if he needed a pencil and get a quick raise of the eyebrows in return. How dare he!

Of course, I’ve shake the feeling of being offended and have even adapted the eyebrow raise myself. Which is where I ran into trouble.

I guess technically where I ran into trouble was New Zealand.

On our school’s spring break I took a trip to New Zealand to visit a close friend who is living in the land of the kiwis this year. And I brought my sassy facial expressions with me.

I hopped off the plane into surprisingly chilly weather and started giving chilly glances to every man, woman, and child I passed. The more I tried to stop, the more I came to realize that my eyebrows had developed a life of their own. I couldn’t stop myself from answering questions with my eyebrows, and only seconds later would I remember that most people enjoy verbal answers too. The poor New Zealanders who took us in must have thought that I was especially slow. No wonder they were all so kind to me.

This is no to say that the Kiwis don’t have unusual expressions of their won. Something good will be “sweet as!” I spent the week playing a private game where I would finish the simile in my mind.

The accents, too, confused me. More than once I was offered a bear as soon as I got into someone’s home. Only by the end of my trip was I able to register that yes, after a long day of travel, I definitely wanted a bear. Another time, while staying with an especially heavily accented New Zealander, she told us “Owl gits youth ear bead.” I tried to nod agreeable (and probably raised my eyebrows against my will). Only when she brought out an air bed did I finally make sense of her sentence.

My trip to New Zealand was incredible. Sweet as. I saw amazing sites, jumped off of the Auckland bridge, and was the recipient of incredible New Zealand hospitality. But by the end of the week I was exhausted from the effort of deciphering everyone’s words and was glad to return to Samoa, where no one thinks I’m trying to hit on their grandmother when I attempt to say hello.

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