[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 26 November 2020]
I was saddened to hear of the passing of Alex Trebek, who hosted Jeopardy for 37 years.
Then I came across an article about how immigrant families paid tribute to Alex Trebek for helping them learn English. And, wow. Yes!
When I first came to the States eons ago to be a student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, my English was very good. So good, in fact, I had a perfect score on the TOEFL. This great score was mostly because of my fascination with the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen and my conscious choice to only read novels in English from the time I was 14 or so.
Yes, I’m fun at parties.
I came to America with an epic vocabulary and knowledge of Springsteen lyrics, but I found small talk harder than I’d imagined. The little things, it’s always the little things.
When you’re learning a language, becoming able to make your intentions known, no matter how crudely, is not that hard.
Your basic tourist vocabulary:
“Where is bathroom?”
“Two beers, in cups.”
“Is your hand hook? Interesting.”
Is not that hard to achieve. It’s just putting in the work and studying the glossary.
But small talk is an absolute bear—it’s so littered with phrases that don’t make any kind of sense if taken literally.
Like my favorite phrase—and this may be apocryphal but I refuse to look it up because I want it to be true—is “Not my monkey, not my circus”, which supposedly is what the Polish phrase for “not my problem” translates to in English.
Again, I’m not sure this is true, but I desperately want it to be.
Nevertheless, just think about it. Whichever language you speak. Run through your last conversation in your head and think about how many phrases actually don’t make sense if all you know is the literal meaning of words.
I spent a lot of evenings in my apartment in Lafayette, Louisiana, learning English from my tiny TV set. I came to America with two suitcases and a generous Swedish student loan policy, so my apartment was quite, quite empty.
For my sanity, I did invest in a 12-inch TV set, which I mounted on the box it came in, and then watched it on the floor with a pillow behind my back to make the wall slightly less uncomfortable.
My must-watch shows were, just like all the other immigrants in the article linked above, Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.
Jeopardy was Alex Trebeck being a calming, solid, and dare I say aspirational, presence, while Wheel of Fortune taught me the invaluable phrases you have to know to live in America.
This immigrant says thank you, Mr. Trebek. Happy trails.