Tag Archives: learning English

Don’t go it alone

As I woke up again on the West Coast this morning, with nary an idea for what to say today, I received a comment from a reader and fellow WordPress blogger, Olga, who teaches English in Russia.

Olga said, “I’d be interested in your opinion as a Word Nymph on learning foreign languages by oneself,” and pointed me to her post on the same subject. I scrolled through a few more e-mail messages that came in overnight. There was a piece of spam, with the subject heading, “Want to learn a new language fast? This contained a link that would not open. But Olga and this spammer got me thinking.

In her post, Olga converses with her reader, Yulia, about the pros and cons of teaching oneself a second, or third or fourth, language. This dialogue is quite interesting, especially as it takes place in English between two non-native speakers, who both write English extremely well. But that’s not the point.

I once learned Spanish, but it took me four years attending a university—and time studying in Spain—to do it. Lack of practice over 30 years has placed me closer to the starting line that I’d like.

As Yulia points out, it’s possible to learn the fundamentals of grammar and sentence structure from a book, but pronunciation is more difficult to learn in isolation. We need to hear words pronounced, we need to practice our pronunciation in the presence of others. Tapes can be helpful, but digital media don’t converse. It is in conversing that we learn.

It’s not that teaching oneself can’t be done. I know that because my son taught himself Italian at age 10. Of course, he didn’t become fluent; his goal was to be able to read a menu and order his own meals while on vacation with us in Tuscany. He had received a pocket-sized workbook for Christmas, took it to school and studied it every afternoon in after school care, while sitting in a corner alone. At least that’s what his day care providers told me. Indeed, when we arrived in Italy the following July, he had amassed an impressive vocabulary of practical words and phrases. Even though he learned in a vacuum, his pronunciation was pretty good as well and he exercised his new skill with confidence.

Likewise, my father is in the process 0f teaching himself Spanish. When he began thinking about retirement, he decided this was something he ought to do. (I was voting for his learning the computer).

My father is making good progress, but he would do well to perfect his pronunciation through practice, something he is doing right now, in fact.

I believe strongly that learning—learning almost anything—best happens in community. Ideas can’t be exchanged in even a hundred years of solitude and, while it is possible to read a book, or listen to or mimic tapes, it is in the conversing that learning a language happens.

Based on my experience, I’d recommend taking a class, forming a study group, seeking out kindred spirits and doing it together. Support one another, exchange ideas, draw each other out of your shells.

And, take it from me, a little sangria never hurts.

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Filed under All Things Wordish, Family and Friends, Travel

Grammar on the Acela Express

Yesterday I was on an Amtrak train rolling along the East Coast. Compulsive public eavesdropper that I am, I tuned into a loud conversation among three gentlemen in the row in front of me. One, a well-groomed young man in a good suit, was obviously auditioning for the approval of the other two, perhaps as a job applicant or an eager salesman. He said, “Yeah, I coulda went to Boston University.” Then he proceeded to begin several sentences with “Me and him…”

I’ll never know the outcome of the meeting, as the gentlemen disembarked before I did.

Boarding the train and taking the place of the three gentlemen were two ladies. Neither was a native English-speaker, but one was a bit more fluent and confident than the other. However, in contrast to Sir Brags-a-lot, both women spoke impeccable English. One looked up at the sign above the seat and asked her friend, “how is that word pronounced?” I was impressed that she cared enough to ask. Her friend responded, “aisle,” like “‘I’ll,’ as in ‘I’ll be back in a moment.”’ There was conversation about not pronouncing the “s,” as with “island.” The woman more in the know assured her friend, “English can be confusing.” Her friend said, “Yes, but it is such a beautiful language.”

I’ve never thought of English as being a beautiful language necessarily. I find the romance languages more pleasing to the ear, even if I don’t understand everything. Perhaps the rhythms and intonations of a foreign language are what make it beautiful to our ears.

I do believe English is one of the most difficult languages to learn as second language, with all of its exceptions and varied pronunciations. English also poses challenges for us native speakers, which may be why I still enjoy studying it. That said, perhaps I should have been less judgmental of the fellow who could have went to BU.

Oh, whom am I kidding?

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Contra-indications

I have always had sympathy for those learning English as a second language. In fact, there was a time when I planned to be an ESL teacher because I thought I could help take some of the pain out of learning our difficult language.

We seem to have more exceptions than rules. We spell words alike but pronounce them differently, we spell them differently but pronounce them the same and we offer cutesy ways of remembering rules when, in fact, those usually come with a little Gotcha.

We have already talked extensively about homonyms, which present some of the most frustrating challenges.

There is another class of words that must drive new English speakers to insanity because, essentially, they are their own opposites. These are the auto-antonyms, also called contranyms.

Imagine you are learning a second language. You are working hard to commit new vocabulary words to memory. Just when you learn a word, along with its proper context, you hear or read it used and it appears to mean the opposite of what you had learned it meant.

The first one I ever noticed was “sanction,” which means both to condone and to punish. Another is “oversight,” which involves both throughly overseeing something to ensure no errors are made, and missing an error altogether by not looking closely enough.

How about “dust?” One dusts to remove dust but also dusts by sprinkling dust on something, e.g., in order to detect fingerprints or garnish a dish of food.

A “rock” is something stable, that does not move, but a rock is also a back-and-forth motion.

I am a native speaker of English but I was perplexed to learn, after years of sitting in business meetings in which issues were “tabled,” or taken off the table, that, in international trade negotiations, to “table” means to put something, typically an offer, on the table.

Here’s a goofy one:  “left.” When a person has left, he is gone, no longer there. When a person is left, he is still there. The same with objects: three cookies were left on the plate.

“Presently” means both now and later. Presently, I am at my desk, but I will meet you at the restaurant presently.

At the risk of appearing political, it seems we are quick to demand that visitors learn our language and become fluent in it practically overnight. It’s reasonable to ask people to try their best to speak English within our borders but, before we lose our patience, perhaps we should first consider the oddities and complexities they must also grasp. Maybe we could all become ESL teachers, or at least tutors, when opportunity presents. We can start by tutoring ourselves on this exhaustive list of auto-antonyms, published by Florida State University.

For now though, let’s wind up this discussion. (But does that mean we are beginning or ending it?)

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