Thanks Fine

Posted on July 23, 2012 by

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When TLG brought us to Georgia, they gave us a week of language instruction in Georgian so that we could survive and get around and meet people. It was very basic things, like greetings, numbers, etc.

In that week, one of the first things we learned was the phrase “How are you?” and several possible responses. In my notebook I drew little emoticons next to each response:

They made the point that when someone asks how you are, you have to say “kargad” (the adverbial form) instead of “kargi” (the adjectival).

I bring up this story because it seems like a fair representation of something you might cover in your first week of language classes – the question “how are you” and a set of possible responses.

That’s why the first few times I heard “thanks” as a response to “how are you?” I just assumed that the person in question had basically never studied English. I mean, this is first week stuff, right?

It turns out that in Georgian you can say “thanks, fine” – or even just “thanks” – as a response to “how are you”, and so Georgians tend to do this in English, too.

In general, this sort of mistake is called “interference” – when a language learner uses a structure that is correct in their first language but not in their target language. In other words, the first language interferes with the new language.

You expect to see these kinds of mistakes with idioms (imagine an English speaker trying to translate “you’re pulling my leg” directly) and with spontaneous utterances (where the speaker doesn’t have time to arrange a sentence into its proper structure), but you don’t expect to see them with extremely common rote phrases like “fine, thanks”.

Generally speaking, any reasonable English course would take a mistake like “thanks, fine” and drill it out of the student. By the time a student has been learning for a year, or five years, they should have said “fine, thanks” so many times that it becomes second nature.

Instead, what has happened here is that the mistake has gone uncorrected for a very, very long time. After years of saying “thanks, fine” it becomes harder to get the speaker to use the correct word order. (We call this phenomenon “fossilization”.) Since nearly every Georgian speaker of English uses “thanks” and “thanks, fine” there’s no social pressure to fix the error.

Now, “thanks, fine” may be a trivial example in that it is essentially a meaningless pleasantry and doesn’t really impact a speaker’s ability to communicate in English, but I think the real problem is that it sets expectations very low. Starting off a conversation with “thanks, fine” tells a native English speaker that your English is rudimentary at best – just like my trouble pronouncing the “gh” in “ra ghirs” signals to taxi drivers and store clerks that my Georgian is terrible and they should answer me in Russian – and it can be very hard to overcome that first impression.

And of course, “thanks, fine” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to very common English mistakes due to interference from Georgian. The one that’s caused the greatest number of misunderstandings in my personal experience is the Georgian speaker’s tendency to ask questions in the negative (e.g. “Aren’t you going to the store,” “Don’t you want more soup”), which is a very neutral question in Georgian, but in English is somewhat confrontational; combined with differences in tone of voice habits and emotional expressiveness, this one is a very subtle minefield if someone in your host family speaks imperfect English. The most common in written Georgian English might be “from his(/your/their) side” – which seems to be a literal translation from a Georgian idiom and should probably be translated as “on his(/your/their) part” or sometimes just “from him(/you/them)”.

It goes without saying that having native English speakers around means that these kinds of mistakes get corrected early and don’t fossilize, and that the lack of native English speakers in Georgia before TLG started pretty much explains why current Georgian English speakers almost all make them. So I admit, in some ways this story is basically an argument for why TLG is important – because we can teach Georgians to speak better English, and expose Georgians to correct English at an earlier age.

But there’s another point that I want to make with this story – a more subtle one, perhaps – which is that a major issue in English language instruction in Georgia is not so much that mistakes don’t get corrected in time as it is that mistakes are actually viewed as correct by the majority of the English-speaking population. It’s not just that Georgians need native speakers around to practice their English – it’s that Georgians don’t necessarily recognize just how much they need native speakers around. Georgians think that “thanks, fine” is just thanks fine. And frankly, after two years in Georgia, I’ve heard “thanks, fine” so many times that it has started to sound normal even to me.

And that, I think, hints at the underappreciated value in having not just native speakers, but lots of them. Usages like this – that sound normal to the Georgian ear, and that are very common in Georgia – have a firm foothold because of the sheer number of people who use them. As with any contest between two usages, generally speaking the more popular one wins out over the more “correct” or “original” – which means that if we eventually want Georgian English to resemble American or British English*, we have to not just teach the correct usages, but popularize them. That’s where the numbers come in: a thousand native speakers are far better equipped to popularize a usage than ten or a hundred.

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*A question best left for a separate post…

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