Question marks after a mix-up. Image from freeimages.com.

Mix-Up Management – Laughing Off Word Confusion

We all get things wrong when we’re learning a foreign language. Given that we get things wrong in our first languages all the time (just look at Malapropisms and Spoonerisms), there’s absolutely not a drop of shame in that, of course. What’s more, the odd comedy word mix-up can be a rich source of effective educational moments. My go-to personal anecdote (retold so many times I won’t go into detail here) involves the German words Durcheinander (mess) and Durchfall (diarrhoea). Enough said.

Mix-up bloopers are at the fore of my mind lately, as they keep cropping up in Greek. Like German, Greek likes deriving native vocabulary with prefixes, so there is ample scope for someone like me to make repeated comedy slip-ups. The perfect funny word mix-up doesn’t always have to be with near-identical words, either. In fact, the most hilarious of them are usually only similar in a shared prefix or syllable. Here are some of my most frequent howlers of late:

κατάσταση (katástasi) – situation κατάστημα (katástima) – shop
σημαίνει (siméni) – it means συμβαίνει (simvéni) – it happens
απόγευμα (apóyefma) – afternoon αποτέλεσμα (apotélesma) – result
θεός (théos) – god θείος (thíos) – uncle

The greater the difference in meaning, the funnier mistakes can be. Depending on your appreciation of inappropriate humour, they can lighten the heaviest of moods. One of my best recent Greek openers is:

  • How is the coronavirus shop in Greece at the moment?

The Same But Different

But there’s another class of mix-up which has little to do with how similar the words are. Instead, the confusion occurs when the words have been learned together, creating a kind of messed-up context effect. A somewhat embarrassing recent example of mine involves the pair:

  • θαυμάσιο (thafmásio) – wonderful
  • απαίσιο (apésio) – awful

This antithetical pair isn’t particularly similar, save the -σιο (-sio) ending. The problem is, I learnt them together in the same chapter of Teach Yourself Greek about twenty years ago. And because of that, they’re united in unholy matrimony forever more.

You can see where this is headed, friends. They’re obviously both great words for reacting to another person recounting news or a personal story. During a recent Greek conversation class, my teacher was explaining how his elderly grandmother has quite serious diabetes, which is why she is shielding during the coronavirus crisis. My reaction?

Wonderful!

Oops. Good job he has a good sense of humour too. It wasn’t the first time, of course – that was responding to news of an earthquake. And for sure, it won’t be the last.

The Mix-Up Upside

Inappropriately funny outcomes are actually great news, though. No, honestly, they are! After you crawl out of the hole in the ground you fell into, these moments actually create huge extra salience in your memory. Weight is attached to them. You easily remember those laughs you had over comic misunderstandings. Sometimes you even give them names. With my Greek tutor, I’ve dubbed the shop-situation one ‘the Richard error‘, for instance. I will never forget those words now.

That said, if they prove persistent, it can be a good idea to be a bit more active in ironing them out. For me, the best remedy is simply ensuring to drill vocabulary in context rather than as isolated words. Learning the Greek for situation in a full sentence provides further sound cues like prosody and rhythm, which ultimately cements the word in memory along with its active usage.

One method for this is customising Anki vocab cards to include a field for an example sentence. For native-translated source sentences you can turn to a simple Google search, but I particularly like to use the Tatoeba corpus site for its language-specific search features. Corpus engines with mass sentence archives from subtitles, like Glosbe.com, are also extremely handy.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words. This is another from the mass of kata- prefixed words that can be so tricky!

Talking of comedy, one of the most fun things about subtitle databases is their out-of-context hilarity. My sample sentence above, for example, means: “Babies are not good at building roads, look.” I haven’t a clue where this comes from (and to be honest, it’s probably best left a mystery). Needless to say, it makes me chuckle every time it pops up. After all, it ticks the be a clown box, and that is no bad thing when learning languages.

In short, if you find yourself confusing shops for situations, laugh it off – that humour is doing your vocab memory a favour.

 

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