Minnesotan’s use a LOT of figurative language. In fact, we use it so often that we don’t even realize that the words we say do not mean the words we say. Some examples include feeling “under the weather” says you are sick, a “cup half full” refers to your attitude, and “flying under the radar” means that one goes unnoticed. The literal translation makes no sense, but the words are full of meaning.
When we hear words that don’t make sense, we often nod and smile, while we build the mental picture of what the person is saying. For us, the nodding and smiling says “I am listening. Keep going. I am putting it together and trying to figure it out.” One difference between native English speakers and English Language Learners (ELLs) is that native speakers can usually come up with a stopping place to explain where the comprehension failed. Native speakers can usually ask a question to get the information that is needed. This is a daily struggle for English Language Learners in Minnesota. ELLs hear these words and often nod and smile. They, too, are waiting for more information to build a mental picture to figure it out. What is said makes some sense in translation, but doesn’t make sense in context. This is especially true for figurative language. So, nodding and smiling is a way of saying, “I am trying.” ELL students often struggle to identify where the communication broke down, to form the needed question, and be able to repair it.
Sometimes, ELL students also give up the effort, but wanting to be polite, they continue to smile and nod. To the native speaker, the response makes no sense. The communication is broken. When communication is particularly difficult, good language instruction includes how and when to use the phrases like these: “Please slow down,”
“I don’t understand your English,”
“Can you say it differently?”
“What does ‘this word’ mean?”
Many Minnesotans won’t even realize they use figurative language until someone asks or calls attention to it. So, as you learn English, have a few good repair questions in your repertoire.