Should I tell him it’s wrong?

I’ve just spent the last week in Madrid in a rather nice hotel, outside which there was a kiosk selling newspapers, magazines, cold drinks and other summer essentials. Going down into the metro each day, my eye was drawn inexorably to two signs the kiosk had displayed in English and Spanish.

I mean, what are supposed to do at this point? Ignore the error and get on with your commute, or politely warn the owner that his English isn’t quite there. You could argue that the missing ‘d’ of ‘card’ doesn’t really matter as the context makes the meaning clear. But does the context make the meaning clear in ‘There are tobacco’?

The ‘author’ didn’t use Google translate (= There snuff) and so has some notion of English. And notice the correct spelling of ‘tobacco’ in both languages – this text isn’t the result of carelessness on the author’s behalf. Despite this care, however, he has clung on to the Spanish ‘hay’ and inadvertently left us with a nice example of L1 interference and, at the same time, of what most teachers and examiners in EFL/ESL would class as a basic error. But is the ‘there are’ an error in ELF?

An error in ELF is when your text fails to communicate your message, which begs the question, does this sign fail to communicate the fact that in addtion to newspapers, magazines and cold drinks, the kiosk sells tobacco? This is more problematic, and for me my probem is that I’m a native speaker and a teacher of English. My nationality and my profession stack against me when it comes to not groaning when I see things like this. But the message isn’t directed at me. English isn’t just being used for the British or Americans in Madrid, and even less so for NS ELT professionals who happen to just wander by. So the only people who can truly answer the question are the non-native speaker non-ELT visitors to the city – the Germans, the Japanese, the Russians, the Chinese, and so on.

In short, NS teachers are not well placed to judge if an ELF utterance or text is felicitous or not. Nor are NNS teachers from the same L1 back ground as the author of an ELF text. This is hard for us in classrooms, and inevitably most of us would, rightly I think, correct a sign like this if it were produced in class, but I’d love to know how many people – NNS but not Spanish – saw and understood ‘There are tobacco’ while I was using the Velaquez metro entrance last week.

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One thought on “Should I tell him it’s wrong?

  1. Hi Robin,
    If ‘an error in ELF is when your text fails to communicate your message’, then by that definition, this isn’t an error, whoever the message is aimed at. But underlying your point is the fallacious notion that communicative competence is just about conveying factual information (Tobacco is available here). The effect on the speaker of the way the message is conveyed is equally important, surely? And I’m not talking about indignant NS grammar mavens like you and me, Robin. How many competent NNESs, ELT professionals or otherwise, will also be groaning at this error, offended at its incompetence in communicating this most basic of messages?

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