with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Teaching English – The TOEFL Test and Things That Go Bump in the Night

When I think of people taking a test that qualifies them as an official speaker of English as a second language (or third, fourth, or sixteenth for that matter), I have an idea of what the test should be like. The person should be tested on their ability to function within society using English when paying bills, getting a job, and learning how to talk shopping. There are other parts to English, like polite manners and visiting doctors and such, but I think that if someone can carry on a fairly simple conversation and get around town and find what they need to survive, they are doing great with the language. Not so according to my first introduction to the TOEFL test.

Alex, one of my English students, has asked me to help him prepare for the TOEFL test, required to qualify for proficiency in the English language and in order to get jobs in English speaking countries. With an estimate of one in four people on the planet speaking English, this “Test of English as a First Language” is supposed to verify their English skills, which I find ironic because it should be a test to see if they can speak English well enough to pass a test not necessarily sound like a native speaker of English. Have you listened to native English speakers lately? I can hardly understand them, let alone non-native speakers. Determined to help Alex prepare, I found a web site which features instructions, examples, and tips on how to pass the test. The first test question I read was:

Man: I feel kind of sick tonight.
Woman: Me, too.
Narrator: What does the woman mean?

Okay, so this is a common phrase and you would hope that the speaker would understand that “me, too” means “I got the same thing” and that “kind of” means “a little”. This makes sense, but then I got to question number two.

Woman: Did I do something wrong?
Man: No, I just got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.
Narrator: What does the man mean?

Wrong side of the bed? They offer answers like the woman is wrong, his side hurts, he is in a bad mood, and his bed is in poor condition. Well, which one is it? For someone not familiar with this colloquial phrase, it could mean literally that he slept poorly and the bed was bad and now his side hurts and if the woman keeps asking if she did something wrong, well, she might just have! What a question!

Then came question number three:

Man: I think Jane is coming apart at the seams.
Woman: No, I don’t think so.
Narrator: What does the woman imply?

What? That Jane’s clothes aren’t unraveling? Sure, we who have spent most of our lives with the stupid things English speakers say understand that Jane’s dress isn’t falling off, though some might like that. It means that the women doesn’t think Jane is crazy – or that Jane isn’t off her rocker…now what the hell does that mean? Off her rocker? Oh, that means crazy as a loon. Wait a minute. What does a bird have to do with being a basket case? Or maybe Jane is nuts? And what do nuts in baskets have to do with the looney bin? Oh, I’m on a roll, can’t you tell?

I was rather dismayed at the challenge of trying to help Alex pass the TOEFL test if it means that he not only must understand all the names we have for all the ways we use words like nouns, verbs, objects, subjects, prepositions, as well as clauses, imperatives, verb modals, and other jargon we forgot two minutes after leaving the high school class room, but he must learn all the idiot things we say without ever understanding what we are really saying.

I decided that some of the idiot things Americans (and a few of the English) say would be worthwhile to learn. At least they would be fun to teach, translate, and figure out. As Alex is a doctor-turned-house-cleaner-slash-janitor, one of the first idioms I taught him was “kick the bucket.” He knew “kick” and “bucket”. And he understood “kick the bucket” as knocking a bucket over with your foot and spilling water all over the floor. That made sense. Until I told him that it really meant “dead”.


“Yep, Alex, it means dead. Dead as a door nail.”

“What’s this?”

I explained that dead as a door nail (after explaining what a door nail was – do you know?) meant “really dead.”

“How can you be really dead? You dead or not dead.”

Well, Alex, let me introduce you to the idiocy of the English language. We happen to have a lot of different words and phrases that explain how “dead” someone really is. Kicked the bucket means fairly recently dead. Dead as a door nail is seriously dead, like stone, cold dead. Then we have variations on the theme of how long someone is deceased and we color our language with death phrases such as pushing up daisies, six feet under, passed on, passed away, extinguished, terminated, out the door, gone forever, dropped dead, kicked over, keeled over, died with his boots on, bought the farm, shoved off this immortal coil…

No wonder it’s so hard to learn our language. Honest to Pete, I’m not pulling your leg, this here funkified lingo is plum screwy. But as they say, if God gives you lemons, make lemonade, so there must be light at the end of the tunnel and a silver lining in that dark cloud. What, having a cow over the English language? Don’t worry, be happy. At least it’s not the end of the world. Besides, I’m sure you are cracking up right now over this silliness. And I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.

You must realize, of course, these sayings are just a drop in the proverbial bucket. And here I am trying to teach English to a couple of students when this TOEFL Preparation Test forces me to include all these ridiculous sayings?

graphic of ABC on a blackboardThe English “English” roll their eyes when it comes to Americanisms of “their” language. How quickly they forget that much of their “lingo” comes from when England controlled much of France (not to mention most of the rest of the world including much of what became the USA) and that this French influence has contributed to much that is truly messed up in the English language including such profundities as “chateaux”, “through”, “rough”, and “phlegm”. In one of comedian Bill Cosby’s famous bits, he expounds on how Americans think Europeans are so much more intelligent than us because they speak two, three, maybe 14 different languages. He challenges their intelligence, and comprehension of the English language with an invitation to talk “Bah-stahn” or “Nu Yark”, along with a trip to the South. “Let’s see how they do talking so’thern! ‘Yo awl cahm en ohvr hear – ya, hear?’ ‘Pardon, me. Are you speaking to me, sir?’ ‘Yeah, yous. Yous awl cahm he-ar. Rah-eight nah-woo.’ “

Ah, but then there was Eubonics. Need I say more when it comes to the messed up American version of the English language?

Next time you consider how bad you got it, think about those who risk their lives and brains to learn this idiot language so they can keep up with the Jones in the corporate world. I thought Hebrew was bad.

I was going through some homework with Alex and he got three things wrong in the same sentence. I laughed, “Hey, three strikes and your out.”

He got that look on his face that speaks louder than I can. “Yep,” it says, “Lorelle is speaking in tongues.” A few months before I had introduced Alex to “Whose on First” by Abbot and Costello. Spoken in short simple sentences, it was a great practice for synonyms and the crazy use of the English language. Here’s a reminder:

LOU: I love baseball. When we get to St. Louis, will you tell me the guys’ name on the team so when I go to see them in that St. Louis ball park I’ll be able to know those fellows?

BUD: All right, but you know, strange as it may seems, they give ball players nowadays very peculiar names, nick names, like “Dizzy Dean.” Now on the St. Louis team we have Whose on first, Whats on second, Idontknow is on third –

LOU: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of the fellows on the St. Louis team.

BUD: I’m telling you. Who’s on first, What’s on second, Idontknow is on third —

LOU: You know the fellows’ names?

BUD: Yes.

LOU: Well, then whose playin’ first.

BUD: Yes.

LOU: I mean the fellow’s name on first base.

BUD: Who.

LOU: The fellow playin’ first base for St. Louis.
BUD: Who.

LOU: The guy on first base.

BUD: Who is on first.

LOU: Well, what are you askin’ me for?

BUD: I’m not asking you — I’m telling you. WHO’S ON FIRST.

LOU: I’m asking you — who’s on first?

BUD: That’s the man’s name!

LOU: That’s whose name?

BUD: Yes.

Everyday Baseball Talk
This discussion on baseball led me to introduce him to other baseball analogies that have made their way into the English language. I was shocked at how many we came up with. I wonder how many of us use these all the time without considering their original source?

Cover all your bases.
Drive the ball home.
You missed the ball.
You struck out.
Strike out.
You struck out on base.
Take your base.
Take a walk.
I’m up to bat.
You’re next to bat.
Step up to the bat.
Step up to the plate.
I swung and missed.
It was a home run.
Your turn at bat.
Keep your eye on the ball.
You’ve got to lean into it [the ball].
Good eye! Good eye!
I smacked it over the fence.
It was outta there.
I made a line drive.
I dropped the ball.
…tossed me a curve ball.
It went out of the park.
That came out of left field.
That was a walk.
The bases are loaded.
Two down and one to go.
We’re in the seventh inning.
He’s playing with the majors now.
He’s in the major league.
He’s in the minor league.
Your batting average isn’t very good.
He threw a no hitter.
I hit a pop fly.
You’re batting 400.
He threw him out at first.
I hit a long fly ball to center field.
You gotta root for the home team.
He threw me a knuckle ball.
That was a foul ball.
He hit it out of bounds.

Alex, a major Russian sports nut, had only seen baseball in movies. He knew nothing about the game. So I got out pen and paper and drew a baseball diamond, marked in the shortstop and outfield, and graphic of a baseball gamenamed all the players and their responsibilities, dredging up ancient baseball trivia from the dusty attic of my brain. Girls weren’t allowed to play in Little League when I was young, but my father was a coach so I became the “bat girl” hitting balls out to the boys to practice catching and playing with them during the practice games. I was a vicious baseball player. Loved it with a passion. After spending hours in classes then fairly strict ballet and dance classes, this was a chance to run around outside and get all dirty. When we moved to Mukilteo, Washington, from the Lake Stevens countryside, my new school only allowed girls to play a form of baseball I was unfamiliar with called “softball.” My first time up to bat, I was rather shocked to see a ball the size of a cantaloupe coming at me. I swung with all my might (I had broken my share of wooden bats) and the bat connected with a thunk that jarred my arms all the way up to the top of my head and right down to my toes. I felt like my elbows had just turned inside out and my stomach came right up to my mouth with the pain. In slow motion I opened my eyes from the resounding shock to see the cantaloupe-sized ball drop to the ground not a meter in front of me, rolling off to the side and out of bounds. I only played a few more games after that, furious at the stupidity of softball. Why should girls have to play with the big balls and boys with the small? It’s pretty darn hard to smack a softball out of the park? There just isn’t the same joy of seeing that ball sail right out over the fence, making you the hero!

The memories of how to stand at the plate and hold the bat, how to make those great double plays, all came rolling back into my head after a 25 year absence and I started to teach Alex about baseball, at least on paper.

Explaining “three strikes” meant explaining the present day reference: The Three Strikes Law. The US legal system created a “three strikes and you’re out” law that states if you commit two violent crimes, you will be punished accordingly, but three crimes and you are in jail for good. It is believed that the fear of the “three strikes” law would help to reform criminals. I don’t know if it has or not, but I do know the criminal system as it works now doesn’t work well, so what is one more effort to improve it?

Brent and I got talking about all of these funny baseball saying and he reminded me of the most famous usage of baseball: SEX. How could I have forgotten that! To help Alex understand, I put together an example of how teenage boys talk about sex using the secret code of baseball language.

Boy 1: So how was your date last night with Sally? Did you get to first base?
Boy 2: Yeah, but I struck out at second. How was it with Alice?
Boy 1: Oh, boy, I got all the way to third base before I struck out.
Boy 2: Third base! Do you think you’ll go all the way next time?
Boy 1: I can’t wait to step up to the plate cuz I’m going to score a home run! It’s going to be a fly ball outta the park!

For those unfamiliar with baseball lingo, first base is kissing and trying to touch. Second base is touching outside of the clothes. Third base is touching under the clothes. A home run, or going graphic of a baseballall the way, is what you think it is. Now, some may debate with me that second base is under the clothes and third base is without clothes but not going all the way, but that’s a detail. When I explained this to Alex, he about fell on the floor with at the silliness of the Americans, while blushing for the silliness of the topic under discussion.

Teaching What Others Won’t

Tutoring English here in Israel, there are a lot of topics I will cover that most teachers won’t. It is a part of speaking the language to know what everything is called and how people refer to it. I’m sorry but sex and swearing are just part of the language. After all, it is the number one export coming out of the good ole prudish USA. While Alex doesn’t use swear words in English, or in Russian for that matter, he wanted to know what the f-word meant. It is in all the movies and all the kids in Russia use it without understanding what it really means. Alex figured it wasn’t a good word. I gave him the basic definition and then explained the various definitions of the f-word. It is one of the few words in the English language that is a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb, and probably a few others. Sure enough, I came up with the sentence: “That motherf-ing f-ker f-ing f-ed my f-ing f-er.” Whew! A word for that will work for everything. When you think about it from this perspective, you understand how the people lacking much intelligence use it to replace whatever word they can’t think of because it fills in all the blanks.

The incorporation of English swear words (or from whatever language they originally came from) into other languages amazes me. According to my Russian friends here, the f-word and shit are now used all over Russia, and everywhere else. Whether they are used correctly or not is another matter. Here in Israel, de-fook (very close pronunciation to our f-word) means screwed up and messed up, and a little crazy. A friend asked me how that translated into English. I told them it meant what it sounded like, “f-ed up”. He asked if it was only “up” or could you be “f-ed down”? No, I explained through hysterical tears, only up. He didn’t understand why there were such limits. Maybe I don’t either, but I never thought to ask.

graphic of the symbols of EnglandAs I tutor in this f-ed up language called English, Alex and Anna are determined to learn only the “American English” not the England English. I personally love an English accent and am one of the millions of Americans who believe than someone with an English accent must be more intelligent than I and most of my friends. Not true, but they SOUND so intelligent. Most foreigners, though, want to learn American English. This includes not only the accent and pronunciation of words US-style, but learning the cliches and terms unique to American English. According to Frank McCourt in his best-selling sequel to Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, he explains:

In America a torch is called a flashlight. A biscuit is called a cookie, a bun is a roll. Confectionery is pastry and minced meat is ground. Mean wear pants instead of trousers and they’ll even say this pant leg is shorter than the other which is silly. When I hear them saying pant leg I feel like breathing faster. The lift is an elevator and if you want a W.C. or a lavatory you have to say bathroom even if there isn’t a sign of a bath there. And no one dies in America, they pass away or they’re deceased and when they die the body, which is called the remains, is taken to a funeral home where people just stand around and look at it and no one sings or tells a story or takes a drink and then it’s taken away in a casket to be interred. They don’t like saying coffin and they don’t like saying buried. They never say graveyard. Cemetery sounds nicer.”

So I teach baseball lingo and explain which words are acceptable and which are not, and Alex and his wife breath in the language with a fierceness that is amazing, determined to enter the world of English and eventually immigrate to Canada. I wish I had such a passion for something like they do.

Tel Aviv, Israel

2 Trackbacks

  • […] tried to explain American baseball to a Russian? Or anyone who has no familiarity with baseball? I did and it was a nightmare, trust me. Americans are unconscious about their use of baseball references in their day-to-day […]

  • […] tried to explain American baseball to a Russian? Or anyone who has no familiarity with baseball? I did and it was a nightmare. Americans, even those who don’t understand the game at all, use baseball terminology as part […]

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