Saturday, 2 July 2022

Lessons in the language. By Steve Way


The great language teacher Michel Thomas often pointed out that when you learn another language you often learn more about your own. The same seems to apply, at least in my case, when teaching your own language. I’m currently teaching English to Spanish adults through an eccentric language agency based in Madrid. All the material they give us to use seems to be prepared by a non-native speaker or a native speaker who is very very drunk all the time. Nearly every page is littered with typographical errors and even though my colleagues and I repeatedly point these out the agency is more interested in haranguing us about doing pointless paperwork that no one ever reads and taking forever to pay us. Still, it seems that pointless paperwork pretty much plagues most educational environments. (One of the most embarrassing errors was misspelling the word shirt, without an r, right in the middle of a piece advanced students had to read.)

Anyway… I’ll step down from my soapbox… one interesting thing I’ve discovered is that many of my students, who are obviously learning English as a second language, find it far easier to speak in English with other second language learners than native speakers. This seems to be partly because in most countries English is taught is virtually the same way, so everyone involved understands the same range of vocabulary and largely speaks with a fairly neutral accent, coloured of course slightly with their native accent. (Interestingly it also means some vocabulary is often unknown to them as it clearly isn’t used in the various language courses. A piece I read recently with my students contained the word ‘astonishing’ and none of them remembered encountering the word before. (In fact, when I explained its meaning – comparing it to synonyms they were aware of a few still sounded warily sceptical about the word, as though I and/or the author of the piece were playing some kind of April Fool’s joke on them.) They find it far harder to understand native speakers, who of course speak with a range of accents and colloquialisms. One student told me that on deciding he wanted to learn English he moved to Glasgow for six months. With the deepest of respect to Glaswegians you must admit that that was like jumping in the deep end of an especially deep pool. (Have you encountered Bill Bryson’s account of walking into a Glaswegian pub in Notes from a Small Island? If like me your bank had a call centre in Glasgow you will understand exactly.*) To put things in perspective it’s not just we Brits who expose foreigners to a minefield of different accents. Once an ‘intermediate’ student of mine told me for weeks about how much he was looking forward to using his English on holiday in New York. On his return I asked him how he’d got on. ‘Oh Steve, I couldn’t understand a thing,’ was his disappointed reply

Recently I was explaining the challenges I had teaching my students to pronounce various English words accurately. His initial reaction when I brought up the subject was, ‘Well, it’s easy isn’t it?’ Now I could at this point have referred him to the book for primary schools I wrote with headteacher Simon Hickton Every Phoneme Covered, which contains sentences and stories short and long illustrating each of the 40+ phonemes. However, despite the previous sentence, I’ve always been useless at promoting my own work. Instead I asked him how he pronounced the word comfortable. ‘Oh…’ he replied when he’d thought about it. No wonder many children (including me at the time) find learning to spell with so many redundant letters. Possibly letters at the beginning and end of each word are understandable but why two whole letters in the middle of the word?** The same applies to favourable. I also have a lot of fun teaching words such as chocolate and vegetable. As I suggest to my students English must be the most boring language in the world in which to pronounce the word chocolate.

Seemingly simple words like fuel and severe often cause problems. I’ve found a solution for severe as its pronunciation sounds much like the Spanish pronunciation of the city we call Seville – Sevilla. ‘Imagine severe weather in Sevilla.’ If any of you can suggest a way of making the pronunciation of fuel comprehendible it would be greatly appreciated. (By the way did you know that in the Spanish version of the famous song from My Fair Lady, the rain in Spain lands mainly in Sevilla?)

It's also interesting seeing the emphasis the English courses seem to universally give to certain aspects of the language. For example conditional sentences and the passive voice. It is a long while ago but for the life of me I don’t remember studying conditional sentences at school and I only remember passing references to the passive voice. Now I’m probably just demonstrating my own ignorance and the deficiencies of my education, and you wise and knowledgeable readers probably knew this for years, but I would never before have known that conditional sentences go by the numbers zero to three, from plain fact to conjectures about what might have been. (I sometimes suggest to my students that grammarians may have initially labelled the conditional sentences one to three and then in a panic realised there was a conditional form simpler than the first conditional, hence the peculiarly named zero conditional. Thank goodness they didn’t originally start with the zero conditional I further propose, as now we’d be landed with the minus one conditional Of course this is largely a smokescreen to disguise my own ignorance.) I also could never have imagined that there were almost endless varieties of passive sentences, which my students seem to know and understand but leave me with my head spinning. Once again my students are incredulous when I explain that in real life – where communication mostly takes place in the form of conversation - the passive voice is very rarely used. Imagine having a conversation in the passive voice, we would sound like aliens.

‘Is a good day being had (by you)?’

‘Yes, although a delay on the train was experienced by me on the way here. What things will be done by you today?’

‘Shopping will be done by me today and bananas and a bottle of wine will be purchased.’

And so on! I hope an enjoyable read was had.


*Possibly, again like me, you only tend to phone up call centres when something drastic is occurring regarding your finances. What’s the worst time to try and have a conversation with someone you cannot comprehend? …

**Have you ever noticed that the word engine is pronounced as ‘n-gin’ with both the first and last e silent?


Every Phoneme Covered ISBN 978-1-90751-541-5 (Hopscotch Educational Publishing)


Susan Price said...

After reading that, Steve, I'm amazed that I manage to speak English at all!

It also reminds me of my time as an RLF Fellow in a University where, every day, foreign students used to come along and explain to me why their square-wheeled sentence was correct (giving text-book examples) while the native English I suggested changing it to was wrong.

But, as I can't speak a sentence in any other language, I still admire those who can.

Lynne Benton said...

Great post, Steve - it certainly makes you think (about our language and others!) And you're quite right, pointless paperwork pretty much plagues most educational environments - I remember it well from the olden days when my husband and I were teachers!

Sue Purkiss said...

Enjoyed this!

Patricia Cleveland-Peck said...

Great Post!
Do you know the funny poem 'Hints on Pronunciation for foreigners' which begins
'Of 'tough' and 'bough' and
'cough' and 'dough'...'
If not I have a scan I could send you if you email me.

Steve Way said...

Dear Susan, Lynne, Sue and Patricia,
Thank you for your kind comments, they're very much appreciated, particularly as I really wondered whether my ramblings about pronunciation etc would be of interest.
I love your term 'square-wheeled sentences' Susan - I know exactly what you mean!
I bet you and your husband are glad to have cast of the shackles of paperwork Lynne - how I envy you!
I've just emailed you Patricia and look forward to reading the poem, which I hadn't heard about before. I'm sure many of my colleagues - and students! - will find it useful too!

Andrew Preston said...

Well, those Scottish lassies at the First Direct call centre must be doing something right, as that bank, year after year, receives awards for their quality of service.

I did in fact read '... Small Island' shortly after it was published. I enjoyed the book then. When Covid arrived, with long hours inside, I decided upon a re-read. This time though, it seemed rather tedious in the relentless complaints about why this place and that just wasn't the same as when the author was last in the UK in 1979. He certainly pulled out the stereotypes in his observations about Glasgow.

He is though fairly accurate in his observations about housing, and the 'housing schemes' ( Scottish for huge council housing estates ). Just to add something. My stint of driving buses there took me to various parts of Glasgow.

Castlemilk, ome of the big post-war scehmes, South Nitshill ( another ), where sometimes the police on the beat would hop onto the bus at the terminus and chat for a few minutes. One of the routes teminated at Knightswood. There, there were really nice houses that you would never identify as council houses. These were all built shortly after WW2, I believe, as the new government attempted to demonstrate that people had been fighting for more than just keeping the same old, same old, in power.

Then the money ran out, and what happened next was some of the worst of urban planning. Swathes of wholesale demolitions, uprooting of communities to these new schemes, then multi-storey flats. A major factor in all of this was that local communities had virtually no part in any of the decison making. They were just told what was going to happen, and they could take it or leave it.

I did wonder if the author's baleful view of a Glasgow pub might really have been fueled by his choice of a pint of Tennents. Certainly when I lived in Glasgow, Tennents (lager) was an absolutely terrible pint. It was a foul apology for a drink. I could do about a pint and a half before I'd start to feel vaguely queazy. My preferrence was McEwans Heavy. i think I only kept returning to Tennents to reassure myself that it really was quite as disgusting as the last time.