I remember one little first grader I taught years ago. James had difficulty learning to read. I came to realize that he was also very imprecise with his spoken language. Once he said lion for tiger, and when corrected by another child, James acted as if it didn’t matter- lion, tiger, all the same. When our silkworms were found spinning their pearly white silk cocoons, James came to me excitedly and exclaimed, “our ladybugs got their raccoons!”
I thought of James as I listened to an interpreter today. I am in a grand jury and a man whose car had been stolen was testifying to us. He was Indonesian and while he spoke a lot of English, he was nervous about official court language and was using an interpreter for his language- Bahasa Melayu (Malaysian.) The interpreter was a young woman who was very serious, capable and clear.
She made only one momentary misstep that I noticed- she said “accident” and then changed it to “incident.” My ears perked up. I had heard this exchange of those two words several times before in these five weeks of hearing grand jury testimony.
One young Russian woman used “accident” when she meant incident. Sexual assault is not an accident- she didn’t mean that. And a couple from whom we heard separate testimony each said “accident” when referring to a murder. They also were very capable English speakers but their first language was Spanish.
For the interpreter and the Russian woman, the moment passed. But for the Colombian couple, their word choice mattered. The attorney became quite angry with them. (He also felt that they were withholding evidence, I believe.) Hearing them call a murder an accident got him really riled and the interviews became angry and strained.
Sexual assault and murder are not accidents. But they are incidents, in formal courtroom language. And when people are subpoena’d and come before a jury to testify they are using the best language they can muster. They are trying, but can make mistakes. I wished I could tell that angry lawyer this pattern I was noticing; interchanging these two similar-sounding words. Word choice matters. But people are constantly learning language. And it is human to make a mistake.