How many times have I said a word in Spanish, gotten a blank look, repeated the word, repeated it again, and finally, bingo, gotten that dawning-of-comprehension look and the accompanying “Oh!” Then the person repeats exactly, sound-for-sound, what I just said. It can happen to anyone, even when speaking your own language, but happens more often when you speak a foreign language. “I just said that!” you exclaim. Maybe you hadn’t, exactly, but couldn’t they just say, “Oh, now I understand!”
Apparently not, because that almost never happens. The desire to correct is strong. Even knowing how annoying it is, I find that in class with my students I often do that most annoying of things—repeat to my students the sounds that seem to them an exact rendition of their own pronunciation. Many, many students have assured me that they cannot hear the difference between certain pairings—eyes and ice, advise and advice, lies and lice, tries and trice—and so they can hardly be expected to differentiate when making the sounds. And yet I have heard both from their lips. “Oh! Tries!” I say.
“Of course. What else?” says the look thrown back, so I explain: “It sounded like you were saying ‘trice.’”
No one in class knows that word, so I write in on the board, explain it. Is it a common word, they ask, wondering why this word is what my ear insisted on when the context made the other more likely. No, not common at all, I admit, and I’m afraid my students think I’m an idiot, finding it easier to hear trice than tries. I wonder myself, and my answer is that context comes in when the fundamental indicators are missing. In a high wind where words are blown away and you hear nothing, you guess, and context helps. Likewise, when the garbled gobbledygook from a learner’s mouth sounds like the wind rattling through, you guess, and often correctly.
But if the person is saying a word, a real word, you believe your ears first. And you want to believe so much that you’ll invent a context to justify the word you hear. Meanwhile, you close yourself to other possibilities and hold on hard. A family friend shared a story about a doctor in Mexico from years ago, when she was traveling there. He was giving her instructions for follow-up care on her release from the hospital, where she’d gone after some bleeding early in her first pregnancy. The doctor was a fancy-dressing gynecologist, our friend wrote, rather pleased with himself, wearing a suede coat in the heat of Mazatlan. His English was not great, and her Spanish wasn’t either. He kept repeating something that sounded like, “No says. No says.”
Finally, in frustration and in spite of all his hoity-toity elegance, he made a circle with his left thumb and index finger and rammed his right index finger in and out of it, saying “No says!”
Ah! Foolish me, wondering why the doctor was concerned about conversation!
I imagined the doctor when he saw understanding dawn for his patient. He’d clap his hands in relief and roll his eyes. “Of course, what else?” his look would say. Our friend and her husband, too, would also be relieved. For me, though, no relief on understanding the doctor’s words. After all, it hardly mattered what the doctor ordered for this couple—sex, no sex, bedrest, lots of fluids, or even handstands—it hardly mattered because I already knew the ending. The baby was fine. He was their first. Later, two more were fine, too. Thrice blessed. Not twice. Thrice.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.