Friday, 12 August 2011

What They Said

There is a pretty French girl standing in front of me at the intersection, waiting for the lights to change. She is with a Scottish boy; they have obviously just met and there is some light-hearted flirting going on.

"Have you been to the art museum?" she asks him in charmingly accented English.

"No," he says, grinning down at her foolishly.

The girl smiles and shrugs. "I have not too."

"Either," the boys says. "I have not either."

There is a long pause. I can't see the girl's face, but I can imagine her frown. "Why?" she wants to know.

The boy considers this. "I don't know. That's just the way we say it."

It takes all of my willpower not to butt in here. I'd like to tell her that we use either after negatives, but it isn't my place.

The lights change and we cross the road. Before we part ways, I hear the girl ask the boy about Edinburgh castle. But she pronounces the burgh in 'Edinburgh' like the burg in 'Pittsburgh'.

The boy shakes his head. "Not burgh," he tells her, "it's pronounced burra."

The girl lets out a long sigh. I don't blame her. Cracking the code has been hard enough for me here in Scotland and I'm a native speaker of English.

Two middle-aged women in the market are talking. "That's me done with the messages," one tells the other in broad Glaswegian. This makes me smile. Not so long ago, I wouldn't have had a clue what this meant, but now I know it means she's finished with her shopping. Doing the messages doesn't have anything to do with messages. When we first got here, I wondered why people were so obsessed with passing messages to each other. Couldn't they just email or use the phone? It took me months to puzzle that one out.

In my classroom, the students are full of questions about their coming written presentation. "How long we spend on the bag one?" Michael asks me, raising his hand. Michael is from Beijing, and he has a rather cavalier attitude towards English stress patterns and vowels.

I am completely and utterly thrown by this. "The bag one?" I query, tilting my head.

"Yes, the BAG one," Michael says, nodding. "You tell us we should write BAG one."

Is he trying to say the big one? What big one?

"Do you mean the biggest paragraph?" I say, stalling for time.

Michael shakes his head vigorously. "BACK one!" he almost shouts. "You tell us today. We supposed to write report BACK one, you say."

"Write it down," I sigh, giving up. I really need to work with Michael on his stress and pronunciation.

He pulls out a pencil and scrawls it on the back of his notebook: the word he's been aiming for is background.

Yes, we've definitely got to work more on stress and pronunciation. But all in good time. In the meantime, every day we crack a little more of the code.


Jeaux said...

Mondegreens must grow like mushrooms in this bailiwick.

Too funny!

Anne Spollen said...

Learning any language is like cracking a code - but for you too, Mary. I have some non native speaking friends, and sometimes I am clueless as to what they mean. When I asked my Malaysian friend if he still had to use the restroom, he responded, "No, desire expire now."

I think it makes you closer to your students as you work together figuring it all out.

Angelina C. Hansen said...

Found you over at Verla Kay's and really enjoyted this post. Language challenges really make things spicy, don't they? My first night living in France, after dinner, I told my host family I was "full". French idiom for pregnant. I had no idea. I learned quickly to say, "I ate well." LOL

Lynne said...

sounds like I might be able to understand a small bit of what they're saying. Living in north Georgia USA you hear all sort of different accents and the worst ~to me as a northerner~ are the ones that grew up in the south all their lives. It's not cute when you have to think about what they're saying and you're from the same country. :-/

Travis Erwin said...

Great stuff. Here in Texas we say "I'm fixin' to go the the store and an outsider will ask, "Is the store broke?"

Mary Witzl said...

Jeaux -- Yes, mondegreens flourish wherever I go. In my class, they're particularly thick on the ground. 'Mondegreen' is such a great word, with such a wonderful history, and I love the word 'bailiwick'.

Anne S -- "Desire expire now" -- that is SO much better than "I don't need to go anymore." My long-suffering students have as much of a struggle to figure me out as I have to figure them out, but I hope they realize we're all in it together.

Angelina -- A friend of mine once made the same mistake, telling a chef friend of her husband's that she was 'plein' after a tasty meal he'd prepared, then compounding it with 'Et c'est ton faute!' (with apologies for my bad French). Unfortunately, her French was perfectly understandable, and all present thoroughly enjoyed her gaffe.

Lynne -- The last time I was in Florida, I had a telephone conversation with my uncle, who had a strong Southern accent. He was giving me directions and he kept telling me about a 'VIE-uh- duck', and I could not fathom what in the world he meant until he spelled it out: viaduct. I felt so stupid.

Travis -- People in my family used 'fixing to' to mean 'going to'. If I went back to the States, I'd pick that up again in no time. People in the U.K. use 'reckon' and 'poorly' (as an adjective, not an adverb) in regular speech. At first, I thought they were pretending to be hillbillies, but it seems those words have always been in the British idiolect.

inluvwithwords said...

Sounds like you need to be a bit of a mind reader to get it all right.

Charles Gramlich said...

I sometimes feel like the French girl. Except for well, being male and all.

Falak said...

Love this post Mary!!!

Your description of the Glaswegian accent(which I completely adore), the confusion with Edinburgh being Edin'burgh' or Edin'burra' reminds me so much of my stay in Scotland!

It was only towards the end of the first week of my stay in Edinburgh that I realsied that a Hairy Coo meant a hairy cow... I was under the impression it was a person's name..
I was hoping someone would tell me 'what are you like ?" but no one did ;)

Sorry for this painfully long comment but I miss Scotland so much I just had too :/

Bish Denham said...

It's like people who visit the Caribbean and think the people there are speaking a foreign language. It can be so heavily accented, with such a twist of phrasing it doesn't sound like English at all.

That poor boy, though, hasn't a clue about how to win a pretty French girl.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Some 30 years ago my first wife and I were on a Greek cruise ship in the Caribbean. We had made friends with one of the radiomen and were hanging out with him in the radio room when another passenger wanted to make a radio-telephone call to the mainland.

So even with this passenger in a phone booth, we are hearing the whole conversation over the speaker in the radio room. The Greek radio officer tried to make the connection the the US mainland, which was in Florida. The poor guy connected with this land-based telephone operator with a heavy southern accent... he hardly understood half of what she was saying.

What ended up happening was my wife and I helped "translate" Southerner English to Greek-English so he could place the call. It was pretty funny.

Probably today it's all done with text. I'll bet Morse Code was even easier.

Pat said...

I immediately rushed downstairs to test MTL with 'messages' but he passed with flying colours.
My house guest mentioned her DIL always teases her about saying bread rolls - why not just rolls. I feel the same about train station. A station was always for trains. Funny lot aren't we?

Marcia said...

I wonder how long that little flirtation lasted if he corrected everything she said.

Carole said...

This reminds me of trying to crack the grand-child-trying-to-learn-to-speak code. One two year old speaks clear as a bell and the other has a bit of trouble with certain sounds. However he expects me to understand him and is quite disappointed when I don't.