Good Communication Skills Have Never Been So Important

I got an email the other day from a blog reader who tells me that there are now more non-native English speakers than native English speakers. That leaves ample opportunities for linguistic subtleties going unnoticed. I suppose it can happen to native English speakers as well.

Here is an example:

Back in 2006, I wrote a blog post entitled “You will not find any LemonJellos in Malaysia.” The blog post referred to new laws in Malaysia that banned a variety of non-standard names for children:

Parents will not be able to call their babies after animals, insects, fruit, vegetables, or colours.

Numbers are also not allowed, so little James Bonds cannot flaunt their 007 status on their ID cards.

Other restrictions stop parents giving children royal or honorary titles as names or calling their little ones after Japanese cars.

I ended the post with a plea to blog readers to help us find the ever-elusive twins named OrangeJello and LemonJello:

By the way, we are still looking for OrangeJello and LemonJello. Despite many good leads, we have not found them. If you know how to find them, please contact Dubner and/or me. There is a small gift for you if you lead us to them.

A few days ago I got a friendly email from a woman in Malaysia. Here is what she wrote:

Just read your column. I know of two stores that sell Jello in Kuala Lumpur. Look in the Ampang area for the two expat groceries. I can’t vouch for what flavors are currently in stock but they do sell a variety of Jello flavors. Hock Chun on Jalan Ampang also might sell Jello. I believe that the grocery in KLCC also sells Jello.

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  1. Shana says:

    I think that is hilarious – the whole post, but especially all the restrictions on Malaysian children’s names! So why can’t they be named after Japanese cars? Would they be allowed to be named after… um… American cars?

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  2. oddTodd says:

    “there are now more non-native English speakers than native English speakers”

    You mean in the world? Or in Malaysia? Or in the U.S.? Because if it’s one of the first two, it’s absurd, but if it’s the third, then the fact that a Malaysian woman isn’t a native speaker of English seems totally irrelevant and unsurprising.

    But it is a funny story.

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  3. Jeff says:

    Well, I know it’s not who you’re looking for, but there is a student on the football team at Wake Forest University named Gelo Orange who is originally Haitian.

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  4. Ronan French says:

    Worldwide there have always been more non-native English speakers then native English speakers. I assume you are referring to the U.S. only?

    More generally, does the phrase “non-native English speaker” mean:

    a) a person who does not speak English as their “first” language
    b) a person not from your country (in this context, the U.S.) who speaks English.

    I enjoy your blog, keep up the good work.

    Ronan French
    Dublin, Ireland.

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  5. Ome90 says:

    Ostensible. Some people just gotta learn how to read between the lines.

    Being a Chinese in Malaysia, I come to realise the the influence of our mother tongue has dissipated little by little as everyone is consolidating the foundation of English amongst the younger ones especially. English has become the first language especially to those living in the suburb.

    The government has taken the initiative of implementing the usage of English as the medium in both Science and Mathematical subjects effective from year 2004. However, there has been some news flying around, stating that the subjects mentioned above will be taught in BAHASA MALAYSIA which is the native language of the so-called native. From my point of view, it’s definitely a retrograde step if this is true.

    Frankly speaking, the fundamental reason why the local graduates are unemployed is because they can’t communicate well in English. Some are not even capable to propose their idea in a sentence fluently. I am, in fact, one of the the first batch guinea pigs for this project-to study Maths and Science subjects in English. I was 12. Had they been in my shoe, they will tell you the significance of the execution taken. The nexus between the cause and effect is very simple. The idea on reverting to studying Mathematical and science subjects is as if exacerbating the potential of the younger generation.

    Face the social indoctrination: English is the lingua-franca. Don’t botch us up.

    And sorry for such lengthy epistle. -.-“

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  6. Mike B says:

    I wonder when some Asian computer hacker parents will craft a name for their child intended to create mischief in computer database systems. Something along the lines of “Robert’); DROP TABLE Students;–“. There is also the more whimsical name of “Help I’m Trapped In A Driver’s License Factory”.

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  7. The Dread Pirate Robert says:

    “Worldwide there have always been more non-native English speakers then native English speakers. I assume you are referring to the U.S. only?”
    -post #4

    Always? There has’nt always been english speakers.
    Clearly there have only been “more non-native english speakers than native [speakers]” in recent history. I’d be interseted in a date for this accurence.

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  8. Rev Matt says:

    Note the joke posted frmo Mike B is from the webcomic xkcd:

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  9. mgroves says:

    I would guess that a non-native English speaker is someone who speaks English not as a first language.

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  10. Chloe says:

    My suspicions were that it was the xkcd joke, thanks for confirming Rev Matt!

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  11. Laura says:

    Would it be legal for paernts in the United States to attach a 007 to the end of their childs name? It strikes me as something they would have outlawed here as well, but I can’t really find anything online to prove that in either direction.

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  12. sarahmas says:

    You know what would be a great name for a kid? 7. It’s Mickey Mantle’s number!

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  13. Drew says:

    Hock Chun on Jalan Ampang does not sell Jello Gelatin only Jello Pudding as far as I know

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  14. MS says:

    Seven Costanza!

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  15. Mike says:

    What is a native English speaker anyway? Even native English speakers can have very different meanings for words and phrases. My favorite example is “a rubber,” which means something very different to Brits than it does to Americans.

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  16. Nick Booth says:

    How friendly, how helpful, how glocal. I hope you frequent at least one of the shops recommended by that thoughtful woman.

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  17. kw says:

    That is too classic to be true, she may have hoped that you’d fall for her sarcasm, hence the joke is on you!

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  18. Ome90 says:

    They say that you should take pride in the country’s honour.

    How about naming your child after the national fruit, Durian? Or the national flower, Hibiscus? Or perhaps the national anthem, Negaraku?

    In the terms of conventional wisdom proposed by John Kenneth Galbraith, it’s overated, baybeh.

    So what if I name my future son ‘Colour’? Hey, it’s not A colour.

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  19. Joe says:

    17. lol

    She was being sarcastic! That was the best post.

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  20. Frank says:

    My wife taught at a school with an OrangeJello, who had a brother named LemonJello (not sure if they were twins or not). OrangeJello by my math would be 17-18 years old at this point. This school was in Inglewood, CA. My wife swears she saw the name OrangeJello on the school roster, but only heard from another teacher about the brother, so there is always the chance that half of this story is urban legend.

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  21. rosemarie b says:

    I once saw an artwork that read: “an artist who doesn’t speak English is not an artist”, or something in this sense. It is quite telling, isn’t it? AND it’s so true. Does anyone know who came up with this phrase? I am very curious to find out the origins of such insight and the opinions of those who ponder upon it.

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  22. Davey says:

    My mother was trained as a nurse and, while still in nursing school, she was observing a birth being made by a woman who already had 7 or 8 kids. On the way into the delivery room, somebody asked the mom-to-be what name she had picked out. The woman jokingly replied that she had run out of choices and didn’t really have a name picked out yet. The baby was delivered, a healthy girl, and as the staff members were finishing up, cleaning the mother, etc., one of them said, “There’s the placenta.”

    The woman spoke up, “Placenta, that’s pretty.” And then, she named the child Placenta Bell—whatever.

    My mom swears it’s true.

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  23. Davey says:

    Jeez, just remembered. My daughter goes to school with a kid named Stainless Steele.

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  24. Rachel says:

    Living in China, I have run into people with all sorts of interesting English names they’ve given themselves. My personal favorite is a cashier at the local Walmart whose English name on her nametag is Green. A girl I met once introduced herself as David (my roommate and I suggested perhaps she might reconsider something like Megan, which she did).

    On the note of the Malaysian names, my closest Malaysian friend goes by Alien. I didn’t find out until a few months after meeting her that it was not actually her given name, just a nickname she’s had for years and decided to use as her name.

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  25. grace says:

    All students at St. Andrew’s Junior College in Singapore will be familiar with a certain Dr. Atomic Leow. no kidding, go google. his sister’s like … Mercury. coolness.

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  26. Antonio says:

    Yes, non-native speakers of English worldwide greatly outnumber native speakers. For quick reference, check David Graddol’s The Future of English (1997) and English Next (2006), both commissioned by The British Council, and both available online.
    Speakers of English as a second or foreign language (as they are often called in language teaching parlance)come in all shapes and sizes from just about anywhere on earth, and their command of the language ranges from the piss poor to the “I-can’t-believe-he/she’s-not-a-native” sort sort of thing. I’m a non-native speaker of English myself and I couldn’t agree more with the Steven Levitt’s headline, although I would probably rephrase it like this, “Good Intercultural Skills Have Never Been So Important”.

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  27. oddTodd says:

    I just realized I read non-(native English) speakers, while you meant (non-native) English speakers, which actually makes sense. Apparently I was not the only one confused by this sentence.

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  28. Kimberly says:

    My friend, Julie, said that her Mom ran across LemonJello and OrangeJello in an elementry school class in Lodi, CA. The teacher’s name may have been Ms. Pooley. She last heard of them about 4 years ago, still in Lodi. Hope this helps your search.

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  29. Laura says:

    the orangejello and lemonjello twins went to yale. and just so everyone is clear…it’s pronounced “oh-RAN-jel-oh” and “leh-MAHN-jel-oh.”

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  30. Travis says:

    24 I love self-given English names. Went to college with a guy from Singapore who promptly renamed himself “Kelvin,” after going for sometime as “Johnson,” when someone politely informed him of its popular connotation.

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  31. Josh says:

    How about Jello Biafra of the band Dead Kennedys

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  32. Michele says:

    About 20 years ago I was screening child neglect cases in south Louisiana when I came across a social worker’s report regarding a possible case of child abuse involving twins named Orangejello and Lemonjello. I thought these had to be the only twins on the planet with those names (reason enough for a report of child abuse). But it seems there are others. This set of O and J twins would be young adults now. Perhaps they’ve legally changed their names.

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  33. Cindy says:

    The Oranjello and Lemojello Brothers are from kansas city MO. They were patients at Dr Marx DDS on the free Valentine’s Day cleanings for children about 9 years ago. though I doubt you will get any info from them due to Hippa laws… also They were also In trouble with The Jackson County court and were on Probation. Go ahead do a people search you will find them right here in KC. I promise yoU!

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  34. Communication skills training says:

    Really it’s only for US language but actually main problem in any other country with different languages.

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  35. Jennifer says:

    My sister was a camp counselor for LemonJello and OrangeJello in Rockford Illinois several years ago. I was later informed by a friend that the two had been arrested years later after robbing (or attempting to rob) a local Target.

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