You find yourself talking with a group of friends. You’re laughing, they’re laughing, everyone’s sharing the experience — it’s a good time. Then, out of nowhere, an unknown word is flung into the conversation, and they’ve lost you.
Though some words and phrases may be a no-brainer for native English speakers, it may send non-natives to the books.
BYU-Idaho is home to many international students, misunderstanding phrases and words that are dropped in every other sentence leaves them sidelined and feeling out of place. While it is uncomfortable, many can look back at experiences in which they have been lost with humor.
“Holy cow,” said Alberto Tovela, a junior studying biomedical science. “The translation to Portuguese makes no sense. ‘Santa vaca.’ Can a cow ever be holy?”
“In Spanish, it literally means you can go very far,” said Iride Gonzalez Suarez, a sophomore studying business. “When the word ‘so’ is pulled into a phrase, it adds a limit. You only do so much, you can only go so far. It’s very weird.”
“I never thought ‘what not‘ would mean ‘whatever‘ or ‘et cetera,‘” said Lehi Estrada, a senior studying English. He shared when a friend said it, it got him thinking about knots. “Oh, he’s asking what type of knot you want, like a square knot,” Estrada said. “It took me a while to figure it out.”
“When I first heard ‘bless your heart,’ I thought they were being polite,” Estrada said. “For the most part, 70% of what people say is sarcasm and irony. And I think that is just rude.”
“The first time I heard it, I was like ‘What is the meaning of so sick?‘” said Charlotte Chen, a freshman studying business. Though confusing at first, she noticed her friends would often say this when she would wear her fancier clothes. “I thought ‘sick’ meant ‘disgusting,'” she laughed.
“When they call women ‘ma’am,’” said Lucas Castillo, a junior studying political science. “It sounds like ‘man.’” Castillo now knows it’s a way to address someone, but initially, when learning the language, he was thrown off.
“I’ve never heard this one,” said Reason Muyengwa, a freshman studying mechanical engineering. “Maybe I should feel at home?”
“I think of a bird that is frozen,” Muyengwa said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
For Siying Wen, a sophomore studying communication, this phrase is confusing. “Because diving is going into the water, but we are in the class, or in a Zoom meeting, how can I dive into the water?” Wen said.
“When they wish luck, they say ‘break a leg,’ which is not a luck wish,” said Stan Romanov, a junior studying business.
On top of learning a language, students have aspects of culture, history, and context to also soak in when living the international experience. Taking the time to explain what certain phrases or words which are used lessens confusion is experienced and can make a difference in helping international friends be included in conversations.