THINGS TO AVOID:
I don't think Americans realize how often they use non-dictionary slang terms.
Like there's a local woman who's constantly saying to everyone: "It's my turn to shine"... I've looked it up in every dictionary I can get my hands on, even online dictionaries too, and I can't figure out what the heck she means. Obviously how ever it is that she is using the word "shine" it is not ANY of the 37 definitions in the dictionary.
American specific technology...
In one of my early college classes, first semester, we had a reading assignment that was in class. She handed out a sheet of page, a 2 page long story, and asked someone to read it outloud so that we could all discuss it after. The story was about 2 boys in the Depression (1930s America), one a wealthy white boy, the other a poor black boy. The Depression had divided rich from poor as badly as whites from blacks were already divided. But these 2 boys did not notice either their social status or their race, and snuck out each day to play against their parents wishes. One day while playing on the subway, one boy fell in front of the subway and was killed. The other boy ran home and never told his family he had been there, while you now saw the family of the dead boy reacting to his death.
Usually I was one of the first people in the discussions after these in class reading assignments. Note this was a regular Literature class and not an ESL class. But this discussion I had not spoken up, as the story had puzzled me and I tried to wrap my mind around what had happened. One word in that story had not been explained and had caused me to completely have no clue what was going on in the story. The teacher, asked me if I was all right, apparently assuming the death scene had upset me, noting that I had remained silent and said nothing during the discussion. My response to her question was this:
"How did a sandwich run over the boy and kill him?"
She was puzzled, and asked: "What do you mean?"
After some back and forth between us, she realized I had never heard of a Subway before and my only awareness of Subways was the SubWay sandwich. That Subway was a slang nickname for a subterranean/underground train was unknown to me.
She then pointed out "But EVERYONE's been on a SubWay"... then another student pointed out... "No, there are only 3 cities in America that have Subways. New York, Boston, and Chicago, if you've never been to one of those cities there's no reason to think you'd ever heard of a Subway before."... the teacher starts muttering about "but tv, news, the papers...." and says "I thought you were from America?"
Oh yes, 15th generation Mainer. My family is the oldest settlement family in New England to still be living on the original settlement land, which we settled in the 1530s. We are also Gypsies and have no contact with the Americas. We speak our own language, and live practically unchanged since the 1500s. We are often mistaken for being Amish, because of our cloths and our lifestyle. We grow our own food, we make our own cloths, reading and writing is taught from the Bible, and that's all the schooling we ever get. We have no electricity, no toilets, no running water. No tv, no radio, no newspaper. We live in the forest miles from nowhere. We go years on end without ever seeing an American. I was 31 years old first time I ever talked to an American face to face.
And yet we are 14 miles from Portland Maine, a 2 hour drive outside of Boston.
The teacher was shocked and said: "I had no idea communities like that existed in Maine!"
Well, Stephen King certainly did, that's why he filmed Thinner on our farm and had he not done that, we'd never have had contact with Americans at all. Now we are plagued with American, Stephen King fan tourists trespassing on our land in mass hoards, and are in contact with Americans all the time like it or not. Which is how I ended up going to college. Someone in the clan had to know how to communicate with the screaming barbarians, flapping their arms around, waving cameras and decimating our crops. For 20 years now we have been under constant invasion by these people who call themselves Stephen King fans, as they go piss pants happy over meeting "the Thinner Gypsies".
And you know what? Because I went to college, I have a better understanding of the American culture then anyone else in the clan... but the rest of the clan, 400+ men, women, and children? They live in mortal terror of the American invaders who arrive every summer. They don't understand what they are talking about at all. They don't know who Stephen King is and they don't know what the Americans are talking about. They don't know what movies are. They don't understand that they were in a movie.
I was on the set of Thinner. You want to know what happened? A group of men showed up in our yard one day, carrying lots of machinery and equipment, said they were here to film a movie. We had no idea what they were saying. We didn't know what those things were they were carrying. We didn't know about Stephen King or movies. They ran around our yard making a mess of things for 5 hours. Them they screamed and yelled at us because there was no fog and they had to bring in fog machines. Then they made s line up our cars and drive them back and forth on the road over and over again. Then they said the cars didn't look right and brought in other cars and did the same thing again. Then they left.
They did not have permission to be there, they never asked if they could set up, they just barged in and started filming us without any one there having any clue who they were or what they were doing. All we knew was they keep saying "Stephen King sent us here, he wanted real Gypsies in the movie" and they told us the movie was called Thinner. That's all we knew. Tourists always ask, how much we were paid to be in Thinner, how did we apply to get in a King movie. We were never paid anything and we never applied for anything. We don't even know how Stephen King found out we were Gypsies or how he knew where to find our farm... it was a dirt side street into the Ross Forest off the beaten path back then... it's a main road now, paved 2 lane highway, 20 feet from the end of our farm, a big paved road which the town had to build just to accommodate the mass hoards of King fans that drive up in here every year since Thinner was filmed.
The film crew were trespassers who invaded our farm, and terrorized the clan into obeying their orders, because we had no idea what they would do if we didn't. The clan was literally terrified they were going to be gunned down and murdered by this group of screaming camera carrying psychopaths. To this day most of the clan still has no clue what a movie is or that those invaders were a film crew. They have no concept of it and even trying to explain it to them is over their heads.
Though I am a American native, when I was in college, I struggled to understand anything the Americans did or said. Their culture is so vastly different from Gypsy culture that it is like Americans come from a different planet. They are completely alien to us. I found it very difficult to interact with them on so many levels. They are creatures who plaster themselves in make-up, bath constantly, and glorify the destruction of family on levels that are monstrous. In college I ended up in social groups with immigrants. People from Guinea, Libya, Hatia, ... them I could understand. They had cultures focused on family. They didn't glorify divorce, abortions, and tossing their children out like garbage soon as their children turned 18. They respected their elders, they lived in multi generational homes with 30 or more people living under 1 roof.
The biggest difference between us and the Americans is their definition of the word family.
When Americans say family, they mean, a man, a wife, and 1, maybe 2 children at most.
When we say family, we mean, father, wives, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and great grand parents if they are alive. A family often includes 2nd-and 3rd cousins as well.
When Americans say "extended family" they mean aunts, uncles, cousins, and grand parents.
When we say "extended family"... we mean everyone AFTER the 3rd cousins, as well as the in-laws of the in-laws.
Even the most basic of words, like the word "family" have different meanings, for different cultures.
Cultural concepts outside of America are vastly, extremely different from American culture. For example:
I say all of this because... I wanted to show you that there is a far bigger issue you have to deal with then just simple words. You need to try to understand the culture of the people who will read your writing and you need to understand that they likely will have deep trouble understanding your writing, not because of your word choice, but rather, because your whole concept of what is "normal" is vastly different from what they see as "normal".
It's not enough to try to avoid certain words, because if you don't have a clear grasp on the cultural habits of the culture you are aiming to write for, you'll still fall short of writing something they can understand.
Hopefully, having a ESL person's perspective on this, helps you to better understand our perspective when it comes to reading something written by an American, but aimed at one of us non-American cultures. Good luck with your writing. It is good that you are trying to reach out and understand how to make ESL writing better. No everyone seeking to write ESL strives to do that.
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