Asking an American About America

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Welcome! You've moved to New York City to study English.

You are surrounded by native English speakers. Finally! Now, you can learn about American culture from real Americans. 

What happens? Not quite what you expected. 

You hear someone in a cafe talking about "a Bronx cheer." You ask him to explain the meaning of the phrase. His answer is even more confusing: "It's something we say at a Yankee game when Boston is in town."

"Why?" you ask.

"I have no idea. Just because." 

Huh? That was not very helpful. 

Here is the honest truth: Not all Americans know everything. 

Think of people you know in your hometown:

  • Some are very smart, well-read, and seem to know a little bit about everything. (Like my father.) Have a question about history, or science, or math? Ask him. He will answer the question, and even tell you a story to make it interesting.  
  • Other people are helpful with certain subjects. Want to know where to find good sushi? Ask Michele. Have a problem with your computer? Ask Theo. Want to gossip about a pop singer's new girlfriend? Ask Suzanne! 
  • Some people are smart, but they are not good at explaining ideas. They give answers that are confusing or unclear. 

Americans vary in the same way. 

Some Americans are very bright and interesting people; they take pride in understanding everything about American language and culture, and love to explain it to you. Most people can help with certain topics, but they are not as knowledgeable about other areas.

Don't be discouraged!

If you have questions, teachers are typically the best people to ask. But even they are not perfect. 

Here are some suggestions for finding American friends who can help you: 

  • Choose people carefully. Look for Americans who are patient, knowledgeable, and willing to explain words and phrases by using examples that you understand clearly. They are the best friends to have. 
  • Find people who share your interests. Want to learn more about a certain subject, like American sports? Look for someone who knows much about the topic, and who wants to share their passion with you.  
  • Do a search. If you find a new word or phrase, don't just ask people. Look it up first. Start with Google or Wikipedia. For vocabulary, try Merriam-Webster online. For popular idiom/slang, look at the Urban Dictionary. If you still do not understand, or you are not sure how to correctly use this word, then ask someone. 
  • Suggest a trade. If you have many questions, ask if you can buy them a cup of coffee or tea in exchange for some time in which they explain some words or phrases -- especially idiom (or slang) that is not clear to you. 
  • Be considerate. If they explain something to you, write it down and remember it. It is not polite to ask people the meaning of the same word again and again. Also, do not ask them too many questions at one time. 
  • Show your appreciation. People want to know they helped you. Try using a new word in a conversation with them. Show that you remember what they taught you! 
  • Share information about your life. Let them ask you questions about your country and your culture. Teach them about your favorite foods, for example. If this person is nice, you may want to make them a lifelong friend. 
Tom Penketh