Using Internationally-Known Words – Beware the Cultural Interference Factor

There is a delightful article by Stephen Reilly in the March-April 2012 issue of “Voices” entitled “I remember you”.

Reilly says, regarding adult learners:

“Beginner-lever learners posses a wider and deeper word-base of English than they realize and unearthing this offers them foundations they can build on”.

I heartily agree that “unearthing” these words gives the students a sense of pride that they actually DO know some English and can serve as a “springboard” for learning.


Photo by Omri Epstein

However, when using internationally –known words, the teacher must be constantly alert for cultural interference. When the student’s face lights up and he “crows” “Oh, I know this word”, is that student ascribing the same meaning to that word in English that you are?

In the United Sates, a cottage is a very simple form of dwelling. Something you might have by the lake as a fishing retreat, very modest. In Israel you would hear someone say: “Did you see that awesome cottage he just moved into?! What a place!” Most certainly not a plain, modest, rudimentary abode!

The word  test in Israel refers to the written part of the driving exam. Students are often confused when they encounter the word in texts and try to find a connection to driving. As this meaning seems to be so entrenched I have resorted to placing little signs with the word “test” on the desks during exams. Having the word at the top of the students exam papers had no effect at all.

In fact, the word student itself is a problem. In Israel students are only those who study at university. A sentence describing a first-grade student can be very puzzling!

There are many more examples.

I would like to add a word of caution regarding use of such words as a tool for learning the sounds of the letters. Many words entered the language from English in a somewhat mangled form. How many people properly pronounce the letter “H” in hamburger? Many would swear that is an “ambuger”!

I’m assuming that this phenomenon is true in other countries as well, as it seems logical that it would be.

Can you tell me if my assumption is correct?

9 thoughts on “Using Internationally-Known Words – Beware the Cultural Interference Factor”

  1. Not only language learners face this problem … a number of times we have gone hungry when invited to events which include “supper”. For me, supper = dinner – an evening meal (heavy and/or light). Down Under supper = dessert …

  2. One a lot of my learners have trouble with is ‘pudding’. Until I became an English teacher, I had only ever seen/used the word ‘dessert’ in a restaurant, and always called the last part of my meal pudding. In a lot of languages, pudding is a particular kind of deseert, similar to custard or blancmange (for those who know what they are!). This often confuses students or foreign visitors to my home, and I’ve had many discussions explaining the difference/similarity between the two.

  3. Judy and Sandy!
    I didn’t know any of those things! How does that Bernard Shaw quote go – countries divided by a common language? Certainly useful info!

  4. Well actually I wouldn’t describe a first grade student “a student”. I would say “pupil” as I am sure most who lean towards BrE would.
    Nice post, Naomi. False cognates is a fascinating topic.

  5. Ah Leo, in America one certainly would!
    We have encountered this in texts in class!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Well, it’s certainly true in the differences between some North American, British and Aussie English expressions. Then there’s the -ish, like Konglish (Korean use of English terms) that most certainly have different meanings, sometimes almost entirely.

    I’m confused though about Israel–these words are borrowed from English and used mixed in with Hebrew?

  7. Oh yes, Tyson!
    People use these word in the middle of sentences in full Hebrew. These words remain unchanged, there are others that are used with a Hebrew suffix – discussed becomes “discussnu” as the suffix for past is replaced.
    Interesting to know that about Korea!

  8. Well, here are some examples:

    open car = convertible
    fighting = they say this when there’s a competition and they’re wishing themselves good luck
    officetel = a room you rent that doubles as your house and office
    skinship = affection

  9. Tyson!
    I think “officetel” is the only one I would have been able to figure out on my own.

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