Tim Howe reminds us that to err is human and that embarrassing bloopers are part and parcel of the learning curve.
Anyone who’s made a blooper in a foreign language can easily sympathize with students who make funny mistakes in English too. My biggest blooper in German was announcing to my school exchange partner’s mother that I was “sehr erregt” (sexually aroused). I’d meant to say “aufgeregt” (excited). No wonder she raised an eyebrow.
Laughing together with your students about embarrassing bloopers is a great way of bringing light relief into the classroom; when they slap their forehead and say “Ach so!”, you can bet they won’t make the same mistake again.
The other day a student announced that her friend was no longer coming to class because she was “becoming a baby”. When I gave her a surprised look, she corrected herself: “I mean she’s getting a baby”. “Oh”, I replied, playing along. “Is she adopting? Buying it online?” Does “having a baby” really make any more sense than “getting a baby”? A telltale sign of how arbitrary language can be. No wonder it’s one of the most common bloopers you’ll hear from German speakers.
Roleplays can produce hilarious bloopers. A student was recently welcoming a guest to her make-believe company. Shaking hands with her male counterpart she wanted to say “Ich möchte, dass sie sich wie zu Hause fühlen”, but it came out as “I’d like to feel you at home”.
In another roleplay a student was asked to react to the statement: “May I smoke here?” She obviously had the German word “sensibel” in mind, which means “sensitive”. The response came out as, “Please don’t smoke, I’m sensible.”
Beware serial bloopers, especially when they lead to misunderstandings. I was invigilating an oral exam in which students had to negotiate the sale of a consignment of jumpers. Yet instead of jumpers, the seller kept talking about “journeys”. The partner clearly had the correct word on their role card too, yet at no point did she say, “Don’t you mean jumpers?” She ended up buying 2,000 journeys – destination unknown!
I wish I could have a Euro for each time a student has asked a caller on the phone, “Can I give her a massage?” or asked to be put through to the “Chief Execution Officer”.
I always advise students to note pairs of words that vary by only a single sound. German newsreaders are notorious for mispronouncing minimal pairs, particularly when it comes to names: “Vooty Ellen” for Woody Allen and “bedmen” instead of “Batman”.
Practising minimal pairs should hopefully help our students sound less like Lothar Matthäus and more like Daniel Radcliffe. It should also save them from embarrassment in front of their friends.
My all-time favourite came up in a class discussion on hobbies, when a student announced he liked to “play sex at the weekend”. The classroom went all quiet and I noticed some of the girls trying hard to stifle their giggles. My gut reaction was to gracefully ignore the comment, but seeing he was totally serious, I couldn’t help grinning. He was simply talking about that musical instrument, the sax.