Contextual clues

I was in the Basque Country today in Northern Spain. Basque, of course, is a notoriously difficult language to learn, much like Welsh or Hungarian. No obvious roots and quite unlike anything most of us are used to. On leaving the building at the end of the session, though, I came across this on the doors:


Now then, I said to myself, you’re a language person and you like your pronunciation, and ‘p’ and ‘b’ sound quite alike and often get mixed up as languages evolve, so if we ignore the ‘tzatu’ ending (‘tz’ is a classic Basque spelling), then clearly the sign is tell me to ‘pull’ rather than ‘push’. And that’s what I did, feeling, I admit, just a little smug as I reached for the handle – I’d used the context and a little bit of phonetics and now was on my way out of the building, my first Basque word in my hand, so to speak.

Sadly, context isn’t always a help, and the truth is that I actually pulled on the door three times before I realised that ‘bultzatu’ means ‘push’. It’s depressimg how ‘blind’ you can be to reality once you’ve persuaded yourself of something different.

Interestingly, I’d just been talking about contextual clues in the seminar I’d given, and of how important it is to get learners to actively use them in order to lighten the burden of understanding people speaking in the language they are trying to master. In the discussion of this important area of learner training for listening, one or two nice examples of people failing to use context were offered up for us all to enjoy. The one I liked best was from a Bilbao-based teacher who told us that her students had managed to ignore all the contextual clues that were available to them, and rename the song ‘The Rhythm of the Night’ as ‘Is it Reebok or Nike?’.

Amazing as it may seem, however, this type of listener error is pretty standard. So much so, in fact, that Martin Toseland has put together of book of ‘mishearings’. It’s called ‘The Ants are my Friends: Misheard Lyrics, Malapropisms, Eggcorns and Other Linguistic Gaffes’, and it has some lovely examples of what can happen when we depend too heavily on the acoustic signal, and too little on contextual clues. 

One thought on “Contextual clues

  1. Robin,
    I enjoyed reading your post and will look for the book you recommend. This reminds me of a classic example of “mishearing”: “First of all” is often misheard as ” Festival” among some Brazilian learners.


Comments are closed.