Hosting two exchange students from different parts of the world can have its challenges. Language, primarily English not being either of their primary languages, is one of those challenges. It is also one of the main reasons that most students do an exchange for an entire school year in the United States, to become proficient in English.
Our student from Brazil, Thomas, taught himself English by watching television and movies. He is actually pretty good but we work a lot on sounds that his mouth physically has trouble creating. Just like it is really hard for me to roll my rrrrs like they do in so many of the Latin languages (he speaks Portuguese) Thomas finds it very difficult to create the ld sound. An example would be the word world. Thomas says something closer to woooold. His mouth just can’t create the physical configuration that produces the correct sound. I can’t tell you how many dinners we have all laughed while we tried to say words from each other’s language. It is a lot of fun to hear his progress as he gets closer to being able to say world.
Speaking English is, of course, only half of the challenge. Understanding it is a whole other story. Not long after the boys first arrived, Derek asked Thomas to bring his bed sheets to the laundry room. Thomas smiled, said yes, and headed to his room. When he didn’t return for quite a while, Derek went to his room, pointed at his bed and asked him again to bring his sheets to the laundry room. Thomas also pointed at the bed and said yes. The next thing I saw was Thomas walking toward the laundry room carrying his sheets, pillow cases, mattress pad, blanket, quilt and shams. I honestly think that his plan was to drop off that load and go back and get the mattress. Not only did he not understand what sheets were, he also didn’t understand the concept of washing them. Apparently this had been taken care of for him. Let’s just say Derek took care of that little educational moment right away.
Little things also happen that really make you think about how much we assume people understand. Now Oliver, our other exchange student from Czechia, learned English in Great Britain. We have a lot of fun with him because you never know what accent he will be using from the regions he travelled through. This last holiday season we took both of the boys to St. Augustine to see the lights and to tour Flagler College. As we entered the lady’s reception lounge our guide pointed out the eleven priceless Austrian crystal Tiffany chandeliers that hang from the ceiling. Oliver turned to us with a weird look on his face and asked us why they were priceless.
We explained to him how an item that cannot be replaced can be considered priceless. He continued to look at us like we were crazy. It took us a few minutes but we finally figured out that he was translating *priceless* to *worthless* (or without value). Here we were having this entire conversation as to why the chandeliers were priceless, and all he is hearing is us trying to justify why something of great beauty and value is worthless. Two completely opposite conversations because one word was lost in translation.
We are living in a moment of time that has an abundance of words, headlines and statements. All of these words mean different things to different people. If the experience of hosting these two students has taught me anything it is that being proficient in English is just the start. Learning how to listen, how to ask good questions and how to use our words to bring about a clear understanding for ourselves and others. Those are skills that are truly priceless in any language.
Sincerely, Mark Ramey