Come Again: You Said What?

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Imagine if someone said something overtly sexual or crude to you. What would your reaction be? Disbelief? Shock? Anger? Now imagine that the speaker is your ESL student. Of course, your response has to be different.

Sometimes because of pronunciation or improper word usage, ESL students inadvertently say or write the most shocking things. A while back, one of my students wrote this in a peer review (a student response to a student assignment, in this case an essay): “Your hooker is not very appealing and is unlikely to attract the reader.” Of course, he meant hook. What a difference two letters can make. This situation was easier to deal with because the student had not uttered this sentence aloud to the class. I took him aside and explained the meaning of the word, resulting in him blushing quite a bit.

Sometimes students mispronounce words such as sit, beach, can’t etc. I deal with this issue by addressing it before it emerges. I mention the potential mispronunciations and get the students to practice saying the word correctly. Don’t get me wrong, I am not attempting accent reduction (accents are fine and often quite lovely), but when pronunciation interferes with meaning in an obvious and negative way, it must be confronted directly.

One very specific example was a business student who was doing a presentation about a Facebook application. What I heard was: “this application will highlight your beautiful smell.” I had him practice saying smile because it was a key aspect of his presentation.

In case you think all the (loosely-termed) offenders are male, I have an example of a young woman who had me utterly speechless. I was waiting for the bus when I was approached by a beautiful Asian woman, who asked me for directions. Sounds innocuous enough, but this is what came out: “How do I get to copulate?” What the poor woman meant was: “How do I get to Capulet (a street in London, Ontario)?” Once I figured it out, I gave her directions. However, as she was not one of my students, I did not explain what was wrong with what she said. I totally chickened out and to this day I still feel terrible about it.

These challenging situations brought the zany conversation between Alice and the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland to mind:

“`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’”

Unfortunately, our students often do not say what they mean” and thus they could not possibly mean what they say (at least, I hope this is the case). This is something we should really be helping them with. The problem is that I do not have enough strategies for these situations. I know that you should point out the error, no matter how embarrassing it is, use tact and diplomacy, and try to address these errors privately when you can. I am opening it up to you, my fellow ESL teachers. What would you do?

I have a specific situation in mind. A student wrote in his paper: “I felt hard when I made the choice.” How would you address this so-called error? What would you say to him?

Ruth Yu has been a lecturer at the Kings University College for two years. She teaches University Writing in English to international students, and is also the ESL grammar specialist or the “grammar yoda” for The Write Place (the King’s writing support service). She also taught high school English for ten years.


6 thoughts on “Come Again: You Said What?”

  1. Thanks, Ruth, this problem is inevitable in a second language, I think, and I agree with your dual approaches. I also address commonly mispronounced words with the whole class and tell students what words these may be taken for (the problem of the mispronunciation of “accounting” & “accountant” spring to mind!). I also agree with the solution of sometimes taking a student aside privately and addressing a problem rather than embarrassing them in front of their classmates.

    In the case of “I felt hard when I made the choice”, I think I would (if you’ll excuse my wording) raise the issue with the whole class, both because “The choice was hard” is a common expression which many people might want to use at some point, and because you want to help newcomers avoid future embarrassment from this sort of double entendre.

    I have even had to recommend changing email addresses. One of my student’s email address was “” (her teenage kids had ‘helped’ her choose this name!) She had no idea how this email address might be taken, and, in fact, had been using it to communicate with her kids’ teachers … ack!

    With more advanced students, I usually advise reading “Dangerous English” –

  2. A very interesting comment to deal with!
    I had an online adult student whose name was Dick. I wondered if he knew the meaning of the word. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but I left it alone because it IS, or at least WAS, a perfectly acceptable name for a man. Several weeks later though, he informed me that his name was now Derrick because someone else had told him what dick means.

  3. Very interesting post, Ruth! I think my response would change depending on the audience. I usually teach teenagers, so I tend to giggle to myself and just correct the mistake. However, if the student is a bit older, I think I would take Kate’s route and let the student know afterwards.

    I definitely feel these kinds of situations need to be handled differently case by case. In any case, they are at least entertaining haha.

    1. How true –as awkward as these situations were, they were hilarious!

      I used to love teaching teenagers . Yo u know, they could be embarrassed too. Once I mentioned that Romeo’s motivation could be lust and boy the reaction–like I wasn’t supposed to know what that meant .

  4. It is so funny and remind me the time I do the same thing in class, “I need to get my rubber.” Haha I mean my eraser but it just came out wrong.

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