One of my history classes ran into a little English phoneme difficulty today.
Mid-lecture, a student raised her hand and said, “Yes, what is the difference between estate and estate? They are different words? You pronounce them differently?”
Juanra, the teacher I was helping — he’s young, fashionable, and constantly on the brink of despair about his badly-behaved students — replied, “Well, yes, you have estates like the land the nobles owned, and then you have estates like the United Estates.”
“And you say them the same way?”
“No,” I said quickly, hoping Juanra would forgive me for cutting him off. “No, they’re different words, they’re pronounced and spelled differently.”
Juanra helpfully wrote the two words on the board for me: ‘State vs. State.’
“One of them has an ‘e’,” I whispered.
“Oh,” he said, looking at the blackboard. “Joder.”
“So you say them differently,” I told the class as Juanra added an ‘e’ on the blackboard. “The first word, the land the nobles owned, that’s an estate. And the second word is just state.”
The entire class, in unison, made a confused noise.
“Can you hear the difference?” I asked.
“No,” they said.
“Estate,” I said, as clearly as I could. “State.“
“Ehm, that is the same word,” one of the students offered helpfully. “You are not saying a different word.”
“Yes, she is,” said Juanra. “She is saying first estate and second estate.”
“Uh,” I said. “Here, let’s all listen again. In Spanish, y’all don’t have this ‘s’ and ‘t’ sound together in your words, so it can be very hard to hear and make that sound in English. The first word is estate. The second word is ssstate.”
“Essstate?” Juanra asked.
“Sssstate,” said one of the students, and then the whole classroom was filled with hissing as they tried, some more successfully than others, to make the ‘s’ sound without adding an ‘e’ to the front of it.
I felt like an English-language superhero.