I was on a Tri-Met train in Portland, on my way downtown. It was mid-November, with rain and temperatures in the upper 40s, so being a Florida/Arizona girl (by acclimation if not by birth) I was wearing a fleece with a raincoat over it, a woolen ski hat, and gloves.
I glanced at my fellow passengers, wondering whether there would be anything similar to yesterday's drama when an inebriated woman, carrying a case of Heineken, had been removed from the train after alternately cursing at and offering beer to her fellow passengers (another story, another day, another blog post!) This morning, all appeared peaceful.
Until the passenger sitting opposite me spoke to me. 'I like Q Beanie', she said, approvingly. It was clear from her expression that a response was expected; however, my (culturally learned, but very real) British horror of interaction with strangers on public transportation was intensified almost to the point of panic by my lack of understanding. What, or who, was Q Beanie? A movie, perhaps? A famous person I'd never heard of? Ah! Maybe it was the local nickname for the Tri-Met red line we were on? Or, maybe it referred to a re-loadable travel card, the Portland equivalent of the Oyster card?
I played it safe, offered a non-committal nod, and said 'ah, OK, that's good then.'
But this answer was not satisfactory, apparently.
'Where did you get it?' she asked.
There was no escape -- I would have to admit I had no idea what she was talking about. 'I'm sorry', I said, 'I don't know what that means.' She looked at me doubtfully. 'I don't know what Q Beanie means,' I said firmly. The look she gave me reminded me of what my ESL students had often described, when, in conversations, 'we don't understand anything, and people look at us as if we are stupid.'
'It's a hat' she said finally. 'A beanie is a hat.' And just like that, the puzzle was solved; if a beanie was a hat, then Q was not Q at all; it was simply the sound made when linking the K (in like) to the Y (in you). And you was a colloquial substitute for your. Of course, if I'd known a beanie was a hat, I wouldn't have been misled by the Q sound, and the meaning would have been clear.
What's the point of the story? Well, just that it isn't only English Language Learners who struggle to negotiate meaning in conversations; we all do. However, whereas it was easy for me to stand my ground and ask for clarification, safe in the knowledge my 'level of English' wasn't the problem, this isn't the case for ELLs. They often give up and attribute their lack of understanding to their 'poor English', when in many cases it takes only one unknown word, or an unfamiliar pronunciation of a known word, for the meaning of a whole sentence to be lost. And then, as they are struggling to piece that sentence together, they miss the next one. And so on it goes. Just something to think about as we continue to try to improve our communication skills.
|Japanese garden, Portland, November 2017|