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“I Thought You Said . . . ”

by Mary Jo Shannon

In the early 60’s when my oldest son was in elementary school, he was obviously quite disturbed after hearing a television newscast concerning plans to integrate the Roanoke schools.

“Why are they going to do it?” he asked tearfully.

“Do you know what that means?” I asked him.

“I’m not sure,” he replied and I told him, “It means there could be some little black children in your class.”

“Oh,” he said, obviously relieved. “Is that all? I thought that word meant to blow to pieces.”

He was thinking of disintegrate! No wonder he was upset.

A friend told me that when she was a child she heard so much about the power released by splitting the atom that she was fearful each time she bit into a sandwich – would she split an atom?  Too often we forget that children interpret what they hear in relation to their limited experience. Their minds work literally and they may be upset by such statements as, “Dad will be late — he’s tied up at the office.”

Sometimes their confusion may be comical. This is especially true for dyslexic children. The kindergarten children in my Montessori class read simple library books during their rest time. They came to me to tell me about what they had read. One little boy had a book about Audubon.

Excitedly, he told me, “Mrs. Shannon, did you know Audubon was a turkey himself?”

I told him he must be mistaken, but he insisted. “I read it!  ‘Audubon was a big turkey weighing 30 pounds!’”

I told him to bring me the book. The sentence read, “One day Audubon saw a big turkey weighing 30 pounds.”

When he sounded the word out, he realized his error, but it certainly spoiled his interest in the story.

Older students in the Shedd tutorial program were required to define the words they learned to read and spell. One college student-tutor struggled to keep a straight face when his student defined “squid” as “a sea animal with eight testicles.”

Children aren’t the only ones who interpret our directions literally, according to their previous experience. Tupper Garden, senior pastor at Raleigh Court Presbyterian Church, relates his experience as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee where he was responsible for the cultivation of a field of tomatoes. The plants were thriving, but so were the weeds.

“Take out everything that isn’t a tomato,” he instructed a helper.

He was dismayed the following day to see a bare field! Not a plant was left!

To the weeder, a tomato was a red vegetable you buy in the supermarket. He was determined to follow directions, so not a single plant, weed or tomato, survived

Foreigners are often bewildered by what they hear.  When our daughter was a student at Patrick Henry we had the pleasure of hosting a German exchange student for three weeks. Dorothee was a dear and our relationship lasted for many years until we lost contact after her marriage. She had an excellent comprehension of English, but was often confused by colloquial or slang expressions which did not appear in her English/German dictionary.  She was baffled when Harry asked her to “catch the light on her way out.”

By the way, this confusion works in reverse – when English speakers try to express themselves in a foreign tongue. Once in a French city I was tempted to buy some mouth-watering éclairs displayed in a glass bakery case. I studied French in college and was determined to ask for them in French. With confidence I said, “Deux éclairs, s’il vous plait.”

The response was a puzzled look. I repeated, “Deux éclairs, s’il vous plait.”

Still no understanding. Deflated,  I pointed, like an ignorant American tourist, and was promptly rewarded with two delicious chocolate éclairs. When I consulted my French/English dictionary, I was astonished to learn that “éclair” actually means “lightning bolt!”

Some things transcend the spoken word, however. Music, for example. When Harry and I were in Spain with an Elderhostel group we were entertained after dinner one evening by a of senior citizens chorus. They spoke no English and we spoke no Spanish – at least, none that they could comprehend.

As we sipped the richest and thickest hot chocolate I have ever tasted, they sang Spanish folk songs for our enjoyment. We responded by singing “You Are My Sunshine” – the one song our leader thought we would all know. Language was unnecessary to convey the feelings our music expressed.

And a smile needs no translation. It is understood in any language – Spain, Germany, Haiti or any other place on the earth.


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