Posted by: janecronin | January 3, 2016

The strange role of coincidence


Real coincidences do occur, but not as often as we would like to think.  If you have ever watched the film “A Room with a View” you might remember Cecil Vyse played by the wonderful Daniel Day-Lewis explaining why it was not a coincidence to have met some fellow travellers to Italy in an art gallery in London displaying Italian art. In other words, coincidences often have logical explanations and sometimes what we think of as coincidences are really things that our attention is drawn to at a particular moment.

I have experienced this kind of coincidence in my language learning many times.  You come across a new word which you are sure you’ve never seen before, and sudden within a single day the same word pops up on a billboard, a TV advert and in the speech of someone standing in front of you in a queue.  This kind of language “coincidence” is an important part of learning.  When we suddenly notice words and meanings in different contexts it helps us to remember them.

This phenomenon occurs throughout our lives.  If you cast your mind back to your infancy (I know you can´t, but imagine it anyway).  There you are, surrounded by adults making incomprehensible sounds all the time and you have no idea what is being said.  Gradually certain words stand out and take on a meaning.  At first of course the words are selected by your parents or carers: “Eat up”, “Teddy”, “No”, “Look”, “Who’s that?” and so on.  As we get older our own process of selection takes over as we start to recognize words and expressions in a variety of contexts and gradually assimilate them into our own active vocabulary.

There’s a lot more we can say about this process, but I thought I would give you an example that happened to me just yesterday.  For reasons I won´t explain now, I asked a Spanish friend how to say “chimney sweep” in Spanish.  I asked: “¿Cómo se dice la persona que limpia chimeneas?”  “Deshollinador” she replied.  Well that’s not the easiest of words to grasp the first time you hear it, so I asked her to write it down.  “Hollín” she explained, is the black stuff you get in chimneys.  Ah yes, I vaguely remember that “hollín” means “soot” although I couldn´t have brought it to mind immediately.  Now the word makes sense, “el deshollinador” the “unsooter”.  Well, without a word of a lie, about thirty minutes later as we were leaving the bar where we were having a drink an advert caught my eye.  It was the only piece of paper on an empty wall, and it said “DESHOLLINADOR” in large capitals with series of services and a number to ring.  “¡Vaya casualidad!” “What a coincidence!” I exclaimed.

Later I reflected that I must have seen that word in the past and never noticed it, because at the time it was meaningless. Now I’ve made several connections to help me remember it – the root word “hollín” which was vaguely familiar but is now reinforced,  my knowledge of how Spanish words are put together “des-hollin-ador” (un-soot-er) and my surprise at a strange coincidence, all of which mean that one more useless word has entered my vocabulary!

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