Homophones – pain in the neck?

Recently it has come to my attention that I tend to misspell certain words. Such a discovery may not seem particularly groundbreaking since everybody errs. What does bother me a bit though is that these misspellings often pass unnoticed (by me as well as my spellchecker). I’m specifically talking about homophones, i.e. words having the same pronunciation but different meanings. Although for some reason, it’s unlikely that I will confuse mourning with morning, chances are that I will use brake instead of break without realizing that there’s something wrong with my sentence. I mean, I obviously know the difference between the two expressions but I confuse them nevertheless. Other words I tend to ball up are basic words such as heel vs heal, knew vs. new. Believe it or not, I even caught myself using no instead of know once or twice. And yes, once vs one’s can be tricky too. Well, it seems that the more notorious the word is, the higher probability there is that I will mess things up. Also, short words tend to be trickier since generally, you automatically pay more attention when producing more complex language. This implies (to me) that as I write, I actually hear the words in my head. Funnily enough, once I’m using a more complex expression, which I’m not 100% sure how to pronounce, I hear myself spelling it in my mind (the Czech way though).

Anyway, I’ve recently learned that as far as homophones are concerned, a difference in spelling doesn’t always indicate a difference of origin. As a rule of thumb, dictionaries treat homophones as different words simply because they are spelt differently. So a traditional dictionary will not give you a clue as to whether the words are historically of the same origin. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find out that for example flower and flour have much more in common than you would expect. So, a crazy question occurred to me: is this type of ancient knowledge somehow ingrained in our brains? Well, my hypothesis is a bit flawed, at least in my case, because I’m not a native speaker of English. But still, maybe one of my genes was inherited from someone whose mother tongue was English indeed. Shakespeare maybe? Who knows? One thing is certain, language and brains are amazing entities. At the same time, I think it’s not really surprising that the brain, having to constantly make millions of decisions at every point of our lives, occasionally chooses the wrong option out of the two available in its inventory – and opts for no instead of know. It’s not a tragedy after all; unless this misstep influences our future in some way, everything is fine (apart from the fact that we made idiots of ourselves).

But here’s the thing. While I sometimes err when it comes to homophones, my students don’t as often as one might suppose. They throw around all sorts of other spelling mistakes, particularly typos are their favourites, and they like to coin new words too. But homophones? No, that’s not a big problem. There’s this idea at the back of my mind, I must have heard it somewhere, so correct me if I’m wrong, that native speakers tend to make homophone errors more often than L2 learners do. So my hypothesis is (and maybe somebody out there has already tested this) that the more frequently you are exposed to a language, the better you get at it but at the same time, you become more susceptible to committing a homophone error in writing. It seems that when your level of L2 is not high enough, which is the case of some of my students, your brain really needs to focus on in what is happening and is less prone to making careless mistakes of this sort. I mean, when producing and essay, my students probably think twice before engraving their words in stone (at least in the ideal world scenario), so these slips will not happen as often. They simply want to get things right and thus play it safe. So confusing weak with week is most likely off the table because they are familiar with both words but don’t use them too automatically yet. On the other hand, they might not even ‘consider’ confusing words such as wright vs right, simply because they are NOT familiar with the former. However, when they have enough knowledge, they might do so as a result of trying to use a rule in a context where it does not belong (overgeneralization error).

To conclude on a happier note, homophones are not just a pain in the neck. They can be fun since they are used to create puns, which is a feature I like to use in my lessons.

What about you and homophones?

Do you practise what you preach?

Have you ever thought about the discrepancy between what you tell your students to believe and what you believe yourself? I mean, don’t you ever preach water and drink wine? I think I do, quite often, without even realizing so.

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For example, I often tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes. However, I am terrified of making them myself. Regardless of the fact that my Teacher Self keeps telling me that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning/doing practically anything, I’m not overly excited when I misspell a word when writing on the board or miscalculate a student’s test score.

Also, I constantly reassure my students that there’s no need to panic about giving a presentation in front of the whole class because nothing really disastrous can happen. The truth is, though, that I’ve rarely stayed calm in such a situation myself. I remember how terrible I felt when I had to give a 5-minute talk in front of a group of my fellow students at uni. I should add that it was supposed to be in German, in which I wasn’t exactly fluent, and it was only three years ago. Needless to say, my legs felt like jelly, my hands were shaking and I had butterflies in my stomach. What was worse, I had forgotten everything I had so laboriously memorized. Now that I think about it, my biggest problem was that at that time, I saw myself as an experienced English teacher, used to standing confidently in front of a bunch of teens. But all of a sudden, I felt like a schoolgirl again, which, under certain circumstances might have been exciting, except that it wasn’t.

I tell my students that it is learning that matters most – not the scores. I tell them that it’s primarily the process, not the result, which is the most valuable aspect of education. Still, I use grades to make my students learn. Obviously, there are many students who are internally motivated, and these love learning no matter the formal assessment, but there are some who just want to succeed. And it goes without saying that in their context, success equals decent grades.

I truly believe that it’s my job to help my students get used to accepting all sorts of feedback. Feedback is there to help them learn, after all. But I can clearly recall my exasperation when my German tutor gave me some rather unflattering feedback after the above-mentioned presentation. She was a little harsh, or, maybe, a tad too straightforward to my taste, but she was absolutely right. And I learned a lot from that particular lesson – mainly about myself and feedback.

Back then I felt it in my bones right from the start that my presentation wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but it was not in my power to change the state of affairs prior the actual experience, simply because I didn’t have the knowledge needed for that change. All I could do was to learn from the failure and keep the newly-acquired knowledge for the future. This is what we often forget to take into consideration when giving feedback to our students; we sometimes reproach and reprimand, even though we use soft phrases like ‘You should have’, ‘Why didn’t you’, or ‘Next time you could’. But it’s not fair; our students rarely mess things up on purpose.

What’s the point in all the preaching then? I know too well that my students must experience failure and anxiety because it helps them grow. Likewise, I know that my little son is unlikely to stop worrying about monsters in the dark just because I reassure him they don’t exist. All I can do is to be there for him and with him. By the way, I’m sometimes afraid of the dark too.

And what about you? Do you drink water or wine? In what situations?