Friday, August 31, 2012

Fishing for an English Nuance

A couple of years ago, my grade 11 learners in Namibia were taking a practice exam in preparation for their upcoming national exam.  It's important to note that English is Namibia's national language, although out in the bush tribal languages are commonly spoken as the first language.  From grade 4 and upwards, all classes are taught in English.  Therefore, the kids spoke English competently - more or less - but they still needed a lot of help with reading, writing, and listening.  Anyway, back to the story. 

Part of the exam consists of listening comprehension.  They listen to the dialogue and are supposed to fill in the blanks accordingly.  On this exam the listening portion was about a boy getting ready to go fishing.  He talks about the different things he should bring with him.  One of the questions looked like:

We should take several items with us on our trip.  We need bring a __________, __________, and __________.
The first two were easy – fishing pole/food – and the learners didn’t have trouble.  The last one, however, caused some confusion.  In the last blank the learners overwhelmingly wrote – some protection. 

We need to bring a fishing pole, food, and some protection.

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Of course this is open to interpretation, but when reading it naturally the first thing that popped into my mind was condoms.  Or perhaps a a firearm.  They were going to bring a fishing pole, food, and condoms.  Fair enough, there’s been a big push for the use of contraceptives amongst young adults in rural Namibia.  However, still wrong!

After marking the exam, I handed them back to the learners and together we went over the most common mistakes.  None of them could figure out what they did wrong with this question.  We listened to the tape over and over.  They were adamant that they were right.  However, the word that was throwing them off was ‘some.’  The correct answer was 'SUN protection.'

Now in Namibia they emulate British English, and since I’m American I told them I was unaware if this same expression applies in this context.  I told them that in regards to American English, depending on the context, 'some protection' could be interpreted as being condoms or even a gun.  Of course all people wouldn't interpret it this way.  I guess it depends on the generation you grew up in.  Or maybe I just had sex on my mind since I wasn't getting laid at the time.  Regardless, I told them that Americans would typically say 'sunblock' instead of 'sun protection.'  But that didn't really matter since some of the students were completely unfamiliar with the concept of sun protection.  They had never used the stuff.      
They all laughed when I told them that I thought they were talking about condoms.  The more creative learners played along and said they were in fact talking about condoms.  They told me I was hearing it wrong and the answer was 'some protection.'  They said that people always bring protection with them while fishing because Namibian fish carry STD’s.  They assured me, "You NEVER go fishing without a condom.  It's dangerous!"  It was funny attempt at trying to get me to mark the answer correct.  But still wrong!

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