Aluminum or Aluminium?

Continuing the themes of the last two days, pronunciation and names, I want to shift focus slightly from issues with pronunciation in a second language, to those native English speakers have with their own tongue. If you search for something like “most annoying mispronunciations,” you’ll find plenty of people venting their frustration. Sometimes, it’s understandable. As I’ve mentioned before, we seem to have an inbuilt resistance to anyone using language differently from us, regardless of which one of us, if either is correct. Other times though, it says more about the person complaining. Here are some of the more common complaints: Continue reading

Teacher, can I say…?

This is the beginning of one of the most common questions English teachers get asked. And the answer is usually, Well, it’s technically correct, but we never actually say that in English. Which in turn is usually met by frustrated sighs. For all the language’s flexibility, we often fix on only one of the many possible ways to express an idea. This is often a tremendous source of frustration for learners, especially if they’re feeling pleased about using a certain grammar form, only for their teacher to tell them what they’re saying doesn’t really sound natural.

Often, this stems from direct translation from one’s mother tongue. In French for example, it’s standard to use nouns to refer to feelings. For example: Continue reading

For all Intensive Purposes

Ah, to have the command of a native speaker! To be able to say exactly what you mean, without having to think about what you want to say, and without making mistakes! If only I could be that good, but I never will!

Such is the lament of almost everyone learning a language. No matter how we advance in our learning, no matter how confident we get, whenever we see a native speaker in full flow we’re at once impressed and dismayed. They remind us of how far we have to go, and the gap that, realistically, will always exist between a native speaker and a learner, unless they completely immerse themselves in the language.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. As I’ve said before, native speakers are prone to often-surprising mistakes in their own language. In many cases, these are grammar mistakes, caused partly by the fact that English grammar doesn’t tend to be taught with any degree of rigour in Anglophone countries.  The main reason we make mistakes though, is that we acquire our native language first through listening, and then speaking. Reading and writing come much later, and because they require the use of letters, accuracy is crucial to both. And yet, even when we’ve mastered the basics of reading and writing, most of our exposure to language remains aural, and our production of it, oral.

This is why, for example, many people will write your instead of you’re (I actually just typed your instead of you’re: it’s easy to do!); because when we hear someone say You’re great, and your blog is amazing (you get used to it after a while), you don’t see or hear a difference between You’re and your. Added to this, is the fact that we don’t always speak very clearly. My “teacher voice,” for example, is much louder, slower, and clearer than my voice when I’m speaking with other native speakers. Then I mumble, don’t use complete sentences, let words run into each other, and speak quite quickly. The result of this is that we don’t always hear things very clearly, and are particularly prone to mishearing commonly-used multi-word phrases. It’s the same concept behind mishearing song lyrics: the longer the phrase, the more opportunities we have for misunderstanding it. Let’s have a look at some of the most common phrases that people get wrong… Continue reading

Lady Mondegreen

Ireland’s industry

There’s a bathroom on the right

Excuse while I kiss this guy

What do these statements have in common? They’re all mondegreens. What’s a mondegreen, you ask? Let me show you…

Ireland’s industry – Islands in the stream (Islands in the Stream, Dolly Parton & Kenny Rogers)

There’s a bathroom on the right – There’s a bad moon on the rise (Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Excuse me while I kiss this guy – Excuse me While I Kiss the Sky (Purple Haze, Jimi Hendrix)

A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric. The unusual-sounding word was coined by American writer Sylvia Wright in 1954 when she wrote about how she misheard the line …and laid him on the green from the 17th-century Scottish ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Moray” as …and Lady Mondegreen.

I’m quite fond of mondegreens, simply because they can be very funny, but they’re also a great leveller. No matter your mastery of the English language, the rhythms of song lyrics and the accompanying make it often quite hard to heard lines correctly. Plus, we tend to expect language to follow familiar patterns, so it makes more sense to our brains to kiss a guy than kiss the sky. (It’s also only fair to point out that in normal conversational connected speech, Excuse me while I kiss this guy and Excuse me while I kiss the sky sound identical.)

We all have our own mondegreens. The one I always remember from my youth is Prefab Sprout’s “The King of Rock n’ Roll.” I always thought the line Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque was actually Hot dog, jump in fire, how about turkey? Which I think works equally well. I also thought the Transformers jingle proclaimed them to be robots in the skies, as opposed to in disguise. It never made sense to me, because only some of them could fly.

I was surprised to discover that the most-commonly misheard line, according to a British survey was Call me if you try to wake her up from R.E.M’s “Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” which people mishear as Calling Jamaica. It kind of fits I suppose, but you really need to stretch it! I would have thought Haddaway’s “What is Love” (When You Don’t Hurt Me instead of Baby Don’t Hurt Me) would be more common, or Abba’s “Waterloo” (How does it feel to have won the war? instead of I was defeated, you won the war).

What are some of your mondegreens?

The Error of our Ways

After doing my shopping today, I was approached by a young couple. They were from Argentina, and were travelling round Ireland as part of their journey across Europe. They were looking for the apartment they were couchsurfing in (I hate giving directions in Galway, as there are too many small, non-parallel streets, and no-one in Galway knows streetnames apart from the best-known ones).

I spoke with them for a bit and was impressed by their level of English. I knew immediately that they were Spanish speakers, but they spoke quite fluently, and were very easy to understand. Of course they made some tiny errors, none of which affected my ability to understand them, and I probably didn’t notice some other errors. That can actually be a drawback to teaching English: you get so used to some of the more common errors that you stop noticing them. Continue reading