Tell and say sometimes trip my students up. “Said me,” they’ll say, or “told to me.” I set them straight: You say something, sometimes to someone, or you tell somebody something.
“Of course,” my students answer, because the use of those two verbs is fairly clear, and though they forget from time to time, the students get it, which is not the case with all verbs. The verb doubt, for example, is so very similar to the Spanish dudar that it slips out of students’ mouths as easily as if it were the Spanish word, to be used in the same way. Sometimes the two are equivalent, but often not. You can dudar between two options, but you can’t doubt between them, for example. But it’s more complicated than that, and there are so many more profitable ways to spend our class time then to lay out all the ways they might go wrong. So I simply instruct them, “Say you have a question, not a doubt. Say you are deliberating between two options, not that you doubt between them. Say you need a couple of points clarified, not that you doubt certain points.” If they insist on knowing why, I tell them it’s complicated, but they’ll be safe if they remember my pointer: you have a question, not a doubt, and you don’t doubt between two options but deliberate.
Some students are happy with that. They understand that the goal is to speak correctly without a lot of searching for the right word, and they know that memorizing a ream’s worth of rules won’t help them. You can be very proficient at a task without anyone having taught you explicitly how to reason out the answer. Computers have become expert at facial recognition just by guessing over and over, and getting their choices confirmed or refuted. Nobody knows how they do it. Correct or not, thumbs up or thumbs down—that’s all a computer needs in order to learn, and all the tools a teacher needs for teaching. And lots of old-fashioned repetition.
But are the rules really superfluous and can the students really learn by endlessly repeating an exercise and by being endlessly corrected? Children do, but these students aren’t children. They aren’t at play, like children, but deadly serious, some of them, determined to do or die, like soldiers. One day in an upper-intermediate class of young adults, a student called me on my simple formulation of rules for tell and say. “Tell doesn’t always require an object,” she said.
“True,” I agreed, searching my mind for a good example. But she already had one: tell, meaning divulge, perhaps a secret, something also true in Spanish with the verb contar, the best equivalent to tell. In Spanish as in English, the verb usually takes an object, such as joke or story, but it doesn’t require one. “Cuenta!” you can say, just as in English you can say, “Oh, come on, tell!” when you want your pal to spill the beans. Or don’t tell when you want to keep the information under wraps.
But contar is also count, and thus though you say “Cuenta!” to urge a friend to tell you the gossip or the news, the friend might deliberately misunderstand and answer with a string of numbers, uno, dos, tres. I have a friend who regularly does that. Whenever I say, “Cuenta, cuenta,” in polite encouragement, then, even when he’s initiated the story, he can’t resist. Uno dos tres. He breaks his own momentum to say these numbers, so why does he do it?
A joke apparently trumps a story. Especially if you can always pick up the story again, after you’ve had your laugh. Let nothing interfere with a laugh, not even how old or tiresome the joke is. Laugh. Then get on with the story.
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