Category Archives: English

Are You Really Seeing What You Think You Are Seeing?

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Click on me for a cool optical illusion

Your eyes can fool you!

For one of the coolest optical illusions I have seen, click on the picture then come back here. No matter how many times you watch the short video clip and no matter how sure you are that the cube is the same size on all sides, every time you look at this picture it will fool you.

We’re talking today about perception and how much culture effects what we see and what we think we see.

Too Much Happening At Once

Because our brain is bombarded with information every moment of every day, we must be selective in what we notice (“attend to” to use a more scientific word). By “bombarded” I mean that our brains receive 400 billion (with a “b!”) pieces of information every second.

400 Billion Messages a Second!

How can that be? Think about the fact that you could probably hear dozens of sounds right this minute if you stopped to listen. Add to that the things that go unnoticed by your nose, eyes, and your tongue all times. Simultaneously, every inch of your skin is firing millions of signals to your brain 24/7. You don’t notice the slight taste of your breakfast still stuck between your teeth, the smell of the cologne you put on this morning, and the feel of your shirt touching your back.

You Must Be Selective

The reason you don’t notice these billions of inputs bombarding your brain is because we have to be selective in what we notice in order to survive. We can’t be thinking about our pants touching our leg all day long or we wouldn’t get anything done.

We seem to be “hard-wired” to notice certain things. Movement is one. In an entire room filled with hundreds of still things, a small mouse running across the room will immediately grab our attention. Followed by our screaming and jumping on a chair also grabbing the attention of the folks in the next room.

Faces are another thing we notice. We have all heard stories about people seeing famous people or religious figures in a piece of toast or in the clouds, but actually that is normal and not strange. In some recent research*, Dr. Kang Lee said, “…our findings suggest that it’s common for people to see non-existent (facial) features because human brains are uniquely wired to recognize faces, so that even when there’s only a slight suggestion of facial features the brain automatically interprets it as a face.”

Culture Helps Decide What We Notice

In some cultures people pay close attention to the numbers on license plates, and in some cultures it matters very little. Americans will rarely notice the numbers on a license plate, while Arabs usually care much more about it. In China, it is extremely important because some numbers are very lucky and other very unlucky. Rich Chinese people have been known to pay many thousands of dollars to get a “fortunate” license plate.

Does It Matter?

Does it matter what we pay attention to? It matters a lot because in intercultural relations people from different cultures will notice different things and will take away different understandings from the things they pay attention to. Not handling the differences well can lead to distrust and misunderstandings while being a master at it will greatly help your multicultural capability.

Next time, we will meet my friend, Janet, and learn a couple of great ways to not get caught in the cultural perception trap.

*Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee. Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia. Cortex, 2014; 53: 60 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2014.01.013

Why Does My Nose Run and My Foot Smell? have taught English as a Second (or 3rd or 4th) Language for more than 20 years and I have to say that I love teaching English and never get tired of it.

But it is not easy because the English language is not easy. Native speakers forget that sometimes, but non-native speakers never do.

About 20 years ago I came across and article in the magazine “Reader’s Digest” that I have enjoyed greatly over the years. The article was entitled “Our Crazy Language” and was a condensation of a book by Richard Lederer entitled “Anguished English.” It is a great read if you enjoy literature and English. These are some of the highlights of the Reader’s Digest article, so I guess you could say that this is a condensation of a condensation of the book by Lederer.

I promise you’ll get a chuckle out of this.

English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven human beings can speak it. More than half of the world’s books and three-quarters of international mail are in English. Of all languages, English has the largest vocabulary—perhaps as many as two million words—and one of the noblest bodies of literature.

Nonetheless, let’s face it: English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, neither pine nor apple in pineapple, and no ham in hamburger. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candy, while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

In what other language do people drive on a parkway and park in a driveway? Recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same thing, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? And where are the people who are spring chickens or who actually would hurt a fly? I meet individuals who can cut the mustard and whom I would touch with a ten-foot pole, but I cannot talk about them in English.

You have to marvel at a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which your alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, is not really a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up the essay I end it.

Taking a Stab at Blab

Taking a Stab at Blab-PhotoshoppedOne of the things that I have enjoyed in learning about other cultures is the use of silence. I’m not talking here about personal silence. I think it is important to be alone, silent, reflective, and prayerful every day. But, I’m speaking here about silence between two or more people. I don’t know if there is a term for it, so I’ll call it “interactional silence.”

A little background. Since many of the readers here are American, I’ll share something that is true in American culture that few of us realize:  Americans have a strong aversion to interactional silence. That’s why we have so many “safe topics” to discuss when we are with people. Things like sports, weather, movies, etc. These topics are safe because we don’t have to disclose personal information but allow us to fill the air with chatter. (Exception: It’s embarrassing for me to admit to being a Cub fan.)

Watch two or more Americans walking, sitting, eating, or riding in a car together. Notice what I am talking about. Generally, things get uncomfortable after just a few seconds without any verbiage.

That’s why riding on elevators often feels awkward. Americans are together, but social norms demand looking forward without speaking. Being with other people yet mute = uncomfortable.

Many, probably most, other cultures are not this way–especially collectivist cultures.

I remember in China when I had a meeting with my friend Mr. Li at his office at the university. We were friends, so we drank tea while having our meeting. When the topic of discussion was over, we sat drinking tea in silence. My Chinese friend was quite comfortable sitting in peace enjoying his tea with a friend. On the other hand, I was dying to jump in with a comment on the weather or some other meaningless topic to break the stillness. Fortunately, I knew enough not to do so and enjoyed sitting silently with my friend.

A Japanese businessman visiting America described watching an American conversation like watching a ping pong game: your head goes back and forth with no interruption.

I often see Arabs sitting silently together and enjoying each other’s company without speaking.

Try this fun experiment. If you are an American try to sit with a friend for a few minutes without uttering a word. If you’re not an American but are with one, try just being silent and see what your friend does.

A couple of takeaways.

  • Notice your use of silence, or lack thereof

Just being aware is a huge part of the road to becoming more intercultural.

  • Change to be like your friend in the other culture

Talk more if you are not American, and talk less if you are. The best and most important part of learning a new culture is changing your behavior to imitate the Other.

I have more to say, but I’ll be silent for now.

Dead Slow Children Playing

Slow Dead Children Playing-Cropped-Rotated-Sized for InternetA sentence in critical need of a well-placed comma. Perhaps the sign makers used a computer or the internet for the translation.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language has some funny stories to share. You just can’t learn a new language without really embarrassing yourself.

When I was just beginning my Chinese study I went to the local market at 6:00 am to buy 7 Cokes for a dinner we were having with friends that evening. It was the early 90’s and Coke was a new, foreign product and very special. I pointed to the stack of cans behind the glass display and said, “Chi ge” and thought I was saying “7 of those.”

Chinese is a tonal language, so although I spoke the correct sound of the words, the tones were wrong. I actually had said, “Open it up.”

The shopkeeper got a strange look on his face (who would want a Coke at 6:00 am?), opened the can, and handed it to me. I had no idea what had just happened. All I knew was that one can was now open, so I needed to buy 8 cans. The shopkeeper burst out laughing when he realized what I actually meant when I pointed to the cans again and said, “Ba ge” or “8 of those.”

A more recent embarrassment happened in Arabic class.

I will never know what I actually said because after I spoke my teacher got a very strange look on her face. She tried to hold her laughter, but pretty soon the dam burst. She started laughing uncontrollably which was quickly followed by crying because she was laughing so hard.

After about a minute of me sitting and watching her laugh, cry, and wipe her eyes with her shaylah, she finally managed to control herself and tried to move on. It was slow going because she would start giggling every few minutes for the rest of the class. I wanted to find out what it was I actually said, but there was absolutely no way she was going to let that ship sail again.

Learning a new language is like becoming a child once more. In fact, the hard part is that for a long time in your learning process a 3-year-old child can actually converse better than you.

It’s all necessary in the process of becoming a polyglot. So, if you’re learning a new language, jump in and enjoy the process–even the embarrassing moments.

If you have a funny story from learning a foreign language, please share it by making a comment.

Something You May Never Have Thought of Before

Conscientiousness-dreamstime_5136726- smaller




Part of my work over the years as a culture educator has been spent teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)– and I do enjoy it! Students often ask questions like, “How can I improve my fluency?” or “How can I speak more like a native speaker?” or “How can I improve my pronunciation?” Interestingly enough, all three of these questions are addressed (at least in part) by one concept that is not often taught: English rhythm.

Let me illustrate it this way. Say the following 5 sentences as naturally and conversationally as you can out loud.

1. Men drink water.
2. The men drink water.
3. The men drink the water.
4. The men will drink the water.
5. The men might have been drinking the water.

Now do it again and notice how long it takes to say each sentence.

The interesting thing is that for a non-native English speaker, the longer the sentences probably took more time. In other words, the time it takes to speak the sentence is based on the number of words. However, for a native speaker, all five of the above sentences probably took about the same amount of time to speak.

Why? Because English is a stress-timed language and some words are longer or shorter based on their importance. They are given more stress if they are important and this takes more time. Each sentence above only has three “important” words (men, drink/drinking, and water) so the sentences are about the same length. The other, “less-important” words are spoken very quickly.

I developed a whole book and teaching series about this subject that was very helpful for intermediate and advanced ESL learners. It was so much fun to see the light go on in the heads of my students as we worked together on it. I believe studying English rhythm is important because:


  • English speakers convey meaning by the rhythm and stress;
  •   Native speakers readily judge the level of English spoken by a non-native speaker according to whether or not the proper rhythm is used; and
  •   Proper rhythm greatly improves speaking fluency.

My advice:

If you’re an ESL learner, pay attention and study more about English rhythm.

If you’re an ESL teacher, spend some time helping your students get a handle on English rhythm.

If you’re neither, just think about it as you speak today. It is an interesting concept and most native speakers have never thought about it before.