A colleague of mine took this photo in Nairobi. The sign is obviously marking aisle 12B in a grocery store. What is not so obvious is that the label on the sign, “Pasters”, should be “Pasta”. The error comes from interference. Interference is what happens when an adult learns a new language. The mother tongue interferes with the new language, causing errors.
In this case, there is a string of errors. First, Kenya (where the photo was taken) is a former British colony. So English there is influenced by the way the British colonists spoke English. For some of them, a word that ends in “a”, like pasta, is pronounced as though it ends in r. So pasta is pronounced pah-ster. One of my dear British colleagues always said “goner” for Ghana.
In the case of the sign, a Kenyan heard the “pah-ster” pronunciation then thought that the word ended in er and so wrote it “paster”. As there are many bags of pasta and many different kinds of pasta in the aisle, the person making the sign assumed that the word needed to be plural.
And that is how pasta became pasters.
This is an example of interference for the sounds in a language. But interference can also happen for grammar and even the meaning of words. I could tell some pretty embarrassing stories of mistakes I have made when learning languages that were caused by interference. I used the word I would have used in English and people responded with shocked looks or blushes.
Interference also inhibits understanding, not just speaking. My Congolese colleagues told me of a pastor who preached on the text “He who has the Son has life”. He explained that every married couple needed to have a son to have eternal life. The problem was that he was preaching from a Bible in a language other than his own mother tongue, and his mother tongue does not have a word that corresponds exactly to “the”. So “He who has the son has life” became “He who has a son has life”.
One day in Kenya at the grocery store, I said, “Hello,” to the bag boy. He responded, “Fine”. In Swahili. which is widely spoken in Kenya, you greet someone by saying, “Habari,” which can be translated “How are you?” The response is, “Mzuri,” meaning “I’m fine”. So in the exchange “Hello” – “Fine”, the bag boy was hearing “Hello” with the meaning of “Habari” and responding with the meaning of “Mzuri”. This is called interference. It happens when a person transposes the meanings and structures of his language onto another. Sometimes, the results can be hilarious.
When learning French, Dayle tried to say, “I’m full,” translating the sentence word for word into French as “Je (I) suis (am) pleine (full)” which happens to mean “I’m pregnant”. It was stranger when I made the same mistake. We have stories of similar mistakes so embarrassing I can’t write them here.
Language Map of Burkina Faso (click to enlarge)
Learning the Cerma (pronounced “CARE – muh”) language in a rural location in Burkina Faso, many years ago, had lots of such moments. People would remember particularly funny things I said while learning Cerma. They would tell them again to everyone when I came around, and the telling would be followed by gales of laughter. One of the helpful by-products of learning another language is a little comic relief for those around us. That is, comic relief for them and embarrassment for us. Language learning requires enough confidence in the Lord and his love, that the hits our egos take do not cause us to give up.
Interference can happen in hidden ways.. There are two words for peanuts in French – cacahouettes and arachides. One day in the Congolese town of Isiro, I asked someone to get me some cacahouettes. He went into town and returned much later saying he could not find any. That was impossible. Peanuts are common. Everyone grows them and they are for sale everywhere, just like the locally-grown fruit at this roadside stand in Ghana. After discussion I figured out that in that area cacahouettes means packaged or canned peanuts. The poor fellow had gone looking for packaged peanuts in what was essentially a ghost town because of the war. It was an impossible mission. He had to go back to buy locally grown, unprocessed arachides and that only took him a few minutes. I have had enough such experiences to wonder how much of any message gets across when it is given in a second language.
Even I have to admit that my language mistakes are pretty funny, although sometimes not for ten years .
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Today I said “Hello” to the bag boy at the grocery store. He responded “Fine”. That is not an unusual response here, although it is typically those will less education who say it.
In Swahili you greet someone by saying “Habari”, which can be translated “How are you?” The response is “Muzuri” meaning, “I’m fine”. So in the exchange “Hello” – “Fine”, the person is hearing “Hello” with the meaning of “Habari” and responding with a truncated translation of “Muzuri”.
This is called “interference”. It happens when a person from a certain language is learning another language and transposes the meanings and structures of his language on the language he is learning – sometimes with funny results and other times with disastrous results.
When learning French Dayle tried to say “I’m full” translating the sentence word for word into French as “Je (I) suis (am) pleine (full)” which happens to mean “I’m pregnant”. It was very strange when I made the same mistake.
Learning language in a rural location in Burkina Faso many years ago had lots of similar moments. People would remember particularly funny things I said while learning the local language, Cerma. They would tell them again to everyone present whenever I came around, and the telling would be followed by gales of laughter.
One of the helpful by-products of learning another language is a little comic relief for those around you. That is, comic relief for them and embarrassment for me. Language learning requires enough confidence in the Lord and his love, that the hits your ego takes in language learning do not cause you to give up. Beside, even I had to admit that that my language mistakes were pretty funny, although not until 10 years later.
(This was originally posted on a different blog. It was republished here in March 2012.)