English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. The common “gap” between how a word is spelled and how it sounds is one challenge. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones, different words with the same sound. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number 2 from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.
A “good mistake” made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized this obvious point. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Somoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley” so the passenger and navigator asked Siri for directions. Siri, the amazing iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but emphasizes the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner” , the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver, or coal for a living, with the important adjective “minor” meaning small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can be confusing and colorful. Both “miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” are the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)
Of course, English language learners make these sort of good mistakes all the time. While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank, it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies”. Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r”, even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine”, “mines”, “mind”, or “miner”? We must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better understand what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem? Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. Yet we have to admit English is a crazy language.
If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of many confusing homophones/homonyms. I enjoyed reading both.
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