Subject: Journal Question #2 from Session #3
Language competence, what the speaker can do under the best conditions, and one’s performance are worlds apart. Many factors affect performance: situation, nervousness, tiredness, being bored, being careless, or maybe just not understanding the social implications of what we say.
Since "we develop knowledge that allows us to use the language to communicate following the unwritten social rules of a particular group," (Freeman and Freeman, p. 55) it comes as no surprise that most of the ways we master those rules are painfully embarrassing.
Our church youth fellowship, on my advice, invited a young French girl to address our group. I’d heard her speak before, and she was vibrant, knowledgeable, amusing without being vulgar or insulting, -- a joy to listen to. Like most foreign speakers, she made her touching little gaffes. She had a sore throat that day, and began by searching for the proper words to describe it. "I have a toad in my throat," she finally announced, to guffaws.
"You’re a little hoarse," supplied the youth fellowship director.
Her face looked horror struck. "Oh, my, NO! A horse would never fit!"
When she was describing dancing with her first American boy, he pulled her closer than she was comfortable with. She said that it was very embracing, instead of embarrassing, both of which were true, but unintended.
Her social grasp on the language was also imperfect. When she was telling about her training in France, she popped out with "It was, how you say? One hell of an examination." Now, in a school setting among her friends, that was fine, but in a church setting, it was not smiled upon. It fell to me to explain to her WHY. I’m not sure I ever really did succeed in explaining why it was okay in one setting and not another. It would have helped had I read this book, but it had not even been written back then.
As I read through this chapter, I was more engaged than I have been with the previous ones. Every heading called up example after example. I ended up feeling like a total social klutz.
The Polish men I talked about teaching English to in my first journal entry could not say my name. One of the other men had an American girlfriend named "Cindy". Several times, the men confused the two of us. I finally addressed the issue in one class, only to discover that NONE of the men could hear the difference between /ci/ and /ca/. They could, however, make many similar sounds clear down in their throats that I never did get straight. The /a/ sound as in /hat/ does not occur in Polish according to them.
Syntax caused a lot of trouble with the Polish men. In my inexperience, I quickly picked up the habit of making English more comprehensible to them by arranging the sentences in Polish word order. I don’t KNOW Polish, so some underground forces were at work here to allow that unconscious bit of learning to happen. I was unaware of it until the day that my best girlfriend Sandee and I were planning a trip to the State Fair with three of the Polish men. We two would be exhibiting some of the horses, and the men would watch, then take off for whatever exhibits they found entertaining. My main concern was impressing on them the early hour we needed to leave so we had time to get the horses cleaned up before the show. (No matter how clean they start out, there are always last minute things that arise.) After several minutes of four way discussion, the men left. Although she was standing right there and had heard every word said, Sandee turned to me and said, "What are we doing?" I found it embarrassing to have to repeat the entire discussion, worded in good English syntax, as though I thought it was "stupid" of her not to understand. Now, I know exactly what the trouble was, and can appreciate what was going on.
On a trip to Mexico, Pete, a student in my high school Spanish class, tried to call over the waitress, a cute girl he hoped to pick up. First, he made the mistake of waving her over with an overhand gesture we use for "come here". Hispanics deliver it in an underhand motion, the other being a gesture similar to giving someone the finger, and highly insulting. But he was a customer, so she struggled with being insulted and still needing to perform her job. He later compounded the error by trying to order tea. A perfectly natural, harmless thing to do in a café, you say? Well, normally. But Pete, never the most proficient Spanish student in class, suffered from a syntax problem next. He said, "Te quiero" (I love you) instead of "Quiero té." (I want some tea.) She slapped his face and stomped off, leaving her father to give the uppity young man his bill.
Like Leny, there have many occasions where my performance in a foreign language did not reflect my competence in that language. At the start of the "oral proficiency" movement, those of us who had learned Spanish by reading ancient literature and translating it into English were offered a chance to begin to switch techniques. At UNI in a summer class for Spanish minors who were teaching the language, but were lacking proficiency in speaking skills when the classifications were just being codified, we were using the "total immersion" technique. The 25 of us roomed with others speaking the same language, and were not to use any English the entire two weeks.
I was walking with two others past a group of pine trees with an isolated pocket of protected space in the middle, where two rabbits sat.
"¡Mira, dos cajones!" I said, pointing.
Oops… Of course, the ex-nun knew the difference between cajones (testacles) and conejos (rabbits). Which made me wonder about the California town named El Cajon… But I DIDN’T ASK!
By the end of the class, I had received a small fuzzy rabbit statue with the label "conejo", and had been forgiven as simply confused (and totally unable to say where I’d ever heard that word, which was NOT in the type of literature my Christian college asked us to translate.)
It turned out to be a reputation I was not destined to keep for long. We planned a final meal, at the teacher’s house. Everyone was assigned ingredients to bring for the meal, including the teacher's 22 year old son, not formally part of our group, but assigned to bring two eggs. I was grinding the ginger root I’d gotten when he came into the kitchen empty handed. We were about ready to combine some of the ingredients, including his two eggs, so I asked in all innocence, "Tienes dos huevos?" (Do you have two eggs?) His face darkened and he fled.
Soon mama entered, walking briskly up to me and asking, "Did you REALLY ask my son if he had two balls?"
"No," I explained, I asked if he had two eggs. Of course, as soon as I said it, she understood that I did not know the slang meaning of eggs…and everyone figured out that SHE did not really mean balls, but their slang meaning… I just wanted to fall right through the floor. The same folks who had gotten the biggest chuckle out of the rabbit incident were again highly amused at my expense.
I’ve decided I am most likely going to stumble into every salacious Mexican idiom one at a time. At a national championship horse show held in Des Moines, a group of Mexican men came with a California stable to look after their vanload of horses. One evening after the Anglo Californians had decamped to their air-conditioned motel, I bumped into one of the Mexican men drinking milk directly out of a gallon jug. I thought about how fast it would go bad in the heat, and the unlikelihood that any one human being could consume an entire gallon at one time. But what I said was, "Tienes bastante leche?" (Do you have enough milk?) He smiled, and the rest of the show, several "off duty" Hispanic men followed me around and chatted. Never one who attracted men, I was puzzled. Later, I discovered that the phrase I had used was slang for "Are you getting enough (implying SEX), which moved me from the category of high status gringa friend of their boss to possibly available. By using the tú form of the verb, (intimate, informal address, NOT used with strangers, especially when one is male and the speaker female) instead of the usted (formal) form, I’d compounded the error.
Unlike Leny, I did not discover a workable solution to the problem. (In fact, I did not even understand the full extent of the problem at the time. I would have been a lot more concerned about having the men around had I known what expectations I had set up. But, as they say, "Ignorance is bliss", and since I am not flirty by nature, no opening occurred, thus avoiding what could have been a pretty nasty incident, as I was friends with the owner of the horses, held office in the club, etc.)
"One of the problems for second language learners, especially for adults, is that teachers will seldom explain sociolinguistic gaffes." (Freeman and Freeman, pg. 62) I have an Exploratory Spanish class that has no text book. I use a tape/drawing packet approach of prepared materials. In the seond lesson, the first new word is "huevo". This year, a youngster whose half brother had a Hispanic father, a four part name, and had lived in California at some point, recognized that as "ball". He became highly indignant when I said the word meant "egg" and stuck to his guns. I ended up telling a watered down version of the cooking incident, explaining that there were times when it DID NOT mean ball, and school was one of those times.
I know we were asked to point out slips, but I also realized that sometimes we fumble around and do things right, even though we don’t know why. Over the years, I have come up with "confusing sounds" sheets for that Exploratory Spanish class, one for /C/, /S/, /Z/ and one for /G/, /J/. Each letter heads a column combining its proper spelling with each of the five vowel sounds. At the bottom of the columns is the phoneme’s pronunciation. /S/ hisses, /z/ hisses not buzzes as it does in English, which reminded me of the /s/z/ sounds discussed on page 60.