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Reverting to type

While watching a game of backyard table tennis last summer something curious caught my attention. The players were a small group from 4 different European countries, a couple were native German speakers and the rest of us had different levels of the language. Earlier in the day we'd been sitting around the table enjoying good food and the sunshine and discussing different topics, mainly in German. By the time the ping pong paddles made an appearance it was late afternoon and as the competition heated up it occurred to me that, in focusing on the game, everyone had reverted to their native language. 

What I saw before me was a whirlwind of activity; a flurry of footfalls as players sought to gain an advantage over their opponent and, in their eagerness to win, each one had abandoned the goal of common understanding and words and sentences in Spanish and Italian were coming out thick and fast. Communication was no longer key - winning was everything!

It reminded me of a similar scenario to do with counting. Now, I personally find the German numbering system very tricky and even though I can technically count in German, it takes a lot of brain power, so when it really matters, I count in English. I've seen others react similarly. Even people with a firm grasp of English might revert to their own language when counting is called for. I often wonder why this is. Is counting an activity so deeply embedded that our natural response is to use the language we learnt to do it in?

I don't know how long it will be before I'm so comfortable with German numbers that I even use them when counting in my head. Maybe never. Maybe I'll always slip back into English when focus is needed. But, as the table tennis match demonstrated, at least I know I'm not the only one!

Photo by Nils Schirmer on Unsplash

words from the text

by the time   when
heated up   intensified
reverted to   went back (to using) 
flurry   short period of a lot of action
sought to   tried to (past tense of 'seek')
opponent   your 'enemy' in a competition
thick and fast   a lot and very quickly
now   here, 'now' doesn't mean 'this instant'. It is used to emphasise or draw attention.
tricky   complicated or difficult
called for    required/needed
embedded    fixed/implanted
slip back into    return/revert to


Words go together, yes, but some are better suited to each other. When words are often used together we call these 'collocations'. They are tricky (see above!) to learn because it's not easy for learners to understand why we say 'play' sport instead of 'practise' sport, why we 'make' our bed, but 'do' our homework, and why we drink 'strong' coffee, but not 'powerful' coffee, especially when the meanings are the same or very similar.

Here's an activity to help you practise. Scan the text above for the collocate for the words below. (For verbs, consider the infinitive and participle forms.)


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