‘Did you come here to die?’ the landlady asked cheerfully.
The Japanese girl was understandably nonplussed.
‘To die?’ the landlady repeated, helpfully. ‘Choose-die? Twenny-noinf?
Well, eventually the Japanese student cottoned on that ‘day’ and ‘die’ sound very similar in the South East of England, and that the landlady was asking how long she had been in the country, not how much more time she hoped for in this sublunary world. This sort of thing must be happening all over the planet every day, as language students arrive in their country of study and meet their first native speaker who is not a teacher. When I went to live France at eighteen, I believed I spoke pretty good French, but my first three weeks in Carcassonne were a real eye and ear opener. I hardly understood a word anyone said. Before long though, I was delighting in the local accent and using it myself so as to feel less like an outsider. Now I like to hear students using stuff they’ve picked up from their host families or people they work with, as it shows they're noticing and integrating. Brazilians calling people ‘silly buggers’, Venezuelans who insert the word ‘bloody’ before a noun to give it emphasis, and the Saudi boy last year who would interlard his presentations with ‘you get me?’ ‘Yeah?’ and ‘innit?’, all good learners who feel comfortable with their new linguistic persona.
On Diploma courses for teachers we spend a fair bit of time persuading new teachers that misunderstandings need not stem from mistakes in pronunciation, lack of grammar or insufficient vocabulary. They need not stem from language at all. Some teachers take a bit of persuading here, because there is often an assumption that if you teach enough grammar, comprehension will automatically follow. Another story that did the rounds in EFL circles some years ago shows you how wrong this is. A Thai girl who was being inducted into the routines of her host family was asked by her landlady on what day she would like to take her bath. Like the Japanese girl, the Thai girl had a WTF? moment here. In Thailand, bathing is a necessity and a pleasure, and confining it to one day a week or even one time a day would be unthinkable. (I hope it would be here too nowadays – this is an old story.) Anyway, the Thai girl understood every word her landlady said, but hadn’t a bloody clue what she meant. This happens a lot.
I did a session with some Greek teachers to try to demonstrate this problem and how we can try to overcome it. I had a text from an advanced level course-book that had been taken from The Financial Times. Some of the teachers would be expected by their school owners to do this text with teenage students, God help us. A well-known writer on matters pertaining to computers had had some problems with computer hardware, and decided that she would order replacements under an assumed name, so that the companies would not give her preferential treatment. Thus she got the same delays and hassles as anybody else would, and this was the subject of her article, in which she expressed understanding of the companies’ problems whilst taking them to task for not foreseeing them. I asked about the writer’s attitude in the article.
‘God, she feels so BAD!' said Elina. 'It’s terrible for her, terrible! She’s so frustrated, she can’t, can’t get what she wants, they’re not listening, nobody’s listening, and it’s like she’s standing there, she’s looking at herself in the mirror and going WWWwwwwWHHHHHAAAAAAArrrrRRRGGGGGHHHHH!!!!’
There was a pause for this to sink in.
There was only one native speaker in the group and she and I looked at each other in surprise. To us, the writer’s tone was calm, measured and self-assured as she told the hardware firms exactly what they should be doing and why. Maybe this was not dramatic enough for Greece, where any opportunity for a barney is eagerly taken up.
‘OK then, smart arse, what do you need to do to avoid this kind of misinterpretation?’
Well, you decide who the writer is addressing, what expectations that audience has, why they might be reading the article or extract, and devise questions and discussion topics to bring the students minds as close as possible to that of the implied reader. Then you get them to read the text and answer any questions that might accompany it. Contrary to what students often think, the questions are intended to guide them to understanding, not to catch them out. And if you are thinking of doing a text from the Financial Times with your teenage students, I strongly recommend that you ditch it and think again.
Yesterday I ended up doing a couple of very boring texts with my intermediate group. Normally I would just have skipped them, but so as not to leave the tail end of the unit dangling for the next teacher to pick up, I ploughed on. The texts were about Slow Food, and the movement for Slow Cities. The idea was that students in pairs would take a text each and report to the other about what they’d read. The Slow Food movement began, we were told, when this bloke called Carlo Petrini saw that a MacDonald’s had opened in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, and was saddened by the vogue for fast, mass produced food. He now promotes leisurely eating en famille, with intelligently selected and sympathetically cooked local produce. I knew that the students all came from cultures that valued food and leisure and time with family, and so I spent a while banging on about and eliciting their views on stress, life ruled by the clock, the perils of fast food, and all the rest of this stuff so beloved of adult EFL course-books. Then they got to read the texts. What I had failed to notice was the name of the place where Petrini saw the offending MacDonald’s. All the students who read that text assumed that ‘Piazza’ was a variant spelling of ‘pizza’, and that a Piazza di Spagna was something like a Margharita or a Quatro Formaggi. That's all it took. As I listened to their summaries of the passage, one misinterpretation pranged the tail-lights of the other until we had a pile-up: Petrini had opened a rival establishment opposite MacDonald’s and flogged slow-cooked pizzas sprinkled with delicious local cheese that was apparently very popular with children, as whole families flocked to enjoy them instead of ordering Big Macs, and everybody was happy except MacDonald’s, and serve them right, American imperialist bastards.
Oh, well. I moved on swiftly to a safe pronunciation exercise.