The Internet TESL Journal

"Chicken Meets on Rise": Meaning in Decline Lexical Havoc in L2

Yvonne Stapp
stapp [at]
Gai Kukogu Center, University of Tsukuba (Tsukuba, Japan)

The L2 learner is often sabotaged by his/her lexical and phonological limitations in the target language, and most people attempting to express themselves in a foreign language have experienced a semantic disaster at some point. Former US president Jimmy Carter, for instance, in a speech to the Polish people attempted to express himself in that language by proclaiming that he "loved" the Poles. Due to an unfortunate choice of words, he announced instead that he "lusted after" them. The good-natured Poles applauded him anyway, and to this day the two nations are remain on speaking terms.

Such errors are often amusing --at least to native speakers. The rendition of "chicken meat on rice" in the title of this article is an example of our struggles to communicate in foreign languages. In this case, Japanese students taking a university entrance examination were required to translate, as part of the English test, the word "oyakadon," the term for a Japanese dish consisting of both the meat and eggs of an animal (oyak = parent and child); the combination, such as chicken and eggs, is served on rice. Although the translation task seems fairly straightforward to a native speaker, it is in fact quite a challenge for non-native speakers, and the mysteries of the English lexicon led students to improvise, as in the title and the following samples:

Of course, even when students had the right words in mind, they could still be undermined by their phonological problems in English, as in this example:

In the course of gathering data for a study on lexical processing in L2, I posted a request on the NETEACH-L list, and received many interesting L2 malapropisms representing a diverse group of language learners. Some of the responses to the posting are shared below (the contributor of each example is acknowledged in parentheses). Lexical processing errors in L2 fall into three broad categories --lexical, morphological, and phonological_ and there are subdivisions within each of these groups. Since the objective here is more directed at enjoyment than edification, the samples are limited to a few lexical and phonological categories and analysis is minimal.

1. Lexical Confusions

A common problem faced by the L2 learner is simply finding the correct approximation of the intended expression. Words that have very distinct meanings to the native speaker may be treated by the L2 student as synonyms. For instance, in the Japanese-to-English examples above, students could not yet differentiate between the culinary terms "mix" or "combine" (the chicken and eggs) and their own perceived lexical choices: "confuse," "throw," and "shuffle." It doesn't require much effort to understand how such mistakes might occur. With instruction and experience, a language learner develops the lexical knowledge that will promote better communication in the target language. In the process, however, the unfortunate learner has to muddle through, as in these examples contributed in response to the Neteach posting:

2. Direct Translations

Frequently, lexical errors are the result of literal translation from the first language lexicon, as in these anecdotes:

3. Similar-sounding Words

Another common type of lexical mismatch is the result of similar-sounding words in the L1 and L2 which either require distinct formulas depending on meaning, or may or not actually have the same meaning in L1 and L2, such as in these examples:

4. Phonological Problems

An incomplete grasp of the target phonological system can lead to a range of interesting errors, some of which are represented in these examples:

A lengthy list of translation "howlers" was sent by David Van Hammen. He was not sure of the source, but I believe many of these may be found in a little book called "Anguished English" (whose author I cannot recall), and possibly elsewhere. A brief selection from David's list follows; all of the amusing language errors here are lexical:

In Spite of Ourselves

Whatever the source error in foreign language expressions, there are two "universal" features about them that are worth remembering. First, everyone makes these mistakes; they are a natural, healthy part of learning. Second, in spite of such errors cross-cultural communication does happen. Paradoxically, saying the wrong thing -but giving the audience a good laugh-- may do more for international understanding than clear speech.


Many thanks to the people who generously responded to my posted request for L2 boo-boos on the Neteach-list, a great source, by the way, for a lot of language information ( Although I could not use in this brief article all the examples I received, all examples that do not appear here are included in more serious L2 lexical analysis currently in progress, and all contributions will be acknowledged. I am still collecting, and anyone interested in contributioning examples of L2 malapropisms for that study can send examples to me at the snail-mail address or email address listed above (please list source if samples are from published accounts). First language developmental errors are also welcome, since the study includes a comparison.

The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. IV, No. 4, April 1997