Monday, 8 September 2008

Communication breakdown

EFL teachers spend a lot of time coaxing students round to the view that errors in spoken language rarely lead to irremediable breakdown in communication: you can always apologise and start again. You do this in your own language all the time, often minus the apology, for minor misunderstandings are so frequent we barely notice the routine repairs we have to make every day. Anyway, if there’s a real cock up, it’s convenient to blame the listener for being obtuse rather than yourself for not being clear. Language learners often assume that communication between native speakers is always one hundred percent successful. When you tell them that it isn’t, it takes a while for them to come round to believing you. They have this nagging worry that what they say is just plain funny.

Well, sometimes it is. I should try to keep a straight face, but I don’t always. A Greek girl was describing a photo of a bride and groom: ‘in this picture we see a man who wear a suit, and he has a carnation in his bottom hole.’ I should have corrected the error quickly and let her move on, but I didn’t. I fell about. Years later a Greek lad who had just seen that God-botherer’s snuff movie The Passion of the Christ was giving some examples of its gruesomeness: ‘you look some soldiers to beat the Christ, and bits of his meat drop off.’

Spoken glitches and howlers don’t hang around but written ones do, because teachers keep lists. My favourite ones are the ones whose origins you can trace to words once known and now half forgotten, words confused with other similar ones and words heard, but never seen in print. ‘I began to sag my bra’ puzzled me for a while, then I realised that ‘I began to say my prayers’ fitted the context. ‘If a boy have a tool, he will show his tool to his friends’ resulted from a confusion of 'tool' with 'toy'. Here's a rather sweet one from the conclusion of an essay by a Brazilian boy who obviously picks up his vocabulary by ear rather than by eye: ‘…so to sunrise all the above points…’ Sometimes students just don't use their spell-checker: 'Beijing Olympics is will be fecal point of the world'.

It can take only one or two minor additions or omissions in the intended utterance to put a new and unintended slant on a phrase. One superfluous adverb and a count noun that shouldn't have been gave us ‘I spent the summer in Spain picking up fruits’. A possessive adjective too many here: ‘boys don’t like study, they prefer to kick their balls around’. An unfortunate omission of plural 's' gave us 'my room-mate sometimes touches my thing without my permission'. Often you just have no idea how the writer arrived at a word: ‘in pregnancy period, the foetus develops inside the mother’s domestic trivia.’(Bet you've never heard it called that before.)

Learners have an excuse - they're learners. Companies have no excuse and should bloody well check. The Greek Vassilopoulos chain's own-brand of kitchen paper is labelled 'Absorbing Towels' and they used to produce boil-in-the-bag beans with the following reassurance in the cooking instructions: 'the swelling of the package after warming does not inspire any uneasiness.'

My best foreign language is Modern Greek, which has some pairs of similar sounding words well known for confusing foreign learners: boy / cucumber, earring / worm, mosquito / cauliflower, inter alia. Inter the alia are ψηλά (psila) and ψωλή (psoli). If you hand over a large denomination note for a small purchase, you had better apologise and say ‘den ekho psila’, meaning ‘I have no change’. An acquaintance of mine had only a five thousand drachma note with which to buy a small can of Amstel. He smiled apologetically and explained ‘den ekho psoli’. He’d just told the shop girl that he didn’t have a dick.

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