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Language and Life

Did I Mean What I Said?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Adult language learners are often hesitant to try themselves in the language of their new country, because they are afraid of making mistakes.  Many want to stay in the classroom with their teacher and learn all they can until they get it right and then go out and use it.  The problem with that is that language is like riding a bicycle.  You can't learn to do it until you do it.  We have to try each thing we want to learn before we can get it right.

This means the newcomer lives with some stress all the time, trying to communicate while uncertain just how to represent in words the thoughts in his/her head.  But we often forget how difficult it is to say what we really mean even in our native tongue.

The Tangled Tongue
All of us have had the experience of getting our tongue tangled around our eye teeth so that we could not see what we were saying!  I found some good illustrations of this once in US newspaper article.  The following quotes are actual statements made by drivers on their insurance reports for accidents.

"As I approached the intersection a sign suddenly appeared where no stop sign ever appeared before.  I was unable to stop in time to avoid the accident."  Those stray stop signs will get you every time!  Then, "I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law and headed over the embankment."  Yeah, we know what he means.

Here's a real killer:  "The guy was all over the road.  I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him."  Must have been frustrating – but you finally got him.  And you had better be careful of this next guy if you are unsure which way to go:  "The pedestrian had no idea which direction to run, so I ran over him."  At least that driver was honest.

Within and Without
Do you think these folks really meant what they said?  Surely they did not say what they meant.  I have sometimes written down ideas, or taken notes in a meeting, and then later found I could not make sense of those notes.

The problem is that we often know (or at least think we know) what we are thinking.  Then we look for words that might express that.  We do not always succeed.  Because we are proceeding outwards form within our thoughts.  Those same words might mean something else hearing them in a different context!

Words we choose under the pressure of the moment might also represent other possibilities to someone who does not already know what we are thinking.  When you consider the gems quoted above, you might wonder that we actually are able to communicate as well as we do!

Thinking and Speaking
For us who are concerned to be precise in what we communicate, this means we need to test what we say, write it down or go over it in our minds, trying out different variations to eliminate ambiguity.  Then in looking for a better way to express our ideas, our ideas are clarified.  I just talk to myself.  My wife long ago became accustomed to my conversations with myself in one language or another.

But now how much greater is the problem when you are dealing with limited vocabulary and limited experience in a strange new language.  How can you possibly use what little you know to say what you are thinking?  Sometimes the learner has to decide to think something else which he/she can say!

Language learning actually requires learning to think again, in the new format and at the new simpler level to fit the limited language ability.  But you have to say what you can, or you will never get to the point where you can what you want to.

These misstatements also illustrate that when we are involved in an event, it looks different than it does to an objective observer.  The image we wish to project is often different from that which our limited language ability and cultural awareness allows us to actually project.  But we can use each experience to build relationships and cultivate sympathetic helpers.

Free Entertainment
So you will sound strange; so you will make people laugh.  Well, didn't you always want to be a comedian anyway?  It has seemed to me that one of the reasons our Africans friends were always so friendly and helpful was because we provided so much free entertainment for them!

Say what you can and use what you know to say what you can say.  Sometimes you may not mean what you say, but that's OK.  Laughter is healthy!

Also related:
[TXT] Approaches to Language: Models
[Menu] Cognitive and Social Culture
[TXT] Did You Say What I Heard?
[TXT] Questionnaire For World-View Analysis
[TXT] Worldview in Language:  Language and Thought


Original version of this article published in Afri-Com, Vol.2, No.2 (July) 1989
Also published in Language and Life (Limuru, Kenya:  Communication Press, 1989)
Updated for posting to Thoughts and Resources 2 December 2009
Last edited 30 March 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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