A Russian student of mine recently told me a story about a misunderstanding she had while on holiday in Scotland. She was sitting in a cafe, feeling car sick after a long drive. Next to her there was as young woman, and so she asked her if there was a pharmacy nearby. The young woman looked at her as though she had two heads. My student repeated her question, and this time also tried out the word drugstore. Now the young lady looked alarmed. Here was a Russian, a gangster probably, wanting to know where she could buy drugs. The young woman left the cafe in a hurry, but not before talking conspiratorially to one or two of the other customers.
I told my student that the young lady in question probably needed to hear the word chemist (although pharmacy and drugstore are perfectly acceptable alternatives). I was also able to tell her about the time I leapt in a mild panic into the back of a taxi in Rome and demanded that the driver take me to a 24-hour farmacia (I needed some prescription drugs at 11 on a Sunday evening); and he looked around slowly and asked me to confirm that I wanted to go a 24-hour rosticeria (where they have chickens roasting on spits in the window). Perhaps he knew what was best for me.
It’s all a question of context. We are constantly forming little paradigms and hypotheses about our interlocutor’s intentions, hypotheses which are open-ended, liable to be discarded at a moment’s notice.
But context, for all that we like to talk to our students about its importance, is a slippery beast. Context can be a help, but it can also be an anchor. One of the hardest things for any student of a language is handling a situation where the context changes rapidly – at a dinner party (my own worst nightmare, for all sorts of reasons), or in a meeting or video conference. I am certain many of my students have sat in meetings (or my class, just possibly) wondering why everyone was talking about roast chicken and drug barons, trying desperately to formulate some paradigm which would encompass all the random remarks which had passed over the last few minutes.
There is no easy solution to this. Preparing for a meeting will only go so far, if topics veer rapidly off subject. There is, in the end, no substitute for simply knowing the language. The slow bottom-up slog is, ultimately, the best way to go.
And even then, no matter how good your English gets, there is no accounting for other people’s stupidity.