Monday, November 15, 2010

LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT

It seems clear that language and thought are related. But to what extent does one depend on the other? Can there be thought without language? Was language originated in the need to clarify and communicate thought? Or did language enable us to think the world in different ways and therefore helped us shape our thoughts? This can get quite profound and philosophical. I just wanted these big questions for introductory purposes. The idea here is to bring it down to the classroom. I'll leave the hard work to Saussure, Chomski, Pinker and the likes.

It is common for language students to say that they must think in the target language from day one if they wish to succeed. This seems like a sound idea, but can you really "think" in a language of which you know very little vocabulary? I dare to say - even though there are real beginner learners of English in Brazil - that it is practically impossible to find individuals that do not know any English words at all. This being due to the ubiquity of English in Brazilian quotidian communication, from hot dog to software. But then, a few words may not be enough for outlining thought and conveying messages, perhaps only very simple ones. It is then necessary to present learners with a set of basic language items which can in turn set off the thought process and the consequent verbalization of ideas. These basic language items include nouns (pronouns) and verbs. One needs at least a subject and a verb to form a sentence.

OK, so now you have been presented to and practiced a number of words that are now part of your active vocabulary. They will help you put your thoughts together and will be there in speech. But then there is syntax, that, in simple terms, is the order we arrange words in a sentence to convey a message. Each language has its own syntax and a 'hot dog' would be a 'dog hot' in Portuguese. If we assume that thought is conceived through putting words together, it has to happen through syntax. If the learner is not yet familiar with English syntax - though he or she may be using English words in their thoughts - they are still doing so in a frame (syntax) of their first language. A sentence like: 'I like English very much.' might be worked out in the person's mind and come out as 'I like very much English.' which does not follow the expected standard of the English language.

Thought is limited by language. Learning words can only expand your ability to think and to communicate. However, words are not enough.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

PRONUNCIATION AND SPELLING

This happens all the time. You are in your English class and there comes a new word. You instinctively ask your teacher: "How is it spelled? Can you write it on the board?" It is so common that I'm starting to think it is quite like an involuntary reflex.

Adult learners work out the pronunciation of new words by mentally reading the words. They focus on spelling rather than on sound. The process is more visual than auditory. The problem is that you are very likely to read out and say words in the way the phonemes are pronounced in your first language. This leads to problems in pronunciation that may eventually become chronic if not corrected.

Learners who acquire vocabulary through reading - this is especially true for people with a more technical background and all their technical literature - sometimes show good structure and syntax skills and can be quite coherent in their discourse. However their overall speaking is affected by the mispronunciation of key words, which in turn hinders effective communication.

What to do then?
It is necessary to bring the process from visual to auditory. Before worrying about the spelling of a new word, you should focus on the way it sounds and try to reproduce that sound. It is necessary to have at least some oral practice before getting into spelling. That will not guarantee correct pronunciation, but it allows learners to  first be exposed to way a word sounds. Spelling has to be shown and dealt with in a second moment.

Accurate pronunciation of sounds is only one aspect in the process. Syllable stress, sentence word stress, sentence intonation and speech music will also affect the way you sound.

I still recommend the technique even though it doesn't seem to work very well for Inspector Clouseau.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

20 MOST MISSPELLED WORDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE



How good of a speller are you? Spelling is definitely a pain for both ESL students and native speakers. English spelling is quite complicate. Some words may have the same sound and very different spelling. Others have letters that have nothing to do with the way they are pronounced. Then there are also silent letters that are required in writing but not in speech. The many foreign words the English language has absorbed contribute to the mayhem. But the language is what it is and it is up to speaker to spell it right or at least to try and find out the correct spelling. Google has made the task much easier.

A survey done in Britain by market research company OnePoll has listed the top 20 misspelled words. Here they are:

1. definitely
2. sacrilegious
3. indict
4. manoeuvre
5. bureaucracy
6. broccoli
7. phlegm
8. prejudice
9. consensus
10.unnecessary
11.supersede
12.questionnaire
13.lieutenant
14.entrepreneur
15.connoisseur
16.inoculate
17.particularly
18.liquify
19.parallel
20.conscience

Take the quiz on the right and see how you do.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

SLANG AND SUBCULTURE WORDS WITH A GOOD LAUGH


Can't find that slang word in the dictionary? Want to know what bragplaining, congreenient, intexticated mean? Check out this web-based, collaborative dictionary of slang words and phrases.
The Urban Dictionary was created in 1999 and has over 5 million entries. Words and phrases are added by registered users. They can have multiple definitions that can be quite humorous, and include example sentences.
Here are some:

Elevator Reflex
The urge people get once inside an elevator to stare compulsively at the ascending numbered lights (usually on top of the elevator doors) either because they are truly convinced this will speed up the whole 'process' or they are simply socially-awkward beings who can't bear to look at random people in the face for 30 seconds.

Mo:"Dude so I was talking to this chick.."
--elevator opens--
Toño Bicicleta: "Call you back Mo I have to stare at the floor 'till I get off the vator or else I have to talk to these people".
Mo: "Sounds like a bad case of the elevator reflex yo, you should go get checked."


Intellectual Masturbation
Fascinating intellectual breakthroughs regarding reality, language, existence, knowledge, perception, or human behavior which are completely unprovable and utterly without use, and therefore of no real consequence to anyone. See also: philosophy

Etymology: the mental counterpart to masturbation; i.e. a process that is very pleasurable but hasn't accomplished anything at the end.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that language influences human thought, so that native speakers of different languages think about concepts in incommensurably distinct modes. Linguists and psychologists contend fiercely over the validity of this claim, oblivious to the fact that it is intellectual masturbation.

Wallet Threat
is the reluctant act of pulling ones wallet out as a sign of willingness to pay for a meal you assumed was a treat.

"Mike, put that thing away, dinner is on me tonight."

"But it's so expensive."

"Dude, seriously, chill out with the wallet threat.


www.urbandictionary.com

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

7 TIPS FOR LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE



1. No pain, no gain - It takes a lot of energy, time, and often money to learn a foreign language. Get involved and take responsibility for your learning. Listen, speak, read, and write as much as you can.

2. It’s not going to happen overnight – Learning a foreign language is a long term commitment. It is a good idea to set short range goals but you must think long term.

3. Open your mind wide – Among all the aspects involved in the process, perhaps the most important is the learner’s attitude toward the language. Have an open mind and try to see any encounter with the language as an opportunity. Be inquisitive, ask questions. One very simple step is to set the interface language of your communication devices (computers, cell phones) to your target language. In case of English in Brazil, the language is pretty much everywhere. It is very likely that in your everyday commute you’ll see lots of English words and expressions in billboards, signs, even on people’s clothing.

4. Expose yourself – Don’t hold back. Don’t miss any chances to interact with the language. If you are around a foreigner visiting the country, go ahead and speak to them. If emails have to be read and written in English at work, go for it. When travelling abroad with a friend who speaks more than you do, don’t let them be your voice, go ahead and order your own food. These are great opportunities – they’re like free lessons. It is natural that you may feel a bit uncomfortable to do so in a language you don’t master yet, but think that the experience is only going to help you get there.

5. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes – mistakes can be a good way to learn, of course as long as you somehow realize them and find out the right way. In addition, you as a non-native speaker are not expected to show the level of complexity and correctness as that of a native. In most cases, native English speakers are well used to dealing with people from the most diverse language backgrounds and tend to be quite tolerant with mistakes.

6. Open up your ears – Each language has a dominant range of frequency. Our ears adapt to the frequencies of our mother tongue in order to hear more efficiently. There lies in part the difficulty we often have in understanding what is being said in a foreign language. I simple way to verify this is to watch a movie with and without subtitles and analyze how much you understand. When we think we don’t understand what someone says, more often than not, it is not a matter of knowing the words but the simple fact that our ears are not used to that language’s specific frequencies. If you are in an English speaking country, for instance, your ears are exposed to the language most of the time and this is one of the reasons why immersion programs accelerate the language acquisition process. Well, if this is not your case, you somehow have to get your ears exposed to the language. This means lots of listening.

7. Practice makes perfect – The principle is remarkably simple. The more you do something, the better you get at it. This is especially true for your writing and speaking skills. Practice, practice, practice, and then more practice.

The success of your language acquisition project will likely depend on several factors. These three seem to have a bigger impact: your natural ability to learn a second language, or the absence of it; the attitude you have toward the language and the learning process; and having a clear plan to help you get where you want.

Monday, July 26, 2010

HOW LONG TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE?


I get asked this question very often. I was once presenting a language program to a group of technical workers at a manufacturing plant in Brazil when it popped up: "So, at the end of the course, will I be speaking English?" I had to say: "Well, you'll probably be able to speak some."

The truth is that this is a question that can't be given a definite answer. The idea of 'speaking English' has to be defined first. There are many levels of competency between the one of a real beginner and that of a fluent speaker.

Sometimes beginners and lower intermediate learners are able to speak just enough for what is required and expected from them. Quite a few students have told me that they did not speak English. What is interesting is the fact that they did so in English! When I said I didn't totally agree with them, they would go on and explain why they felt that way. All that in English! I guess we can call it a paradox.

Learning a second language is usually a long process. Some will even say that it is more like a lifelong continuum. You should see anything you do to improve your communication - a course, a trip, a reading - as a step that will take you a little bit further ahead in the process. Progress is influenced by different aspects such as each person's own ability to learn a language and how much time you devote to learning it. Your ultimate goals have to be considered. You may want to be able to take your kids to Disney or to take up a position at a multinational abroad. Then, the time and effort will vary accordingly.

Next on the blog, a few tips to help you learn a foreign language.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

WHAT ENGLISH DO YOU SPEAK?

The English language comprises a wide range of linguistic variations. These can be called dialects. They are sub-forms which may differ in pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar but are, in most cases, mutually comprehensible.
Dominant varieties, British and American English, account for the largest number of speakers. English dialects are present in every corner of planet, in each continent. Just to mention a few:

- Canadian English
- Caribbean English
- Scottish English
- Welsh English
- Hong Kong English
- Indian English
- Singapore English
- Nigerian Standard English
- South African English
- Australian English
- New Zealand English
- Fijian English

If you think this is plenty, well, most of these national varieties subdivide into numerous regional dialects adding in complexity and richness to the language originated in the British Isles some 1,500 years ago.

video