A few days ago my class was doing a activity based on prompts like “I like …”, “ I spend time …” and “I am good …”, with various variations. There is a small number of ways in which each of these can be completed, so I started by eliciting some of the most common.
One student completed the prompt “I’m quite good …” with “at nothing”. This flummoxed me. I can’t think of any reason why “I’m quite good at nothing” (and “I’m very good at nothing”) aren’t possible, but no-one has ever said or written them where Google can find them. It is possible to say “I’m good at nothing”, though “I’m not good at anything” has overtaken it in the last 90 years. “I’m not quite good at anything” is also non-existent, while “I’m not very good at anything” has a different meaning – “I’m good at many things, but not very good at anything”.
It was impossible for me to explain why “I’m very good at nothing” was ‘wrong’ (if indeed it was). I tried to accentuate the positive and find something – anything – she is good at, but her English is limited. I eventually said “Are you good at [her language]”. She brightened and said “Yes”.
A day or two later, another student with very limited English was answering various questions in different forms, one of which was “What do you like about the place where you live?”. She wrote “I like drawing room”. First, I had to insert “the”, then try to tell her that drawing rooms are rarely found in Australian houses or apartments, especially not in the suburb she’d told me she lives in. To me, “drawing room” immediately brings to mind Pride and Prejudice or Downton Abbey, not suburban Sydney (even the really wealthy suburbs). I suspected that the problem was that she’d plucked the word from the translation app on her phone. I asked her, and she showed me “[word in her language]: drawing room, living room”. I told her “living room” was the better choice, but that I would say “lounge room”. I showed her Google’s image of those three words, but they don’t draw (ha!) as sharp a distinction as I do.
lounge room vs living room vs drawing room
Reading this blog I suddenly remembered my Nana, who had come to the U.S just before my birth and staying until I turned 3, calling our living room the lounge and not quite understanding why the adults in my family called the same room by different names. Just as I turned 4 my parents, my younger brother, and I went to Australia. I continued to call rooms by the names familiar to me. For example, at the time I was there all the homes in our area had outhouses. No home had a toilet in the house. Despite this, if I needed to go to the toilet I’d say, “I need to go to the bathroom” and head off for the outhouse, My Australian friends would laugh at this, being completely unaware of any bathroom containing a toilet and, in fact, being appalled at the very idea of having a toilet inside the house. I appeared to them to be confused, while I couldn’t quite grasp why I had to go to the back of the yard and into a small, smelly, wooden room to do my business. I especially disliked this system during the night when I’d have to wake my mum or dad to accompany me to the outhouse.
But, getting back to the names at hand…I did eventually begin to call the living room the lounge. When we returned to the U.S three years later I had to relearn the American words for things. I also had to quickly lose my strong Australian accent, as well as some of the Aussie swear words my uncle had taught me (among other not appropriate behavior for a young girl).