I once made the mistake of telling a Chinese acquaintance that Mandarin must be a hard language to learn. Up until that moment she had been a calm and placid person.

“Mandarin is hard? What about English? In Chinese, a chicken is a chicken. It can be a baby chicken or a girl chicken or a boy chicken but it is always a chicken.”

At this point I stepped back because her arms had started flailing about and her eyes had gone buggy. I figured she needed air and I needed her not to hit me with one of those flailing arms or buggy eyes.

“It is not a hen, a rooster, a cockerel or a chick. A chicken is just a chicken. That’s all you’ve got to remember.” Then with her face, buggy eyes and all, right up in my face, she said, “CHICKEN.”

I tried to make a joke about the double meaning of chick, but she gave me a look that almost melted the elastic in my underwear and I decided to drop it.

Every person I have ever known who is learning English has similar complaints.

Not only do we have several words for the same thing we have several meanings for the same word. Pick a word, any word and almost every one will have a triple meaning. If it has a double meaning then one of those will be dirty and if it has only one meaning it is dirty. This is probably why people learn the swear words first, they’re easy and they need them.

This rule can change once you cross international boundaries. Take the word shag for example. In Canada it is a carpet or a haircut. In England it is an experience of an intimate nature generally not available at a hair salon, massage parlor maybe, but not a hair salon.

The only rule about English that never changes is that every rule has an exception. Our vowels are a good example, A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y. I can remember repeating that as a child and looking around the room to see if anyone else thought this was nuts. I before E except after C or is it G or has that damn Y gone rogue again?

A Yugoslavian friend conveyed the general state of confusion best. After a couple of weekends of westerns and war movies, he turned to me with a quizzical look and asked, “Who is Will and why is everyone trying to kill him?”