As scaffold builds a building, sentence frames help build your foreign language competency. Image from freeimages.com

Sentence Frames – A Home to Hang Your Words

Idly keying out some Duolingo practice phrases this weekend, an interesting sentence popped up in Polish. Kiedy śpię, to nie mówię. When I sleep, I do not speak. Hmm, I thought. That looks like a good addition to my Polish sentence frames.

Sentence frames are short, recyclable chunks of language with repurposable slots you can swap items in and out of. The idea comes from primary literacy teaching, namely the writing frame. Early schoolers support their writing skills by memorising reusable chunks with customisable blanks.

To get started on your own, all you need is a beady eye to spot sentences you can strip down for potential reusable frames. Take my Polish sentence, for example. Removing the content stuff, we’re left with:

Kiedy X, to Y. When X, (then) Y.

At this point, it helps me to read the stripped-down sentence aloud, substituting X and Y for a meaningful mmmm…. Kiedy mmmm, to mmmm. It sounds daft, but it prepares the brain for step two.

Doing Your Lines

The next thing to do is go to town with it. Like Bart Simpson (semi-)dutifully doing his lines on the board, scribble out a whole bunch of sentences using the same pattern. Slot in whatever comes to mind to start cementing it into memory. When I go to town, I visit my friend. When I get home, I turn on the TV. And so on, and so on. Soon that pattern will be tripping off the tongue as easily as a native phrase.

The reason these sentence frames are so valuable is that they supply that native phrase structure, rather than unordered, abstract dictionary knowledge. Instead of fumbling to piece sentences together from scratch, you have something to hang words onto before you start speaking.

They’re also easy to mine in your day-to-day language contact. You can spot potential speaking frame fodder anywhere and everywhere. Duolingo throws plenty of short, snappy examples at you, for instance. But billboards, TV ads and social media posts are excellent sources too.

Short ‘n’ Simple(ish)

Just like writing frames, sentence frames work best when they are simple. Some might only have a single slot, but represent a really frequent but language-particular pattern, like the Gaelic:

‘S e X a th’ ann. It is an X.

Others can be equally short but a little more complex, fitting in a third slot, like the German:

Wenn ich X hätte, würde ich Y Z. If I had X, I would Z Y.

Note the word order there. By memorising that frame, you’re drilling that very particular verb-final order of German subordinate clauses, too. That’s a lot of useful material packed into a nice cosy space.

Wherever you find them, however you drill them, sentence frames are a great tool to have in your language learning toolbox. For sure, it’s a case when doing your lines can be very good for you.

 

 

A fault line. Learn to love yours in language learning! Image from freeimages.com

Finding Fault : Learning from Past Performance

Going through some old files the other day, I came across a bunch of Icelandic MP3 recordings I’d made for an old 30 Day Speaking Challenge. A long time ago.

Needless to say, when I played them back, I didn’t feel too impressed. The accent, the grammatical errors, the stoppy-starty delivery. Not my finest work I tut-tutted.

But, listening on through gritted teeth, something started to happen. I found myself silently correcting the mistakes. I was almost willing handy hints for improvement back in time to that previous version of myself.

Fine to Be At Fault!

Old, imperfect language learning work is never anything to feel shame or embarrassment over. Most obviously, it shows us how far we’ve come.

But as ‘faulty’ resources, they’re actually far from useless. They give us chance to review and remedy mistakes that we were prone to in the past. Yes, they do crystallise errors. But as such, they also serve as great anti-examples of language use, as well as remind us that we no longer make them.

The same goes for non-language material, too. Some years ago, I made some ‘talking revision notes’ for a social science module I was taking with the Open University. Listening back to them, beyond the initial cringe, I ended up in a kind of mental conversation with myself: lots of “yes, but what about…” and “that’s one way to look at it, but…“. It is such a great way to interrogate past knowledge with a present outlook.

Finding Fault : A Do-Over

Something you can do, if your previous faults annoy you too much, is a do-over. Rerecord your speaking challenges. Rewrite your previous notes. Create fresh summaries of your learning material including everything you’ve learnt since. But keep both old and new handy as a testament to your progress.

If you’re tempted to delete your old recordings, or trash your old notebooks, pause to think: what can I still learn about my journey from these? Be generous to yourself – to a fault.

The Spanish flag

Resurrecting Spanish : How Old Languages Never Really Die

I’m writing this post, rather excitingly, from sunny Valencia. Yes, cheap EasyJet city breaks have returned! And this brief Spanish jaunt is particularly pertinent, as it’s my first trip overseas since the pandemic started. A promising sign the world is opening up again, and I’m filled with gratitude at that. Monumental.

It’s also notable for being my long-overdue to Spain – and to Spanish.

I’m going back to my roots with this one. Spanish was one of the first languages I chose to learn (rather than have chosen for me by the school curriculum). As a young school lad, I started learning with the long-forgotten BBC textbook España Viva in readiness for a holiday with my mum. The (distinctly 80s-ish) pictures of Spanish day life piqued my appetite to experience it for myself, to immerse myself, to connect with it. And what a thrill it was – that trip is one of my earliest memories of the pure joy of communicating in a foreign language.

Spanish Steps

By coincidence not long afterwards, my school laid on a special “spare time”, two-year after-school GCSE Spanish course for keen linguists, probably to gain a well-needed GCSE league table boost. I lapped it up, and then just kept it going – all the way to college and university. I was Rich, the German and Spanish scholar. It was part of my identity, what people knew me as.

But then, I graduated – and Spanish stopped.

Of course, the signs were there that I was drifting away from the Hispanic. My Spanish had always played second fiddle – albeit a loud one – to German at university. Although I loved studying the language, I chose to spend my year abroad in Austria as I wanted so ardently to study the dialects there. Then, after finals, I fell straight into a German-speaking job.

I had no Spanish-speaking friends, no contacts in Spain, and no real footholds in Spanish pop culture to keep it regularly in my life. And with each passing year that separated me from uni, I found fewer and fewer reasons to keep running with it. Even after retraining as a teacher, the only jobs I could find with my stronger German were teaching it alongside French, not Spanish. Ironically, that very poor third-placed French of mine became more important for work than the language I spoke, once upon a time, quite fluently. It seemed like my Spanish was doomed to oblivion.

But then, Valencia – and it was like an old friend turning up on my doorstep after years apart.

Practising my Spanish on market day in ValenciaPractising my Spanish on market day in Valencia!

Why do we let go of languages?

As my story shows, our connection to language may wax and wane for all sorts of reasons. It may just be, as with me, that life takes you in a different direction. There could also be cultural, or political reasons that your target language country no longer feels like a home from home.

On the other hand, external forces can nudge us, too. Knockbacks from others, like unforgiving native speakers in the real world (as opposed to the cocoon of education), can frustrate the effort to keep up your level. I remember feeling horribly deflated when told that my Spanish accent was “a bit non-native” in some recordings I did for a language game in the mid-noughties. Just as well I have my German, I thought. When feedback isn’t coming from a tactful, supportive teacher, the no-frills nature of real-life feedback can feel barbed.

Going Easy on Yourself

That said, I was probably taking myself far too seriously, back then. I’m supposed to be good at Spanish, I told myself. If my accent is bad after years of study, what’s the point? And it’s exactly that kind of destructive perfectionism that can wreck our relationship with a language, too.

Thankfully, time has tempered that perfectionist streak. Back in Spain, I don’t feel that pressure to be good because I’m supposed to be! any more. And, with a more relaxed approach, I’ve found Spanish coming back to me more than willingly.

And guess what? Nobody commented on my funny accent. Everybody understood me. And I understood them back.

I might just have rekindled that old friendship.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that a trip abroad reawakens an old passion for a language. The excitement of on-the-ground immersion is what keeps many of us fuelled. But it’s worth remembering that old languages never die; they’re just off doing other things, waiting for you to get back in touch in your own time.

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Going Old School with Language Learning Flash Cards

You might have noticed that I’m partial to a cheat sheet in my language comings and goings. There’s only so much you can hold in short-term memory before a speaking class, and having a scaffold to hand – even gamifying it, where possible – can be a boon. Crib notes, cheat sheets, flash cards – they’re par for the course in language learning. And everyone seems to have their own favourite label for them.

Now, my first thought when making these things is: which app is best for this? But to be honest, I’ve been a little apped out of late. Sometimes, the tech can take the focus while the language takes a back seat, and that defeats the whole object. Too often I’ve spent time faffing with note settings and layout before getting down to the main event.

Flash Cards on Cue

As if on cue, our evening class Gaelic tutor recently prompted the group to dispense with the tech and go old school. Our homework task was simply to create paper crib notes for the material we were finding trickiest, and set them in prominent places around the home. She calls them ‘bingo cards‘, by the way, proving that everybody in the world does seem to have a different term for these linguistic comfort blankets.

So, out came the colouring pens. I’m a fiend for new stationery – a predilection I’ve noticed is shared by a lot of us bookish linguaphiles. I had a fresh pack of Staedtlers just begging to feel useful. I knew it – they weren’t just an impulse buy, after all.

The Magic in the Doing

As with all these things, the magic is in the doing, as much as the result. Investing a bit of time and creative energy into your resources doesn’t half help you cosy up to your language. I was pretty loved up in my index card creations and their technicolour irregular verb decorations on one side, and English prompts on the other:

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Homemade Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

I must admit, I didn’t overthink (or even plan) them. Rather than faff, I just had fun. The colours don’t have any special significance apart from separating tenses from each other. But it doesn’t matter – they say little things please little minds, but I was quite content to keep my mind little and my thinking nice and simple with them.

The verdict? They’ve already helped me in Gaelic convo starters – a lot.

Sometimes old school really is the best school – especially when it provides an excuse to buy more stationery.

Social bookending can help glue your foreign language conversations together. Image of paper dolls from FreeImages.com.

Social Scaffolding from the Past

Social bookending is one of my favourite foreign language conversation hacks. In a nutshell, it’s the process of building a bank of starter, fillers and closers that support you in everyday speaking. It’s a topic I return to again and again, as it’s well worth spreading the word. As far as fluency tricks and convo prep tricks go, I find it’s amongst the most effective.

Social Glue: Fast and Slow

That said, you wouldn’t know it from looking at most language learning resources. In pretty much all the books I’ve come across, learning social glue is a purely cumulative affair, gradual and measured. Quite reasonably, of course, textbooks tend to build up that bank of colloquialisms over the course of many lessons. Which is great if you want to stick rigidly to the route the book intends for you.

But not if you need to get up to scratch quickly and hold fluid conversations early on.

For the straight-in-at-the-deep-end language aficionado, It’s beyond handy to have all of those conversation helpers in one place. And it’s even better to have them right in front of you, speaking bingo sheets style, to glance down at during convo practice. I highly recommend starting your own foreign language social script crib sheets!

Lessons from the Past

With a bit of digging, though, you might get a head start. During my recent foray into language book past, I found out that social speaking scaffolding hasn’t always been such a DIY affair. In fact, a couple of now out-of-print books dedicate whole sections to listing everyday idioms and colloquialisms. Not bad for the days before ‘communicative’ approaches became the norm!

For instance, the 1984 edition of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months was a revelation. The author not only devotes several pages to conversational turns of phrase, but a whole chapter on sayings and aphorisms! Granted, the latter are a bit more niche, and requires a bit of picking and choosing. And, casting a glance down both lists, they’re a bit of a random potpourri. But it’s a lot more of a social language reference than we’re used to in many modern guides.

A page from Hugo's Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

A page from Hugo’s Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

Greek in Three Months isn’t alone in throwing in these nice colloquial surprises. A much older book in terms of first editions, Teach Yourself Icelandic, includes pages and pages of useful colloquial phrases. Similarly, they seem a bit haphazardly thrown together at first sight. But as a collection of everyday language, they’re a brilliant starting point for creating your own crib sheet of favourites.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases - great social glue for your conversations.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases – great social glue for your conversations.

Nothing New Under The Sun

If anything, these social bookending reference lists from the past show that that there’s really nothing new under the sun in language learning. We stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us, rediscovering their linguistic adventures through our own eyes, and fashions – in learning as much as in clothes – come, go, and come again. Those past learners and educators continue to provide us with a rich source of discovery.

And maybe there’s some inspiration there for present-day course writers and book publishers, too. Teach Yourself, Routledge: how about a few ‘social filler crib sheet’ pages in your next editions?

A picture of an open book. Image from freeimages.com

No Stress? No Stress! Are languages without accent cues good for the memory?

Some years ago, when I started learning Russian, I had one huge bugbear. Stress marks – or the lack of them.

If you’re a Russian learner, you’ll recognise that initial frustration. Firstly, Russian is an unfixed (or phonemic) stress language. That means there’s no predictable rule to determine where the stressed syllable of a word falls. Stress patterning varies from language to language, even in the same family. Russian’s close cousin Polish, for example, is a fixed-stress language, with stress so regular that you could set your watch by it. In Polish, almost without exception, the penultimate syllable of every word carries the weight.

So, with unfixed stress languages, stress can come anywhere, and that gives you a little bit of extra information to learn with each new word. Granted, some languages do give you a helping hand. Greek, for example, has stress as unguessable as Russian, but (so considerately!) the stressed syllable of a word is always marked with an accent. Thank you, Greek!

Not so in Russian. And it’s crucial to know where the stress is, especially in words with the vowel ‘o’, which is pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed positions.

Nightmare!

An excerpt from a Russian textbook. No stress is marked.

No stress = more stressful?

But perhaps it’s less of a nightmare than it might seem at first glance…

Memory Stress Test

The fact is that unmarked stress does leave you to provide that extra information from your mental lexicon, which is tough at first for non-natives. In the early stages, it will involve a lot of looking up in a dictionary, where stress is usually indicated.

But as I gained confidence in Russian, a bit of magic started to happen. I started to enjoy a big boon of satisfaction when recognising a word ‘in the wild’ straight away, knowing where the stress was from previous learning and exposure.

It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether the extra bit of brain work is actually a helping factor in committing  those vocab items to long-term memory. You have more information to store away with each word, and more mental heavy lifting involved to recognise and retrieve them when reading. In short, that’s more work to master them, and more work means more time for your brain to mull them over. It’s like a constant fill-in-the-gaps challenge to keep the language-learning mind in a constant state of workout.

Extreme ‘Fill-in-the-gaps’

The effect is even stronger in the case of Hebrew. Now Hebrew is quite a different kettle of fish, but the same phenomenon crops up for learners in another guise. On one hand, the stressed syllable is quite regular in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the entire category of vowels that isn’t usually indicated at all in text.

An excerpt from a Modern Hebrew text. No stress - but no vowels either!

The great Hebrew vowel challenge!

That means that the onus of filling in the phonetic shape of the word is completely on memory and experience. As a learner, you have to draw on all sorts of clues to match the word on the page to the item and its pronunciation.  It’s a kind of fuzzy-matching process that really sharpens your recognition of vocab.

I haven’t come across any research into this yet, but it might make a good dissertation topic for some enthusiastic linguist at some point!

Question marks after a mix-up. Image from freeimages.com.

Mix-Up Management – Laughing Off Word Confusion

We all get things wrong when we’re learning a foreign language. Given that we get things wrong in our first languages all the time (just look at Malapropisms and Spoonerisms), there’s absolutely not a drop of shame in that, of course. What’s more, the odd comedy word mix-up can be a rich source of effective educational moments. My go-to personal anecdote (retold so many times I won’t go into detail here) involves the German words Durcheinander (mess) and Durchfall (diarrhoea). Enough said.

Mix-up bloopers are at the fore of my mind lately, as they keep cropping up in Greek. Like German, Greek likes deriving native vocabulary with prefixes, so there is ample scope for someone like me to make repeated comedy slip-ups. The perfect funny word mix-up doesn’t always have to be with near-identical words, either. In fact, the most hilarious of them are usually only similar in a shared prefix or syllable. Here are some of my most frequent howlers of late:

κατάσταση (katástasi) – situation κατάστημα (katástima) – shop
σημαίνει (siméni) – it means συμβαίνει (simvéni) – it happens
απόγευμα (apóyefma) – afternoon αποτέλεσμα (apotélesma) – result
θεός (théos) – god θείος (thíos) – uncle

The greater the difference in meaning, the funnier mistakes can be. Depending on your appreciation of inappropriate humour, they can lighten the heaviest of moods. One of my best recent Greek openers is:

  • How is the coronavirus shop in Greece at the moment?

The Same But Different

But there’s another class of mix-up which has little to do with how similar the words are. Instead, the confusion occurs when the words have been learned together, creating a kind of messed-up context effect. A somewhat embarrassing recent example of mine involves the pair:

  • θαυμάσιο (thafmásio) – wonderful
  • απαίσιο (apésio) – awful

This antithetical pair isn’t particularly similar, save the -σιο (-sio) ending. The problem is, I learnt them together in the same chapter of Teach Yourself Greek about twenty years ago. And because of that, they’re united in unholy matrimony forever more.

You can see where this is headed, friends. They’re obviously both great words for reacting to another person recounting news or a personal story. During a recent Greek conversation class, my teacher was explaining how his elderly grandmother has quite serious diabetes, which is why she is shielding during the coronavirus crisis. My reaction?

Wonderful!

Oops. Good job he has a good sense of humour too. It wasn’t the first time, of course – that was responding to news of an earthquake. And for sure, it won’t be the last.

The Mix-Up Upside

Inappropriately funny outcomes are actually great news, though. No, honestly, they are! After you crawl out of the hole in the ground you fell into, these moments actually create huge extra salience in your memory. Weight is attached to them. You easily remember those laughs you had over comic misunderstandings. Sometimes you even give them names. With my Greek tutor, I’ve dubbed the shop-situation one ‘the Richard error‘, for instance. I will never forget those words now.

That said, if they prove persistent, it can be a good idea to be a bit more active in ironing them out. For me, the best remedy is simply ensuring to drill vocabulary in context rather than as isolated words. Learning the Greek for situation in a full sentence provides further sound cues like prosody and rhythm, which ultimately cements the word in memory along with its active usage.

One method for this is customising Anki vocab cards to include a field for an example sentence. For native-translated source sentences you can turn to a simple Google search, but I particularly like to use the Tatoeba corpus site for its language-specific search features. Corpus engines with mass sentence archives from subtitles, like Glosbe.com, are also extremely handy.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words.

An Anki card in Greek with a sample sentence to help avoid a mix-up with other words. This is another from the mass of kata- prefixed words that can be so tricky!

Talking of comedy, one of the most fun things about subtitle databases is their out-of-context hilarity. My sample sentence above, for example, means: “Babies are not good at building roads, look.” I haven’t a clue where this comes from (and to be honest, it’s probably best left a mystery). Needless to say, it makes me chuckle every time it pops up. After all, it ticks the be a clown box, and that is no bad thing when learning languages.

In short, if you find yourself confusing shops for situations, laugh it off – that humour is doing your vocab memory a favour.

 

Pidgins - or pigeons? Picture by Lozba Paul, freeimages.com

Feeding the Pidgins : Perfectly Imperfect Communication

One of the language learning lifelines that has kept me going during lockdown is our little Gaelic chat circle that meets weekly on Zoom. We started off as an in-person pub chat group back in January, but as normal life started to shut down in March, our ever-enthusiastic organiser decided to keep us going in cyberspace. Thank heavens for organised folk.

Our the months, the pendulum has swung back and forth with numbers, as is always the case with these things. Some weeks we manage a proper little group chat, and occasionally there are just two of us. But there is always someone there, and the determination never fades: nothing but Gaelic for half an hour!

Perfectly Imperfect

The remarkable thing is that none of us are remotely fluent. In fact, most of us are hovering around A1/2, with our main point of commonality being the Duolingo Gaelic course.

How on earth do we manage?

Not badly, all things considered. We communicate enthusiastically and fluidly amongst ourselves, gossiping on all kinds of topics from home life to politics. To do that, we do supplement, where we have to, with the odd English word or two. Feumaidh mi a dheanamh an washing up a-nis! (I have to do the washing up now!). A bheil lockdown ann a-rithist? (Is it lockdown again?) But we have a good online Gaelic dictionary loaded up in the background to share any pertinent new vocab.

We might sometimes use our own loan translations too, like “coimhead sgìth” (literally “looking tired” using the verb ‘look’ instead of something more idiomatic – probably with coltach!). Imagine our happy surprise then, when it turns out that some of these made-up-on-the-spot forms are attested and used in first language speech too (no doubt due to the influence of English, mind). I do sometimes shudder to think what a pedant or purist might think, listening in.

But still – it works!

Pidgin Fanciers

What we’re doing feels, in some ways, like the creation of a pidgin. Just like our peppered-with-English Gaelic, pidgins arise from the need to communicate using limited knowledge of a base language. Just like grander-scale pidgins, more than two languages can end up in the mix too – a couple of us have some Irish, so that gets thrown into the pot as well.

In essence, we use what we have to say what we want.

The upside? We have become really good at that handful of colloquial structures we all share. An toil leat…? (Do you like…?), an robh thu…? (were you…?), nach eil e…? (isn’t it…?) They are all pretty much ingrained now!

But I know what you’re thinking: but what about all the errors and mispronunciations being reinforced without any correction? As real-life pidgins progress, the divergences from “standard” grammar may crystallise into something new and more ordered: a creole. As creative as it sounds, that isn’t quite our goal.

Fortunately, we have a couple of safeguards.

Taming the Pidgins

Firstly, we do have a very competent speaker who attends quite often, who has been a brilliant source of guidance and advice. Secondly, a couple of us still attend formal Gaelic classes as well, so there is always an external guiding hand to keep us on the straight and narrow.

Finally – and anyone can do this, even without access to more knowledgeable speakers or learners – we note down anything we are unsure about during conversation and pledge to read up on it after the chat. Whether in textbooks or via a Google search, the info you need is never really find.

In short, don’t let a lack of vocabulary and grammar knowledge stop you from trying to speak a language. Have a go at feeding the Pidgins. As for us, we’ll certainly keep on throwing them crumbs – it’s got us through two lockdowns, and it’ll get it through the next!

Are you looking for some more Gaelic resources after exhausting Duolingo’s course? Check these out!

Building Blocks. Image by Jeff Prieb, FreeImages.com.

Building Blocks for Faster Fluency

The highlight of my language learning week was a short, spontaneous dialogue in Swahili. Before I get too big for my boots, I should add that it was about buying bananas, and wasn’t based on fact. Rather, it was invented on the spot in a university conversation class. But the point is, I coped with spontaneous conversation after just two or three weeks of learning a language. You can too – it’s all down to building blocks.

So what is a building blocks approach to language learning? It might be best to define it first by what it is not. Learning via building blocks is the opposite of rote phrase learning. Instead of static, clunky chunks, it focuses on mastering a limited but optimal set of words and phrases to combine in multiple permutations of useful sentences.

It’s not quite the same as learning an exhaustive grammar of a language, which is the longer-term route to manipulating language spontaneously, rather than relying on stock phrases. The difference is that building blocks learning focuses on efficiency, favouring the most useful bits and pieces to get you up and running super quickly.

Ready-Made Building Blocks

Unsurprisingly. whole language learning techniques have been built on the principle of shuffling basic blocks around. One of the most familiar from the bookshops is the Michel Thomas method. These use a chatty student-teacher format to gradually introduce simple building blocks, and invite the student to play around with the cumulative result. As such, the real skill students gain is the art of sentence creation on the fly, rather than plain old parroting. I’ve found them fantastic introductions that get students communicating in full, novel sentences extremely quickly.

Recently – big thanks once again to the lovely folk on the polyglot social media circuit – I found out about a whole bunch of free, enthusiast-authored courses that also follow this magic blocks system. The Language Transfer channel on YouTube hosts a whole set of language courses, from the author’s native Greek to – yes, you guessed it – Swahili. They take a model learner through a whole set of jigsaw pieces to spark immediate, spontaneous communicating.

Custom Blocks

So how did the building blocks approach play out in my Swahili class, and why was it so effective?

Swahili verbs lend themselves to a ‘slot machine’, or ‘lego’ type approach, as our tutor likes to put it. You can easily swap in and out a very regular set of morphemes for person and tense. Knowing just ni- (I), u- (you), a- (he/she), and -li-/-na-/-ta- (past, present and future tense markers), plus a handful of verb stems, a learner can express a huge amount in Swahili. This is the ‘permutation strategy’ that makes knowing just a little bit of language very productive. And every language has hooks like this.

The Swahili example shows building blocks at the tiny end of the scale, working with little bits of words. At the other end, larger chunks like ‘opinion blocks’ can be a great boost. In Greek, for example, I like to chat with my tutors about what’s going on in the world. A hefty topic, you might think. But in reality, it’s enough to have a stock ‘building set’ of a few phrases such as “I like …“, “I don’t agree…“, “… annoys me” and so on. Like those Swahili lego bricks, you can build whole conversations out of those spare parts.

Banana Split

The proof of the pudding – or the bananas, in my case – is in the eating. I’m really pleased at how much I managed to say in Swahili after a couple of weeks of this process. And it’s all down to those building blocks, and an effective teacher who makes great use of the technique.

If you’re about to start a new language, consider giving one of those courses a try. And if you’re struggling to improve your conversation in an existing skill, try chunking it up a bit into home-made building blocks. You will simply go bananas at your progress.

A picture of a mouth articulating. Accurate phonetics gets us close to sound native. Image from freeimages.com

Phonetics Mismatch – Why We Mispronounce Foreign Languages (And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter)

This week, I had the great news of an offer to study towards an MSc in Linguistics. And, keen on preparing well for a good start, I started working through a couple of the set texts. First up: phonetics and phonology.

As language learners, all of us have probably touched this strange world of symbols and tables. Many materials will use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an adapted version of it to describe how to make the sounds of a foreign language. Some grammars for intermediate learners, like the Routledge Comprensive series, often include whole sections on the phonology (sound rules) of the language.

Phonologists use precise scientific methods to map out all of these sounds and their interactions, a process that can take years. The thing is, as learners, we rarely approach the ‘everyday phonology’ of a foreign language scientifically. Most beginners will not see /a/, and think open front unrounded vowel. Instead, we listen to a model, and make an approximation towards the sound through mimicry.

It really is just an approximation, though. And diving into some phonological descriptions of languages I know (like this technical summary of Norwegian), I got a sinking feeling. I realised just how approximate some of my pronunciation was. How was I getting it wrong for so long? And why did nobody tell me?

The lesson in this is how often even very proficient speakers of a foreign language articulate words differently from native speakers. But how do we get so close – close enough to operate fully and comfortably in the language – without quite hitting the mark?

Best-match phonetics

It is all to do with what articulation tricks are most readily available to us – chiefly the sounds we learnt as children in our first language. They give us a shortcut to make a comparable sound via a slightly different route. And they are so ingrained, that we are often swimming against muscle memory when we attempt to learn a brand new means of producing similar sounds.

The trouble is, our native languages often lack an exact equivalent in the target language, so we draft in the nearest match, often without conscious awareness of it. For example, speakers of English learning Spanish (and vice versa), are a case in point when it comes to the phonemes /d/ and /t/. Most varieties of English realise these as alveolar stops – that is, with the tongue touching the ridge just behind the teeth. In Spanish, on the other hand they are usually dental, with the tongue further forward, touching the teeth.

Try and make both of the alternative /t/ sounds yourself with the word tin. Difficult to tell, isn’t it? So much so, that we barely do tell the difference when we first encounter the foreign language. Instead, we produce the sound using our native inventory, substituting the sound from our first language knowledge without even realising it.

Subtle things like this, of course, are what give us our foreign accent when speaking other languages. And of course, although we can strive to minimise a non-native accent, it is nothing to be ashamed of (quite the opposite, in fact!).

Native issues

Take comfort from the fact that the same substitutions happen in our native languages too. For much of my childhood, I struggled to say the /θ/ in words like thimble and think. In the end, I decided that /f/ sounded close enough (and nobody seemed to mind at first). I stuck with that approximation a lot longer than my peers, until it was finally picked up by a teacher at primary school and normatively squeezed out of me.

However many extra years of give and take, though, the process of initial language acquisition is a fantastic feat of the mind. Children rapidly discover phonetics inventories and the phonological rules that can take academics years to map out – and foreign language learners years to assimilate.

With that in mind, cherish your approximations. They draw upon all the cumulated skills of those early miracle years of language acquisition. And even if the fit isn’t quite perfect, the act of repurposing them in second language learning is still a wonder of brain gymnastics.