Hard to Explain

by Mark Krikorian

A language podcast I follow, The World in Words, has a segment called Eating Sideways, featuring a foreign word or phrase that doesn’t have an equivalent in English — things like “nakhur”, a Persian word for “a camel that won’t give milk until her nostrils have been tickled”.

I encountered something similar, I guess, in trying to explain the Electoral College to my citizenship class. Much of the civics and history that candidates for naturalization learn is pretty straightforward — the three branches of government, Memorial Day is for remembering those who fell in battle, Lincoln freed the slaves, etc. But you ask aspiring Americans with varying (mostly low) levels of English comprehension, “Who elects the president?” and they answer, reasonably enough, “the people”. I yield to no one in my support for the Electoral College process, but explaining its workings and rationale in simplified language, to eager but not bookish newcomers, is a challenge I’m not confident I met. Luckily, the Electoral College is not covered in the 100 questions citizenship applicants might be asked during the civics section of the test — the goal is to teach more than the minimum, but in this case the minimum will have to do.

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