Did I Say That?

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This week, I was reminded in two different classes that what I say (or what I think I say) and what students hear may be quite different.   Sometimes, such “mis-hearings” can give us a laugh—like the time I had a multilingual student in an ESL course begin a paragraph with the expression, “firstable.”  I noted that we would say, “first,” but the student repeated the expression in a later composition.  When I pointed out that “firstable” is not a recognized word, he was puzzled.

“But Professor Moore, you say it all the time.” 

“I most certainly do not.”

“Yes, you do.  You said it today in class: ‘Firstable, we need to understand why Alexie wrote this.’”

It was quite clear.  I was saying “First of all,” and he was hearing “firstable.”  We laughed, and he adjusted his notes.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com via UnsplashPhoto by Christina @ wocintechchat.com via Unsplash

This past week, in my corequisite writing class, another student was struggling to proofread and edit a draft of her literacy narrative.  I had asked the students to annotate some of their editorial choices; I wanted to understand more about their decision-making processes.  The student, who had several issues with end punctuation and run-on sentences, added several capital letters mid-sentence, but no periods.  In the annotation, she noted that she was starting a new idea, so capital letters were required. 

I thought back to an editing session I had led earlier:  she had not processed the discussion of periods, semicolons, clauses, or conjunctions, but she had heard that new ideas required would be signaled by a capital letter.   I could focus on all the things she did not hear—or I could focus on the fact that she was diligently applying what she did hear to her current assignment.   I applauded her work, and after a few quick examples in conference, she returned to her editing with a stronger conceptual base.

And in an introductory linguistics class, I was working through the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) inventory of English consonants and vowels, including the sound called a velar nasal (written as a [ŋ])—this is the sound you hear in words with an “ng.” 

I assigned some common words for students to transcribe for homework, including several with the velar nasal sound: penguin, linguistics, and finger.  Some students submitted rather odd transcriptions—their versions lacked an initial vowel and did not include a [g], which is clearly present in all of these words: they wrote [lŋwɪstɪks] instead of [lɪŋɡwɪstɪks].  I asked them what was going on.

“Where’s the vowel and the [g]?  Don’t you hear those sounds when you say the word?”

They were clearly perplexed. 

“Dr. Moore, you said the velar nasal was the same as an I-N-G.  So every time we have a word with an I-N-G, we replace that whole part of the word with the [ŋ], right?”

Again, my first thought was to wonder why they were so confused:  we were working through isolated consonants sounds one by one, so how could they have heard that one symbol would represent a vowel and two consonants?  

“Did I say that?” 

They nodded. 

I hesitated, and then I laughed.  “Well, that was not very clear, was it?  Let me try again.”

I have no doubts this group—who diligently take and share notes—will master phonetic analysis.

How have you been mis-heard by students?  I would love to hear your stories.

About the Author
Miriam Moore is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia. She teaches undergraduate linguistics and grammar courses, developmental English courses (integrated reading and writing), ESL composition and pedagogy, and the first-year composition sequence. She is the co-author with Susan Anker of Real Essays, Real Writing, Real Reading and Writing, and Writing Essentials Online. She has over 20 years experience in community college teaching as well. Her interests include applied linguistics, writing about writing approaches to composition, professionalism for two-year college English faculty, and threshold concepts for composition, reading, and grammar.