My host brother Alisher speaks very good English. This is even more remarkable when you consider that he is completely self taught. He told me he started learning English because he loved The Beatles and wanted to understand their lyrics. Now he has moved on to Nirvana and dreams of a pilgrimage to Seattle, but in the meantime he has continued to study English to the point where he speaks better than some of the English teachers I've met. He likes to use big words especially, such as “notwithstanding,” which he pulled out of the blue once and made me stop the conversation to figure out exactly what that word means. One day I complimented him on how many English words he knew, and asked him if it was easy for him to memorize new words.
“When I'm in a good mood, yes,” he replied. “But it is much harder when I am stoned.”
We soon figured out that he actually meant “sad,” but he didn't want to use such a simple word. (Once he knew what the word “stoned” meant, he didn't want to use that word either.) We came up with “down,” “blue,” and “depressed” as better alternatives.
My host Dad Oral has significantly less English ability than Alisher. He studied German in school, so basically he can read the letters, and he constantly makes guesses about how to say things in English based on the word in German. (He's close a surprisingly large number of times.)
Sometimes he likes to practice his reading skills by reading the English brand names on the tv ads. The other day, he was throwing around the word “kotex.”
“What does 'kotex' mean?” he asked me in Russian.
“Umm, that's probably not a word you need to worry about knowing,” I replied, smothering a laugh.
“Is it a combination of the words 'ko' and 'tex'?” he persisted.
I couldn't smother it anymore, and a giggle broke through. “Definitely not a word you need to worry about.”
He spent the next day, though, watching the tv intently for more kotex ads so he could try to figure out the mystery of what the word meant. I must admit, I was quite unhelpful, since I did not really want to describe the meaning to him, especially since I don't know a lot of those vocabulary words and would have to use charades. Not something I wanted to pantomime for my host dad and brother.
My 3rd grade students know about as much English as my host dad. We were playing a game in class one day where I threw a ball to different students and they all had to say an English word they knew. They had already covered “grandmother” and “brother,” “dog” and “cat,” “teacher” and “pupil,” and they were beginning to run out of ideas. I threw the ball to little Shon and he said the first English word that popped into his head: “Anna Rodgers!”