Tuesday, 6 April 2010

A Case Of Mistaken Identity

"Nat saw that the sky was growing dark," Ceyda reads out loud, stumbling over every word and managing to butcher both pronunciation and intonation. I smile encouragingly, but wince internally. I hate having students read out loud; I don't see the point to it. But we are doing an adapted version of Daphne duMaurier's The Birds, and having the students read it out loud is the only way I can be sure that any reading goes on at all.

"The day was cold and bright," Ceyda reads, only bright comes out breet. The other students all smirk and titter. They're no better or worse than Ceyda, but for some reason, they enjoy mocking her. I grit my teeth, thank Ceyda for reading, and pick one of the mockers to read next. He goes great guns until he gets to the word windows, which he reads as wine-does. The others titter.

It's Kemal's turn to read next and he's actually better than the rest, using rising intonation for yes-no questions and sailing through a lot of hard-to-pronounce words. Everyone looks suitably impressed until Kemal gets to a part about the birds flying inland. Three girls smirk and nudge each other and one of them bursts into giggles.

"Just what is so funny?" I demand.

"Hojam," one of the girls laughs, "he say inland!" She rolls her eyes and glances at Kemal. "Pronounce aye-land," she advises him smugly.

I shake my head. "No it isn't. See? It's spelled I-N-L-A-N-D -- there's no S there."

The girls frown at their books. "Hojam, mistake!" one of them tells me. "Island spell S not N."

I go to the board and write ISLAND and INLAND. I draw an island, then next to it a long line depicting a shoreline. I put in waves and the odd fish. "This one is an island," I explain, "and this one--" I quickly draw in arrows to show wind blowing away from the sea "--is inland. In towards the land, you see?"

They frown at the board so I hand them a dictionary and they pore over it until they find inland. Only then are they prepared to believe me.

Things like this happen all the time in my classes. I've had students make wonderfully funny mistakes, insisting that curious meant very angry, that my treasious was what Golum said in Lord of the Rings, and that impotent meant vital. Inland and island are pretty tame stuff in comparison.

I can't help but be amused and sometimes irritated by some of my students' false language hypotheses, but this is a perfectly natural phenomenon. When the brain sees something it hasn't encountered before, it automatically identifies it with the closest thing it remembers.

And if I ever find myself too irritated, I just take a trip down memory lane to the time I first confused the characters 日本 'Nihon' (Japan) and 本日 'honjitsu' (today's).

It was my first week in Japan and I was in a Tokyo restaurant with two fellow fresh-off-the-boat Americans, Mark and Carol. Every beginning Japanese student learns the kanji 日本 for Japan, but 本日 is slightly more advanced and we'd never seen it before.

Mark noticed it first, on a sign on the wall. "Can that be a mistake?" he wondered, pointing. "Isn't the 日 in 日本 supposed to come first?"

I blinked. "You're right! That doesn't make sense, does it?" I said. "I'll bet that's supposed to be 日本, but someone accidentally got it down wrong."

The waiter brought our food just then. He set down plates of steamed white rice, bowls of soup, and plates of broiled mackerel. We started to eat, but 日本 and 本日 stayed in our minds.

After we'd finished, Mark and I stared at the sign, then looked at each other. "Should we tell them about the mistake?"

We decided not to tell him for some reason. Thank God. The term we were so sure was wrong was actually 'Today's Menu' and it had nothing whatsoever to do with Japan.

I still know Mark and Carol and we've never forgotten that awful encounter with 日本 and 本日. To this day, we can't get over how close we came.



Bish Denham said...

Japanese is hard enough...but English! Rain, rein, reign? To give only one example. That your students have tne courage to read out loud is a miracle.

And then there's read (reed) or read (red.) HA!

MG Higgins said...

It's one thing to learn another language based on the Roman alphabet, but Japanese? Yikes. I don't know how you did it.

Charles Gramlich said...

After the latest dumb mistake I made today I'm going to be vewwy vewwy quiet.

Robin said...

That's hilarious! The way they insist their understanding of the word is correct, reminds me of my boys when they were little. They were always so sure they were right. Especially Kevin. Once he told Alex not to kick me in the "Bagina". I told him it was "Vagina". He thought about it and said, "No. I'm pretty sure it's 'bagina'." Uh, I would know, wouldn't I?

veach st. glines said...

My Case of Mistaken Identity.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I am glad I was born in an English speaking country. Had I not, and I had to learn English, I surely would have failed. English, really does not make any sense. Examples are the pronunciations of "rough", "tough" and "dough". Explain THAT one!

Carolie said...

You came close. I...well...crossed the line you managed to avoid.

Yes, my Japanese friends were kind. Yes, they laughed at me. Yes, I was mortified. (But I will never, ever forget either set of kanji!)

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- 'Rain', 'rein' and 'reign' are easy to understand from context. What I find harder is explaining why you don't need 'did' in "Who married Madonna?" but you do in "Who did Madonna marry?" I can do it, but it just makes me hate helping verbs all the more.

MGH -- Arguably, I'm still learning Japanese, and I'm doing it the hard way! But so does everybody who isn't a linguistic genius. The cool thing about the hard way is that most of the time it's also the fun way. Linguistic geniuses don't know what they're missing.

Charles -- Now you've piqued my interest and I will have to find out. I'll be over to your blog shortly and it had better be there! I share (almost) all my dumb mistakes (but not all, of course, or I'd bring down google).

Robin -- These mistakes are all the funnier when the person who made them argues with the expert that they are right and the expert must be wrong. I've been there, though. I speak as a person who once insisted that 'liaise' was spelled with only one I and that 'erotic' meant the same thing as 'erratic'... (I'll write you an email tonight, btw!)

Veach -- That cracked me up. And now you've gone and put the theme song from The Partridge Family in my head. How COULD you?

Robert -- Believe me, I have -- many times! English spelling is a total nightmare. Japanese and Turkish are far easier once you've learned the rules: what you see is what you get. But learning English spelling isn't as awful as learning things like modals, articles and prepositions. And teaching them is no picnic either.

Carolie -- Now you have to write about that! And believe me: I have crossed that line a hundred times over in so many stupid ways that I've lost track -- we just didn't cross the line on that one particular occasion. I'm so glad we didn't, too: I think it would have scarred us for the rest of our time in Japan if we had. I'm not sure we could have dealt with the confusion and then the scorn.

Pat said...

What cheeky little monkeys you teach. Must make it interesting and keep you on your toes:)

Patrick said...


Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- They definitely keep me hopping. They forget that I've been a student whereas they've never, to my knowledge, been teachers.

Patrick -- I know, I know! My ignorance was mind boggling. But I'm smarter now and a lot more knowledgeable.

Vijaya said...

I've helped with ESL and English is probably the most inconsistent language ever. We borrow from every language and culture ...

My brother said fish = ghoti
when you think of a few oddball words and their spelling.

I do love learning where the words come from.

Charlie said...

For some reason, I cannot read out loud; intonation, forget about it. I marvel at the readers on audiobooks, like Tim Curry and Frank McCourt.

And I agree with those who have English as a first language—either American or the Queen's. (Why do we say, "in the hospital", while everyone else says, "in hospital"?)

Kim Ayres said...

Hope you have a great day :)

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- If you've worked with ESL students, you know that English spelling is all over the place and a terrible headache to learn. Those of us who were lucky enough to absorb it as babies don't know how much trouble we were spared.

But for the life of me, I can't see how your brother could get 'ghoti' from 'fish'...?

Charlie -- The British use articles, prepositions and modals differently from their American cousins. And then there is the vocabulary. I feel mean telling my students that 'at the weekend' is British and 'on weekends' is American; that 'jumper', 'rubber', 'hood' and 'bonnet' have different meanings depending on whether you're in the U.K. or U.S. And that's just for starters...

Kim -- Thank you! As it was, we were supposed to have the school inspector in, but he got distracted and, after stressing me out all day in absentia, is coming tomorrow instead.

Angela said...

English--I'm amazed anyone can learn it with all our stupid homophones. Oi!

Carol said...

Happy birthday, Mary!! I've been thinking about you all week, and I was delighted to see that you were thinking about us, too. Mark also likes to remember that bit of linguistic arrogance when you two thought you might turn "honjitsu" into "Nihon"! I love to know that I can always find you at your blog. Write me! Otanjobi omedetoo gozaimasu!! --Carol

Meg McKinlay said...

I always do the ghoti=fish trick to show my Japanese-language students how crazy English is when they start whining "But why do they do it like that?"

It goes like this:

'gh' from 'enough' = f
'o' from 'women' = i
'ti' from 'station' = sh

et voila!

I love that moment when native English speakers begin to cast a critical gaze on their own language. It's usually a short step from there to "Wow, I'm glad I don't have to learn this as a second language!"

My stock answer to "But why do they do it like that?" is "Because it's not English". Followed closely by "For which you should be thankful."

Patrick said...

Btw, it's your birthday?
Happy birthday! Hope you have a great one.. =)

Mary Witzl said...

Angela -- Don't forget our awful spelling, irregular verbs and confusing auxiliaries. And especially for Turkish and Japanese students, our pronouns, modals, articles and prepositions. I always tell myself that having to learn it is worse than having to teach it.

Carol -- I will email you! Somewhere in this house I have the letter one of my students wrote about Leah last year. I'm still kicking myself for not sending it to you or Leah right away -- you'd both treasure it, believe me. He entitled it, "Leah: an Intelligent Young Woman."

I miss all of you guys a lot!

Meg -- Thank you! In the dim recesses of my memory, I remember reading that in some linguistic textbook, but not so well that I could immediately recover the formula.

I still remember a fellow student of Japanese agonizing over the fact that Japanese had keidoshi and keiyoshi; he couldn't figure out why they couldn't all be treated the same. I wonder how he'd have liked to learn how to use 'a' and 'the' from scratch.

Patrick -- Thank you! Now that it's the weekend, I'm going to start celebrating for sure.

Chris Eldin said...

Hey Girlfriend! Popping over to my friends' blogs to wish a happy spring!

I clicked over from Robin's. My computer crashed several months ago, and now I finally have one again and am building up links.

Now that I'm teaching writing to ESL students, your posts are even better! I'll have to email you when the semester is over... I'm trying to come up with fun activities for my lesson plans. It's strangely difficult, because to me, writing by itself *is* the fun activity!

Hope you're doing well!!

adrienne said...

See, I'm impressed enough that they knew the s in island is silent...

Falak said...

Some where, some place George Bernard Shaw is having a good laugh. Belated birthday wishes:)

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- I've got a lot of ideas to share with you! Now that you're teaching English, a lot of what I write here will no doubt seem more relevant.

Where is your blog? I keep trying to find you and missing!

Adrienne -- I was pretty impressed, to tell you the truth. It's just that the ones who can do a little lord it over the others who struggle and that irritates me no end.

Falak -- The older I get, the more I like what GBS said about almost everything. He was interested in spelling reform in English, wasn't he? I wonder if it will ever happen?

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