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IT'S THE PITTS -- ENGLISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

by: Lee Pitts

If you ask me, Rotary Club members are amongst the finest people on earth. Besides all the good deeds they do the reason I have such a deep affection for Rotary is because they helped educate me. Over 30 years ago Rotary International made me a Rotary Graduate Fellow, enabling me to pick any university in the world in which to study as a postgraduate. All expenses paid. For a destitute young man who had never been out of the country this was a very big deal.

As a result of studying about all the animal breeds in college I'd always wanted to go to that part of Great Britain where most of the important farm animal breeds were developed. So I selected what I thought was a university in the United Kingdom and a month later I got a letter from Rotary informing me that I'd been accepted and was all set to attend the University of New England, in Armidale, New South Wales.

Which I later learned was in Australia, not England!

You know how some things you think are terrible at the time end up being among the best things that ever happened to you? Well, this was one of those times.

In addition to the school year Rotary would have paid for six months of language training if I needed it but since I'd be going to another English speaking country I figured I didn't need it. Boy, was I ever wrong. In retrospect I needed at least three years of language training to prepare for Australia. For the first two months my wife and I were there I hardly understood a word. I asked for a napkin at a fancy banquet and everyone thought it was hilarious that I wanted a baby's diaper to wipe my face. I asked who they were rooting for at a cricket match and offended everyone.

The Aussies weren't any better at understanding Americans. One day on the radio I heard that there was a big fire in Lake Ta-who-ee in the United States but I didn't know where that was. It turns out what they were trying to say was Lake Tahoe. In a pub I laughed that their blue plate special was veal Farmer John.

The best part of my schooling was that my classmates came from all over the world. There was a brilliant Malaysian bloke who had the worst handwriting I'd ever seen. It turns out he was trying to learn how to write with his right hand because left-handed people in Malaysia were frowned upon. Another brilliant student, this one from India, surprisingly failed an essay test because his pencil broke and no one sharpened it for him. (He was from a higher caste and was above such things.)

One Malaysian friend in Australia had been to America on a Rotary youth exchange while still a young boy. He lived with several families while in the U.S., including one ranch family who raised a variety of livestock. This was difficult because my urban friend was not used to being around animals. He could speak some English but that's not what his hosts appeared to be talking. He thought a cow pie was something you ate and was relieved when somebody “let the cat out of the bag.” He wondered why anyone would have put it in there to begin with. My friend was frightened the entire time he was on the ranch and his hosts never understood why until years later when he recalled a phone conversation he'd had with his parents back in Malaysia. He called up his parents and begged them to come and get him.

“But why?” the Malaysian parents asked. “Aren't your hosts nice people?”

“Yes, very nice. I just need to get out of here before they sell me.”

“Sell you? What on earth are you talking about?” asked his parents.

“They buy and sell their children here,” the youngster shockingly replied.

“What?” his parents yelped in tandem. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

“Because I heard them say they're selling some of their kids next week at the auction and if they get enough money for them they might buy a Billy.”

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