The Price of Misunderstanding

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language has a favorite story about what happened when he or she misunderstood something that was said. These stories can range from humorous to disastrous. Here’s my story.

Back in the mid 90’s I was tutoring a Venezuelan student in English at her home. We had been meeting for many months so we were quite comfortable with each other and frequently spoke in Spanish during study breaks or when I needed to explain English grammar to her. One day I came by for our regular appointment and she greeted me in Spanish stating that her children were home sick today from school and in their bedrooms. She told me that they both had come down with lechina. My look of understanding and lack of concern betrayed what was really going on in my head. My brain quickly tried to make sense of that word, running through lists of diseases, but I actually thought I heard la china and could not think of any illness that corresponded to it. I discarded it as something minor and didn’t give it any more thought until two days later when I began to start scratching at my chest. As the day wore on I began noticing red splotches on my chest and suddenly my mind went racing back to lechina. I began to have a sinking feeling that lechina was actually varicela… chickenpox. I never had chickenpox as a kid so I got panicky and called my student and explained my symptoms to her. She apologized and said that I apparently had contracted lechina from being in her home. She assumed that I must have had it as a kid since I didn’t seem worried about it during our last class. Being an adult with chickenpox was quite awful so this is one lesson that I will never forget—in Venezuela lechina is chickenpox.  When it comes to important things like health, be sure you totally understand what is being said so you don’t end up in a similar situation.

This underscores the regional variations in language, especially Spanish. With over twenty Spanish-speaking countries, not to mention the Spanglish of the United States, such examples abound. Since that incident, I have worked closely with Venezuelans, Columbians, Mexicans, Salvadorians, Puerto Ricans and Cubans I have observed and noted hundreds of other such differences. I’ll write more about this in a different post.

The main point is that when we speak in another language, we are often reluctant to admit that we don’t understand everything that we hear during a conversation, either out of embarrassment or pride. No one wants to keep asking for sentences to be repeated and modified so that we can understand them. In many cases our brains filter out or guess parts of conversation that were not initially understood allowing us to continue the conversation. Language learners quickly learn to pick on clues to know when to make appropriate nods and “uh huhs” during conversations even if they haven’t gotten the entire gist. However when it comes to more serious things, asking for clarification could have saved me from three weeks of chickenpox but then I wouldn’t have the funny story to tell now.

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About Bill Zart
I am a language translator, interpreter and business owner with a passion for all things related to language learning, teaching, translating and interpreting.

One Response to The Price of Misunderstanding

  1. jarvis1000 says:

    So true. You get to a level where you are very comfortable and maybe understand 80 to 100 of most things you hear. People throw praises at you and you feel great that you have arrived at a certain level of fluency that is much desired by many. It makes it hard to dust off that little used phrase that we used so much when we started out: “What does that mean?”

    I wrote a post about that in my blog about being humble is like a seesaw. It can be difficult to admit you don’t know something, but losing your pride doesn’t mean you have to beat yourself up about it either.

    To share a quick story for me, I was in Thailand and I went saw an older woman and I asked if I could chat with her. She kinda gasped and looked at me weird and walked off. I asked my Thai friend why she didn’t want to chat and he almost burst out laughing. Apparently I was pronouncing the Thai word for chat kuy as kuay. Kuay is archaic word for water buffalo, but nowadays is a vulgar expression for a certain male body part. So the old woman was kinda upset when I asked to kuay with her.

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