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Open Sesame, Literally

January 03, 1998|NORINE DRESSER | Folklorist Norine Dresser is the author of "Multicultural Manners" (Wiley, 1996). Contact her through Voices or by e-mail: norined@earthlink.net

Everything in Jan's home reveals her talent as an artist and her love of Asian art. She has even painted her front gate with Asian designs and words from a Malaysian proverb, "If you know a song, sing it."

Today her computer has broken down, and Jan feels relieved when she sees the repairman arrive. However, when he approaches the gate, instead of walking through it, he returns to his car and leaves. Later, he phones and apologizes. "I was there and would have come in, but I didn't know which song to sing."

What did it mean?

The repairman was from Lebanon and had interpreted "If you know a song, sing it," as an instruction for opening the gate. In addition, like many non-native English speakers, he misunderstood the difference between "a" and "the." He believed only one song was the right song.

Interpreting English literally often causes confusion for U.S. newcomers. As Amalia strolled alongside a California thoroughfare with her friend, an ambulance and firetrucks careened by, sirens screaming. Amalia froze in her tracks and refused to move. Her friend was mystified until Amalia explained what she thought were the rules: When you hear a siren in the U.S., you must stop. No one had told her that this regulation applied only to vehicles.

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