We Don’t Hear You!

This sentence is one any English teacher working online has possibly heard quite often recently. Or, more likely, We don’t listen you!

Of course, We don’t listen you is clearly not the correct sentence to use if your teacher’s been rendered momentarily inaudible. But what about We don’t hear you!? To a native speaker, that’s clearly not correct either. But why?

First of all, of course the most natural thing to say is We can’t hear you. It’s what most native speakers would say without thinking, and it’s logical. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it. But still, wouldn’t We don’t hear you work equally well?

The meanings of the two are subtly different, with We don’t hear you lacking the concept of ability, but they both communicate the important information: you’re not audible.

Still, it would sound weird if someone said We don’t hear you, wouldn’t it? I think there’s a tiny hint of logic at work. I think that when we hear I don’t, before we hear the verb, our brains start to imagine that the speaker is talking about a choice, something like We don’t listen to you, or we don’t want to hear you. Or any verb really, as at that point in the sentence we haven’t heard the main verb yet.

Then when we hear the verb hear, we understand logically that the students aren’t choosing not to listen to us. But the effect of that don’t might still remain.

So instead, we say can’t, because that clearly suggests we want to hear you, but we’re being stopped by some external force, like a briefly-lost internet connection.

All of this naturally happens pretty much unconsciously. But for a non-native speaker, the unconscious leap to can’t isn’t there, so we can’t isn’t so instinctively more natural than we don’t. Plus, they might have their native tongue influencing them, which might use the equivalent of we don’t, further complicating matters.

Which brings us to one of the tricky things about languages: when you’ve got more than one grammatically-possible option, how are you supposed to know which is the one that native speakers usually use?

The simplest answer is to expose yourself to as much natural English as possible, though that can be easier said than done, depending on individual circumstances. Another quite simple answer is not to worry too much about it. You might say something that doesn’t sound exactly like a native speaker, but if it’s comprehensible grammatically correct, that’s good enough for the moment. Worry about sounding more like a native speaker later.

This doesn’t just apply to English by the way, as many other languages have situations where more than one grammatically-correct option is possible, but there’s only one that native speakers generally use. It’s pretty logical, and makes communication that little bit more efficient when you don’t have to take an extra moment to process an unfamiliar, if comprehensible utterance.

And that’s why if you’re learning a new language, you have to think on two levels. First, there’s the micro level, where you use your knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to construct meaningful sentences. Second, there’s the macro level, where you notice what sentences or phrases work in specific situations, and subsequently use those yourself.

It still takes patience, but trying to think on those two levels will definitely help with your language learning.

2 thoughts on “We Don’t Hear You!

  1. Not sure I agree with the point about ‘don’t’ signifying a choice. Think of ‘I don’t know’ – it doesn’t meant the speaker is chosing not to know. Perhaps they would very much like to know.

    I think the correct response in the modern day if one doesn’t WANT to know something – that is to remain willfully ignorant – is to accuse the person asking the question of being ‘fake news’. And move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Very good point, I think ‘don’t’ really depends on the verb coming after it. Something like ‘listen’ would suggest choice, but certainly not ‘know.’ I might start accusing students who say they can’t hear me of FAKE NEWS actually!

      Like

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