ESL: When English is Not Your First Language

My mom and I were having a conversation about someone and I told my mom that my sister didn’t like him.  She nodded sagely and said, “Oh, yes.  She said he’s a Hole of the Butt!”


I made her repeat that, and on the second repeat, it suddenly clicked that she was trying to say a@%hole.

What a more dignified way to curse!  Next time someone is acting like a jerk, just stand up, point at them, and say, “YOU are a Hole of the Butt!”

When you are ESL, or English as a Second Language (yes, I use it as an adjective) like my mom and I are, sometimes things get interpreted a bit, um, wrong.  And yes, we are proud to be ESL!

During my first rehearsal with  H.T. Chen and Dancers, H.T., who also grew up in Taiwan, kept saying to us, “More lunch!  More lunch!”

Wow, I thought to myself.  Is he telling us to eat more lunch?  I came from a ballet background and was so used to directors telling us that we were too fat and we needed to eat less so that we didn’t look like big fat elephants stomping across the stage (and you wonder why dancers have eating disorders).  This was so refreshing!  A director telling us to eating more lunch!

But as H.T. continued to shout out, “More lunch!  More lunch!” the other dancers and I stopped and looked at each other in confusion.  Did he want us to leave rehearsal now and go get lunch?  Was he asking us to go get him more lunch?

He suddenly leaped up and executed a beautiful deep lunge, and it was then that we got it.  Oh!  He wanted us to do more LUNGE!  Not LUNCH!  We all immediately went into a deeper lunge and H.T. nodded in satisfaction.  ESL.

But does that mean we can’t have more lunch, H.T.?  Here’s a fuzzy picture of us from a stage rehearsal with H.T.  Can you find me?


Back to my mom.  A long time ago, she met my then boyfriend for the first time.  After the meeting, he said to me, “I like your mom.  She’s hip and cool!”

When I told my mom what he said, thinking she would be pleased, she got angry-looking instead and said, “Why’s he talking about my hips?  So rude!”

No, mom, he wasn’t talking about your hips or any part of your body, he meant that you were hip, and um cool, like hip is like cool?  How do you explain that?  Since I’m ESL also (I didn’t learn English until I was 7), it was hard to explain to her why a word that describes a part of the body is also meant to be a complimentary term.

We often get things wrong.  In a fitness class, I told people to get the squishy balls and my mom thought I said sushi balls.  ESL.

I hear songs wrong all the time.  I thought the Goo Goo Dolls song Come to Me was singing about his Swedish friend (he was singing about his sweetest friend).

I thought the Black Eye Peas song Don’t Stop the Party was saying “My baby goes to college, college” instead of “Now baby don’t you stop it, stop it” (Actually, my friend Lauren was the one that first thought it was “My baby goes to college, college.”  So maybe I can’t blame it on ESL that I hear songs wrong since Lauren isn’t ESL).

Another song Lauren and I get wrong is Bulletproof by La Roux.  We thought she was singing, “…this time maybe I’ll be voulez-vous!”  (No, she’s not singing in French, she’s saying “…this time maybe I’ll be bulletproof.”)

But the best example of ESL was a conversation that my mom and Jim had right after Hurricane Sandy.  Remember when there was no gas for a few days?  Jim couldn’t go to work and had to stay home that Friday night.  On Saturday morning, since my car had gas, I went out to run errands and on the way home, I saw an oil truck pulling into a gas station.

I immediately called Jim and told him the gas stations were just getting gas and he told me he already knew.  He said my mom had called while I was out and told him, “The gas stations have gas!”

Hmmm….. how did she know that?  She was home alone because my dad was in Taiwan, and hadn’t had any power or cell service all week.  She could only make calls if she left their complex and stood in a certain spot.  But I shrugged it off, thinking maybe someone somehow managed to get a hold of her and told her.

When I called her later, I asked her how she knew there was gas in the gas stations.  And her reply was, “There is?  That’s great!”

“But mom, Jim said that you told him this morning there was gas.”

My mom paused, then said, “No, I didn’t.”

Thoroughly confused now, I asked her, “Well then, what did you talk about?”

And she replied, “I told him the rocks won!”

Now I was beyond confused.  What are rocks?  And what did they win?

She kept saying, “The rocks won.  Last night!”  And finally, she said something about Jeremy Lin and then I understood that she was saying the ROCKETS (which Jeremy Lin played for at the time) had won.  Some of you may remember her obsession with Jeremy Lin.

To this day, none of us can understand how on earth Jim interpreted “The Rocks won!” as “There’s gas in the gas stations!”  ESL.

I wonder what they’re talking about in this picture…



  1. Elizabeth on August 20, 2015 at 8:28 am

    Very funny post! I often get things wrong too and I’m not ESL 🙂

  2. Lisa on August 24, 2015 at 10:25 am

    I will add that new term of endearment to my collection of “words by Mom”.

    P.S. You are the person with legs splayed on the floor, no?

    • pinotbylyn on August 26, 2015 at 8:18 pm

      Yes, I am! Good eye!

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