Okay, 2017 is here! And it’s time to get serious about tackling those New Year’s Resolutions! So step one is umm...umm. And that’s the problem with most New Year’s Resolutions and why they fail: People pick a goal (e.g. “lose weight,” “spend more time with my family,” learn English :), but forget to make a plan to accomplish that goal. Well, never fear! Spoken’s here to help at least you English learners “tackle your New Year’s Resolution head on”!
#1.) Become a student of your own language (No, seriously!)
This may seem a bit odd at first, but hear me out! In order to make the most opportunities of your English language training, it’s important to be familiar with the rules of your own language- much more familiar than you probably already are!
We all have great “tacit knowledge” of our native languages, which means that we can all “do it well” and communicate beautifully in our native tongues without even thinking about. However, we don’t naturally have a lot of “explicit knowledge” of our language. Sure, we know grammar from school and vocabulary, but for other areas, like phonology, or the sounds of our language systems we “know” woefully little. It’s kinda like, knowing how to run vs. describing to somebody that has never walked how they should run- pretty hard to do when you think about it! And that can pose some problems for learning other languages.
A.) Know Your Sounds!
Let’s start with a personal example. I went to China to teach English at a Chinese university right after college. And, naturally, fellow and students at the university where I was teaching, a place full of wonderful people called Xinyu University, offered to teach me Mandarin. Well, it started out being a very frustrating experience for me when I couldn’t get past the first sentence they taught me (“Wo shi Henli” or, “I am Henry”) without being corrected on my pronunciation of “shi.” I kept using the U.S. /sh/ sound, found in “should,” or “shoot,” or “ship,” (or another four letter word I wanted to use at the time!) and it didn’t occur to me that that sound was completely wrong!
You see, even though I was an English major, and I obviously knew the English alphabet, I knew nothing about phonemes, or the sounds that make up a language. Below are the phonemes in English and in Mandarin. As you can see, the symbol for the /sh/ sound in English, the /ʃ/, is not found in Mandarin. In fact, Mandarin has two sounds that sounded very similar to me but very different to Mandarin speakers, circled below:
It wasn’t until I understood that my /sh/ was the wrong /sh/ that I could make the correction and start pronouncing the correct sounds in Mandarin. The Lesson? Take a quick look at the phonemic alphabet of your language and compare it to English (Wikipedia has charts like the above for almost every language). Identify which letters are different, and where there are gaps as well. This will help you focus on areas that speakers of your native language may need to work more on.
B.) Do You Got the Rhythm??
How about one more example? Okay, sure! Well, one of the biggest issues for English learners of certain languages is the stress and rhythm of the English language. Stress and rhythm are how we break-up and make sense of the constant stream of sound that comes out of someone’s mouth when they speak to us, and, just like phonology, different languages have different rules for that! Take a look at the chart to the right, which I found in this interesting study about stress and rhythm in language groups.
This chart groups languages according to a few variables or factors that are related to stress and rhythm. What you’ll notice here is that English is EXTREME with its stress and rhythm (if you want to really dig into why, read that study above!). What’s the takeaway? Well, if you speak a language that’s not in the group in the red circle above, then you may want to take extra time work on rhythm and pacing, such as in the exercises we provide in our speaking & pronunciation lessons on Spoken, like the below audio clip:
C.) What’s the “Coda” for Success?
What’s that you say? You want one more example about how learning more about your own language can help you improve your English more quickly?? Okay, well I guess, I have one more in me! Let’s look at an important one: How about what we call “codas, or the letters at the end of syllables?
Let’s start with an example in English, a stress-timed language, and the same sentence in Spanish, a syllable-timed language:
English: The dog walked in the park.
Spanish: El perro caminó en el parque.
If you’re looking at these two sentences, what jumps out to you? Well, one thing might be that over half of the English words end in consonants: “dog,” “walked,” in,” and, “park,” and that only 1 Spanish word ends in a consonant: “en.” And the /n/ is a ‘nasal’ consonant, which is the most vowel-like consonant anyways!
So, what does this mean? Well, if you’re a speaker of Spanish, or Mandarin, or Japanese, or Brazilian Portuguese, or Italian, or any number of syllable-timed language, then you may have a real hard time pronouncing, or remembering to pronounce, consonants at the ends of words like
“park” and “dog.” Why? Simply because you never have to in your native tongue. Heck, you might even want to pronounce the /-ed/ at the end of “walked” as it’s own syllable instead of a /t/. Why? Because that’s closer to how you do it every day in your own language. It’s that simple, but when we realize and understand why that’s happening, it’s much easier for us to correct it and improve our ability to speak English more fluently.
So those are three examples of how becoming a ‘student’ of your own language can help you improve your ability to study English and accomplish your goals for 2017...And that was only about phonology, or the sounds in languages!-- Nevermind morphology (or how we make words in a language) or syntax (or how we make sentences in a language). So let’s get into those now! Just kidding! I’m exhausted…..And I think I’ll have to get to the other 5 things you do to improve your English learning in 2017 in the next blog! So, without further ado!:
FROM THE SPOKEN TEAM!!
Spoken provides one-to-one business English lessons with a trained English instructor coach through messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram. Sign-up today for 2 free English lessons at getspoken.com!