Homophones Can Confuse: A Minor Mistake in Miner Valley

Why it is so important for English learners to tackle homophones in the classroom

“For me the greatest beauty always lies in the greatest clarity.”

―Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), German writer

English remains an often confusing and difficult language to learn (and teach!) for many reasons. For instance, the gap between a word’s spelling and its pronunciation often presents a challenge for English learners. Another source of confusion and many headaches remains the surprisingly large number of homonyms and homophones―different words with the same pronunciation. Just as computer speech software programs like Siri on the iPhone find it difficult to distinguish the number two from the preposition “to” from the word “too”, so do many listeners.

A “good mistake” I made while recently traveling with friends in Northern California emphasized the confusing nature of homonyms. We were looking for a wine tasting tour in Sonoma and Napa Valley, a beautiful area that attracts many tourists. The driver wanted directions to a winery called “Miner Valley,” so the passenger asked Siri for directions. Siri, the impressive iPhone personal assistant, provided detailed driving directions to “Minor Valley” winery nearby. This “good mistake” cost us thirty minutes, but did emphasize the importance of context in understanding everyday conversations. Few native English speakers will misunderstand the noun “miner,” the hard working people who hunt for gold, silver or coal for a living, with the important adjective “minor,” which means small or unimportant in most situations. Yet town and winery names can still be confusing and colorful. Both “Miner Valley” and “Minor Valley” happened to be the names of two fine wineries in the area. (Do they whine about each other’s wine? I don’t know, but that pun came to mind.)

Of course, English language learners make these sort of “good mistakes” all the time. While we might seldom confuse “by” the bank for “buy” the bank, it’s easy to confuse “realize” for “real lies.” Sometimes our students complain, or whine, about our how confusing English is for them to master. And if they “eat” their final syllables like “s” or “r,” even attentive listeners can find themselves confused too. Did the ESL student mean “mine,” “mines,” “mind,” or “miner?” To understand each other, we must, therefore, continue to emphasize the importance of word endings – even in advanced ESL and EFL classes – so listeners can better comprehend what our students want to say. If the context is unclear or vague, we might not know if the speaker is referring to a miner or minor problem. Many comedians, of course, delight in these situations, but homophones can haunt English students. English teachers and English tutors can turn these common good mistakes into teachable moments and practical lessons in speaking skills. We must first admit that English is a crazy language.

If you’re interested in learning more about homophones, you might enjoy reading Wikipedia’s informative article on homophones or reviewing an impressive list of many confusing homophones/homonyms. I enjoyed reading both.

How will you make homophones easier to handle?


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One comment

  1. Thank you for your comment on my blog on this topic recently. Just coming over to read yours. I find Mandarin language is even more challenging yet fun when dealing with characters with the same sounds and all sorts. The worse part is that you need to actually come up with a phrase (2 or more characters) to describe which word your referring too if you fail to describe the strokes correctly. . A simple example is tellling people how to write your name in Mandarin. Each character represents and means something. The person who wishes to know how to write your name needs to know exactly which caharacter you are referring to. Unlike English where you can just spell the word out, Mandarin is all about getting it right not by spelling but by knowing exactly what character it is you’re talking about. That said, i think I should blog on this in my next post.

    Catch up again soon.

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