A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. (Proverbs 25:11)
The other day, I had to explain to a Colombian student that referring to his relatives as his “familiars” not only did not make sense to most people, but technically meant that he was summoning the spirits, mostly likely malevolent, who served him.
Yup, you can say some pretty weird things even when you’re fairly fluent in a language, as this student was, but especially when you’re not, like when American Spanish 101 students try to say they’re “embarrassed” in Spanish. They simply say “embarasado” on the off chance that it’s one of those words you can simply add an “o” to and be done with it. It’s not; what it sounds like is “embarazada,” which means “pregnant.”
And now we know why we shouldn’t make up words, for spoken languages are really one of weirdest things out there, if you really think about it. We make sounds with our mouths (or rather, the instruments behind our mouths) and depending on the order, pitch, and consistency of those sounds, you can order a pizza or start a war.
The possibilities for communication are endless, as are the possibilities for miscommunication, like when a Taiwanese student told me part of the new responsibilities that came with his promotion was “chaining new employees.” Long story short, the word he meant was “training,” and we spent a long time working out how to pronounce that “tr” sound.
My work with international students is full of little incidents like that, some of which make for readily available anecdotes, and others of which are less printable. Let’s just say that I had no idea that, in the right accent, the noun “Falklands” and the verb “taught” could both be heard as quite a different word.
In such cases, I simply explain the mistake, whether it be in vocabulary, pronunciation, or phrasing, and then the student and I practice the right way to do it. Depending on the severity of the mistake, a student might be rather embarrassed, even quite frustrated with themselves. It’s then that I tell them that I also read plenty of American students’ papers, and trust me, they’re native speakers and they say things they don’t mean to all the time. I do too, actually. It’s very easy to get your words twisted around.
But then I think, what about the time when I know exactly what I’m saying, and that it’s not the best thing I could say? What about when what I’m saying isn’t honest, or nice, or uplifting, or even just a necessary truth, and then I say it anyway? There are no excuses then. I’m not missing any words in my vocabulary. These are the phrases that I have known all my life, and now I’m using them very intentionally, in ways that they shouldn’t be wasted.
I see international students practicing their English, working hard to smooth out issues, small and large, until they can communicate like a native speaker. They remind me that all of us should work to improve our language, until we can use the words God gave us in the way they were meant to be used.