Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Making oneself (mis)understood

We had an evening of board games at our house tonight. Present were three Latvians who speak varying degrees of English, a South African (moi), two Swedish nationals - one with an English accent and one with a South African accent (my son and husband respectively), an Irishman and two English nationals, one of whom has a somewhat Zimbabwean accent. Quite a mixed bag!

We realised early on that we had to avoid some games because they were definitely biased towards the English speaking people present (Scene It, 30 Seconds, etc.). The evening went off very well, but there was a somewhat interesting interlude when one of the Latvians (the one with the strongest English) was playing battleships with the Irishman. She knew the rules. He didn't. So she was trying to explain them to him, but he was struggling with her accent and she was struggling to find the right words... and with his accent. Heck I struggle with his accent, too. It took me three attempts a few weeks ago to figure out what he meant when he told me that Obama had gone out for a 'borrgorr'.

Somehow the game got underway, but there were hiccups.

  • When he says A and E, they sound very similar to an unpractised ear
  • She calls H 'ush' while he calls it 'haitch' - so she kept thinking he was saying 8
  • In Latvian, the letter I is called 'ee' (as it is in several other languages) and she kept mixing the two up
But the best was G and J. They simply could not figure out which one the other meant. She would say G and he would ask, "Juh?" To which she would respond "Yes. Juh." Of course, she was no doubt thinking of words like geography, and had no idea that we call J 'juh' and G 'guh'. Then he would say J and she would have no idea which he meant either. Fittingly enough for a church group, they settled on J for Jesus and G for God.

Then, as I drove her home later, she told me how nervous she was about driving in England, because she is used to driving on the left. I pointed out that we do drive on the left in England, but that I had always thought they drove on the right in Latvia. No, she insisted. They drive on the left. It is we who drive on the right. Since we were in the car at the time, quite clearly driving on the left side of the road, I assumed she was confusing the words for left and right. Then it dawned on me. When we talk about the side on which we drive, we refer to the side of the road on which we travel. When she does, she refers to the side of the car on which the driver sits.

As we get to know these ladies better, I foresee many such misunderstandings, and it occurs to me that a simple translation isn't always enough to ensure clarity of understanding. There are frames of reference and paradigms in play.

For those of us who are called upon to develop multilingual resources, this might well be a consideration. It might be worth having a sense check with the translator and looking for a more readily understood transliteration instead.


V Yonkers said...

This reminds me of the first month I was teaching English in Costa Rica. I had my students preparing a little dialog which they would present to the class.

I saw one group having a heated discussion and asked what the problem was. One member of the group asked if they had to write out the dialog. I told them it was up to them. So he said, "We can write it or just speak it?" "Right" I said. Two more times I was called over until I realized that whenever I said "right" they thought I said, "write." As a result, I learned to say, "correct" (which is closer to their "correcto").

The upsycho said...

@V_Yonkers Good example. Mind you, the same confusion could have occurred with a group of native English speakers. Our language and its homophones isn't really very helpful, is it?

V Yonkers said...

I doubt a native speaker would have this difficulty because of the context in which "right" was used (although a small child who has not learned the context may misunderstand it). Often it is the meaning as well as the language itself that is lost.

When my son was little, he would tell people that he lived in Normal. Now, there is a Normal, Illinois, but that is about 900 miles from us and it is not a common destination. Finally, (like you did with the driving example) I figured how this had come up. One day as we were driving back home from preschool, he asked, "Are we going back to normal?" He had understood this expression literally as a place we were going back to! Hearing it often, he put his own interpretation on what "back to normal" meant. This happens also with non-native speakers.

The upsycho said...

@V_Yonkers Ah, you remind me of an incident from my own life. The entire extended family was sitting down to lunch as we often did on a Sunday afternoon. My grandfather and one of my uncles were discussing something or other to do with a car, which they kept referring to as 'she'. I asked why they did that and was told that all vehicles - for some or other reason none of them could remember - were considered female. "Except mailships," quoth I.

The adults fell about laughing, declaring me a very witty child indeed.

But I was serious. We talked about mail as 'post'. I wasn't familiar with the word 'mail' at all, and had assumed that the ships in question were called maleships. Perhaps I had asked why at some point and been told (I thought) that it was because they carried males.