Tag Archives: Pronunciation

Speak! You Need To Speak!

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Have you ever been in a foreign language class in which the instructor was covering 12 pages of content (24 pages, front and back), teaching no less than 7 grammatical constructions, and reviewing 50 vocabulary words that were only just introduced the day before?


You had wanted to master the 50 vocabulary words from the day before, but you had also decided to learn the 50 new words that were going to be covered in class today. So, you had spent five hours studying 100 intricate characters made up of shapes, curves, circles, and lines that made absolutely no sense to you.


On top of that, you were supposed to remember how to write the characters; how to speak them – with the correct tones, of course; and what their meanings were.


So, here you are, in class. You and two dozen other students who never learned to speak the sounds of the language correctly, in the first place, and each of you with your own distinct interpretations of the sounds of this new language. There is Indian-Chinese, German-Chinese, Spanish-Chinese, Polish-Chinese, and American-Chinese. Each student thinks that all of the other students in the class sound “really strange,” when the fact of the matter is that no native Chinese speaker would be too fond of any of your pronunciation abilities.


Now, you have been zoned out a bit, doing your best to review those 100 vocabulary words. Suddenly, your teacher demands your undivided attention. You didn’t hear the entire sentence, but you did hear one word in particular: speak.


You want to be an amazing student. You want to make yourself proud and you want to please the teacher. You want all of your hard work to come to fruition in some meaningful fashion. However, your brain doesn’t quite know where to start. How much brain power should go to correct pronunciation, tones, word order, using the correct vocabulary…? You studied hard all day yesterday and all night last night, and yet your brain isn’t producing the information the way that your teacher wants it to.


Jason just strung together a few dozen utterances in Chinese, but nothing that he said sounded anything like the same language that you had been studying in class over the past few months. Your teacher smiles at him and says, “Very good, Jason. Nicely done.”


Then, she turns her attention to the rest of the classroom. One by one, she demands that you all speak. Each and every one of you must speak. She says that it’s good for you. She says that you need to do it. Don’t worry about making mistakes or developing poor habits because those things will work themselves out over time.


After all, she has been speaking English for well over 20 years and her English is….



Wait a minute! At best, we can say that her English is…well…questionable. Meaning, every single time that she says something in English, I have to look within the recesses of my soul and question what I have just heard. I can’t just use my brain. No, I have to think about what she is saying, the way that she is saying it, and I have to think about the context of the situation. What could she possibly have meant? Yes, boys and girls. For this type of interaction, I have to consult with every part of myself. Then, and only then, can I come up with a few possible choices. All of that happens in the blink of an eye. I settle in on one of the choices and move on.


As a native speaker, I have to make adjustments for English sounds and English grammar, as I know them, in order to understand my foreign language teacher. Granted, there are certain patterns that will be repeated with pronunciation, verb tenses, missing articles, misused prepositions and things like that. So, those types of mistakes do not require as much thought after awhile. However, for example, in moments when she is trying to present a hypothetical situation to the class, instead of using the “if-then” construction, she simply uses the simple present tense. The Chinese languages does not use the “if-then” construction. So, my teacher never picked up on how important this simple grammatical pattern is for native English speakers .


And the confusion begins. Is she telling me to do something? Is she telling me a story about something that usually happens? Is she trying to present a situation that expresses something like “when ABC happens we should do XYZ?


It might take me a few moments to get an answer to the question. However, in those few moments, I am not learning the foreign language that I signed up for. No. Instead, I am learning how to interpret my teacher’s English. It really is not such a big deal for a single moment here or there, but that is never the end of the story. To get a more accurate feel for the situation, you would have to multiply that incident by thirty, forty, or even fifty – depending on the length of the class. (And let’s just say that for those day-long seminar like classes that last 6-8 hours, you should secure your thinking cap tightly.)


If you have ever been in this kind of situation, perhaps you can relate to my frustration; and perhaps you can understand why I have absolutely refused to have conversations in Chinese over the past three years. Sure, I’ll do the one-liners here and there, and I write copious amounts of Chinese with my teachers every day of the week. However, I have declined speaking practice.


Until now!


After three years of studying Chinese, I am finally going to start conversational practice. Everyone that I know would say that I am crazy. But I tell you what – I speak the same amount of Chinese as a native 3-year-old, and with relatively the same accuracy. Now, I do have more grammar in my head than a 3-year-old Chinese child, but I want to be more confident about using it. Unlike Chinese children, I am not surrounded by native Chinese speakers on a daily basis – and taking the risk of developing incorrect habits, that take two to three times as long to correct as they did to develop in the first place, is not, at all, of interest to me.


See, here we go. I, Miracle L. Smith, The Rogue Linguist, am finally going to start speaking Chinese. I feel confident. My vocabulary is decent. My pronunciation is clear. My listening is improving. I have stored tons of Chinese in the old noggin.


In short, there are so many things to feel confident about at this point of my language learning. My brain is not overwhelmed. And, probably most importantly, at least for me, is that I am in a place where I can isolate my mistakes. I can make a mental note of the differences between my sentences and my tutor’s, and learn from those differences. My brain is ready, and so am I.


So, let the conversational classes begin! (I’ll keep you updated.)


Learn the English Alphabet (Video)

I was recently looking for a slightly more exciting way for one of my young students to learn the English alphabet when I ran across this gem.  Granted, the pronunciation is a little peculiar, as the speaker does not seem to have a true “feel” for the English language.  (The accent seems to be Indian.)


However, this is still a great starter video for your little ones who need to learn the English alphabet while having fun.


We like it because:

  • The music is compelling
  • The images are entertaining
  • It teaches the names of the letters, as well as the way that the letters sound (at least approximately) in words
  • It is short – only 4 minutes long
  • It’s a great starter video


So, if you are having a difficult time getting your young child to pay attention to you as you try to teach them the English alphabet, give this a try.  Simply, push play!


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Text-Talk Downfalls

It is rare to go to a place in today’s world where you don’t see multiple people on their smartphones or other various devices. I am always fascinated when I am out and about, to see how people interact with one another.


I think one of the most baffling exchanges for me is the interaction that you see between people in restaurants. If you are taking the time to go out to a restaurant with someone, why would you sit down across from them and immediately whip out your phone? I have seen people sitting across from each other who speak very little with one another for the entire meal. Instead, they are texting away on their phones.


What is even more fascinating about texting culture is the minimal effort that people put in when it comes to actually constructing a text message. I get messages from people that have misspelled words, incorrect grammar, and little to no punctuation. I also receive texts with a variety of different abbreviations.


There is a texting language that has developed in today’s culture. People are now spending so much time having conversations on their phones that their “text-talk” has begun leaking into their speech and other written communication.


I work with students on a daily basis and I get countless emails that are nearly impossible to decipher. I will read some emails three or four times, and still struggle to understand what point or question the student was trying to get across. Often times, the way that they write me is very similar to the way that they would write text messages. Usually when this happens, I will follow it up with a personal phone call to the student.


Sometimes, I find it difficult to understand students on the phone because they mumble and do not pronounce their words clearly. I believe this is a direct relation to the lack of time we actually spend speaking with one another face to face. I see the gap continually widening.  


It is time that we take a closer look at how texting culture is affecting our communication, and at what can be done to promote clearer spoken and written English.

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Lessons in Pronunciation: My Trip To India

Barriers to communication are present in our everyday lives no matter who you are or what language you speak. I have had the opportunity to witness this first hand in a very intense way, and I would like to share my experience with you.


At the beginning of 2015 I traveled abroad to Chennai, India to complete five weeks of student teaching. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to travel to such a vastly different place from what I have grown so accustomed to in the United States. I knew that because I was traveling to a different place where the national language was Hindi, I would encounter a variety of barriers when it came to communication. However, I did not know that the main barriers I would face would occur primarily when speaking with others who spoke English.


In Chennai, all of the students are taught three languages when they are in school. First, is Tamil, which is the state language. Next, students are taught Hindi, the national language. As a third language, students are required to learn English. Even though students are learning English, they are learning it in their native language. As a result, students learn English words and phrases, but they do not learn correct pronunciation or grammar.


I was assigned to a first grade classroom at the campus school housed on the campus of Madras Christian College. I was so excited when I walked through the door to meet all of my students. I reminded myself beforehand that I needed to speak slowly and clearly to ensure that the students would comprehend what I said. I stood at the front of the room all smiles and slowly said, “Hi everyone, I am from the United States of America and I am so excited to be here with you.”


About forty little faces stared blankly back at me. I kindly tried repeating what I had said even slower, but still, none of the students seemed to have any idea what I was saying. The teacher gently pulled me aside and asked if she could repeat what I said to the class. I graciously nodded and allowed her to take back over. She repeated what I said with a few minor word changes and a completely different accent. The students seemed to respond when she spoke, and suddenly their faces lit up. I knew right then that my time with these students would not be easy, but I was determined to find a way to communicate clearly with them.


My barrier to communicate was not just among my first grade students, though. I encountered the problem with nearly every person that spoke English in India as a second or third language. I majored in Business Education. So, in addition to the time I spent at the campus school, I was invited to sit in on several different business classes at Madras Christian College. I went to a class with my notebook and pencil, eager to learn and take notes.


When the professor started speaking, I soon realized that taking notes would not be an option. I struggled to even understand every fifth word. He was speaking English, but his accent was so thick that I did not understand most of what he said. After the class, he pulled me aside and wanted to have a chat about his class and the material he taught. All of a sudden, I felt like I had swallowed a brick and it was stuck in my throat. I had no idea what to say. I could not even understand all of the questions he was asking me.  I did my best to answer what I could, but by the end of the conversation I could tell that the professor was slightly frustrated.


Oftentimes, pronunciation is not considered to be very important. But based on this experience, I believe that pronunciation is one of the most important parts of language learning. In order to successfully communicate with one another, and articulate our thoughts, we all need to have a basic understanding of pronunciation.


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