English is said to be the most difficult language to learn. Those of us who speak it as a first language probably don’t even stop to think about how confusing we sound. My friend Billy Ong speaks seven or so languages. That would be way to conflicting for my brain to process. I wonder what language he dreams in, talks to himself in, or even thinks in.

What’s even more challenging about understanding English is all the slang, accents, and dialects. I grew up in Arkansas. I think there’s a language there in itself. We tend to make even tiny words have two or more syllables. Someone asked me once how Jim became Gee-umm. People laugh because I call him Jim Brawner like a person I just met. There were so many Jims on the freshman football team at the University of Arkansas, I called him Jim Brawner to keep things from getting confused. It seemed to stick. There’s still never a doubt which Jim I’m talking about.

People from the South just sound so warm and kind. My first trip to New York City left me very nervous and concerned. Everyone is in such a hurry and they seemed to all yell at each other. It took me a while to understand they weren’t mad, that’s just the way they communicate; holler in your face, wave their arms like you might get punched, then kiss you on both cheeks before parting.

I made the mistake of asking a street vendor for a sack. He abruptly stopped what he was doing and stared at me like a cow at the wrong gate. It made me a little uneasy because those people keeping moving and never make eye contact. “A what?” he frowned. “A sack to put these things in,” I said almost like a question, hoping it was an okay thing to ask for.

He laughed. “Like a potato sack? What you mean is a bag,” he said as he handed it over the counter. “No, what I mean is a sack,” I smiled as I took it and walked away … quickly.

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