Updated: Oct 29, 2019
During my senior year of college, the freshman on our softball team had the honor of putting on the annual “Frosh Skit.” It’s a short sketch of how everyone on the team acts and funny moments from the year so far.
Impersonations are always my favorite because you can identify someone from a handful of mannerisms and phrases. That person is never aware of the phrases they use, but as soon as it’s brought to light, they notice every time the phrase is used.
For that year’s Frosh Skit, one of the freshmen came skipping onto the stage to interrupt an on-scene conversation about anatomy, she blurted out, “Well, essentially….!” I don’t even remember the rest because everyone was staring at me.
I didn’t know this at the time, but I start off almost all of my conversations where I’m about to say something with, “Well, essentially…”
A similar incident occurred in Vietnam when the students had to impersonate their American teachers. One of the students jumped on stage, clasped their hands together and said, “Okie dokie!” The audience of students burst into laughter as everyone shouted my name.
Our native languages are so subconscious, that we’re hardly aware of the phrases we say. Linguists call some of these words “fillers” as they do nothing to enhance the meaning or inflection of the sentence.
During one of our Polly Languages Meet & Mixers, I related the word “like” to the Arabic word “yanni.” It gets put into sentences so frequently, the word has lost its meaning.
Often times, language learners have a hard time understanding native speakers because they speak with inflections and assumptions, and are rarely grammatically correct.
Let’s take “I do not know” for example.
A shortened version of this phrase is, “I don’t know.” The only time I enunciate “I don’t know” is when I’m conversing formally with an authority figure. Even then, I don’t pronounce the ’T’ at the end of “don’t”
More often than not, I say, “Ah-dunno.” It sounds like one word. And if I’m really feeling lazy, it’s “Ah-uh-o” which is just the essential vowels of the phrase blended together to make a sound that mimics “I don’t know.”
Every native English speaker knows what I’m talking about. However…
Let’s say I just moved here from Japan two months ago, and I need directions to the nearest grocery store.
My textbook would tell me to say something like, “Excuse me, ma’am? Do you know where the nearest grocery store is?”
What my textbook would not prepare me for is the woman’s actual answer which would sound something like:
“Yergonnawannatakuhright at the light. Then after that, izkindagonnabe-ova-by the bookstore. So yullneeda read the signs.”
Here’s the translation:
“You are going to want to take a right at the light. Then after that, it is kind of going to be over by the bookstore. So you will need to read the signs.”
You are = you’re = yer
Going to = gonna
Want to = wanna
Take a - take uh
It is = it’s = iz
Kind of = kinda
Over by = ova-by
You will = you’ll = yull
Needa = need to
I would blink a couple of times, smile, and then type in “grocery stores near me” into my phone.
This is the crux of language acquisition.
Being able to discern what the speaker is saying isn’t at all about knowing the direct translation or correct pronunciation. It’s about training your ears to hear the intention and inflection behind a phrase. It’s about using the context to decipher the meaning. It’s about getting out into the world and listening to native speakers and all the many ways they break all the grammatically rules because breaking the rules their way makes you sound more knowledgeable.
How’s that for a paradox?