The Oxford TEFL Blog

My top language mistakes (and why they happened)

course director prague

David Young is our Trinity CertTESOL course director in Prague. He joined the team in October 2001 having taught a variety of courses in both the Czech Republic and Spain since 1993. Since taking the Trinity DipTESOL, David has run teacher training courses in Barcelona, Madrid, Hong Kong, Paris and Prague. With this blog post, he shares his thoughts on some of his favourite language mistakes. 

 

 

Language mistakes can be a great source of entertainment. I’m still wondering whether I should have ordered the salad on offer at a restaurant outside of Prague. language mistakesUltimately, while I could forgive the ‘icy lettuce’ and the s-impoverished ‘dresing’, I couldn’t forgive the ‘cruelty’. Understanding just what the error is and where they come from can help us to help our students. 

Here’s a selection of my favourite errors and a short look at why the mistake might have happened.

  • “He has a photographer in his throat.” The student had homework to describe some pictures of people from magazines. Seeing someone with a camera around his neck, but not knowing the words, he got out his dictionary and looked up ‘camera’ and ‘neck’…but there were more options than he was expecting. Looks like he went for the longer words. Great dedication, but he needed either a better dictionary or training in how to use one.

 

  • “Coffee cooked my husband.” Ahhh! Killer coffee, and a slightly disturbed student as I asked her if her husband was dead. No dictionary this time, but the student’s first language interference (L1) was a big influence. In Czech, the word order is more flexible, the emphasis normally being on the last item, while the choice of verb is a direct translation too. Czechs will cook their coffee, while English-speakers more dully tend to just ‘make’ it.

 

  • “When I finish my career, I want to work in a multi-national company.” It flowed, the grammar all seemed to fit, and I probably nodded to several of my poor students in Barcelona before one day I paid enough attention and thought, “hang on, that makes no sense”. That was the day I discovered false friends. “Carera” in Spanish means “degree”. Then I was able to help my students (along with Maria who was thankfully only suffering from a cold and a bit blocked up (Spanish ‘constipado’) rather than ‘constipated’ as she told me.

 

  • “I live in the Prague.” In Czech (and Russian, Korean…), they don’t really have articles (a/an/the). So it’s a problem, first for speakers of those languages to get their heads round why they are necessary (Why are they necessary?) in English, and having accepted that they are a part of the language, to then decide when and which one to choose. When their teacher tells them that we use the definite article, ‘the’, when there is only one of a thing, this seems like a great rule to make life simple. And there’s only one Prague. Oh dear! It looks like some of our students mistakes actually come from bad teaching!

 

  • “I had piss soup.” Yikes! “Did you make it?” I asked my Korean student. “No, my pader.” Ahaaa! Pennies started dropping. If ‘father’ is ‘pader’…“And how did he make it?” I asked. “He took the piss…” OK, stop there, as I motioned a fish swimming with my hand and asked, “Fish?” And we worked on phonology and where the sounds /p/ and /f/, were made as well as the difference between ‘s’ and ‘sh’. After years of wondering why such different sounds could cause such difficulties, I came across this tedtalk by Patricia Kuhl – fascinating. And a good argument for not replacing me with a robot.

 

sign bad english

  • “Thank you for your contribution.” Next to the school in Prague, there’s a very famous pub (the first to sell the original Budvar / Budweiser in the city) which over the years has had a succession of slightly amusing signs in the bathrooms. The latest one tells patrons how they are “cleaning the bathrooms for our comfort several times daily” and signs off by thanking us for our contribution. Was it google translate? Or a dictionary again. Maybe in their desire to be polite, they chose what seemed the most formal register. But it doesn’t quite work even if I do feel some inner need to wipe down the mirror or the hand basin when I’m in there. Meanwhile, in Damascus, they seem to have gone the opposite direction, where hydrological would surely have been more appropriate when they went fishing in the dictionary for an adjective connected to water.

 

Do you have any humourous stories about student errors? Post below! If you are interested in studying in Prague and seeing (or hearing) some of these mistakes in person, apply for our Trinity CertTESOL or Trinity DipTESOL course in Prague or contact us for more information.

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