English is a crazy language! I often remind myself that I’m fortunate to have grown up with what has become the international language of commerce, art, and everything else. English has become the default over French (the original lingua Franca) in situations from diplomacy to Internet shopping. It’s everyone’s second language—if it’s not the first.
I’m acutely aware of the advantage of having English as a first language. This is especially poignant, as my foreign language skills are dreadful! If I can’t become competent in Spanish, German, Italian or Dutch, let me, at least, become helpful to others learning English.
On a professional level, I’ve spent a great deal of time translating the improvisational English of my friends and clients from Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands into standard American style English for business communications. And, for the last couple of years, I’ve volunteered at the English in Action program at the Union of English Speakers, helping immigrants to the U.S. work on their conversational skills.
My first conversation partner/student was an engineer from St. Petersburg, Russia. We discovered common interests in cooking and true crime, spending our weekly sessions pouring over magazine articles and exchanging holiday recipes. My second partner/student is from Spain. He’s interested in politics and economics, but right now we’re working on smoothing out the edges of his English pronunciation. Poetry has become a great tool for this specific task.
The vagaries of Henrique’s English have made me more aware of the eccentricities of my language. I’ve taken to photographing common, or amusing, English language signs that reveal an English as a second language misuse of a common phrase. The first time I photographed this particular mistake, it was on the door of a Thai take-out place near the Union of English Speakers. The second was the English language sign on the window of a very classy hotel in Madrid. And the third is on the personnel only entrance to a friend’s place of employment.
What’s the problematic English language confusion? It’s simple. It’s CLOSE and CLOSED. Over and over again, I’ve found signs that should use the word “closed” (as in a closed door, window, or business establishment) replaced with CLOSE. To an English speaker, close means nearby. To the second language speaker it’s naturally mistaken for the opposite of open—closed—and it’s easy to understand their confusion.
The Thai restaurant’s sign made me giggle. “We will be close until 5pm.” I told Henrique that it was funny because it sounded like the restaurant was hugging me until 5pm, when the store would reopen and our relationship would end. It took him a while to digest that.
English is confusing, crazy, and confounding. I’m so lucky that I started with it!