Teaching Phonetics

My student and I used sticky notes to make this big schwa sign on my window.

Language and the brain

Let me start today’s article by telling you about Phineas Gage, an American railroad construction foreman who, in 1848, had a three-and-a-half-foot long tamping iron rod driven completely through his head to then land fifty yards away from him. This was a rather spectacular event and most of us would probably assume that no one could recover from it. Well, Phineas did survive, however. Although his friends and family observed some changes in his behaviour, no apparent damage to his senses or speech could be determined and Mr Gage’s language abilities remained unaffected. Looking at his damage we can safely assume that wherever the language ability is located in the brain, it certainly isn’t in the left frontal lobe. We will then talk about tongue tips and slips and how these are being considered possible clues to the way linguistic knowledge is organised within our brain.

"Scalpel sister, we’re taking the brain apart"
Let’s forget about the right hemisphere for the time being and discuss where particular language abilities are located in the left hemisphere. We know this as, since Phineas’s time, a number of discoveries have been made and because people who had damage to those specific areas of brain then accordingly had also language disabilities. These areas are as follows:

Broca’s area – crucially involved in speech production
Wernicke’s area – understanding of speech
The articulate fascilus – a bundle of nerve fibres connecting Wernicke’s area and Broca’s area
The motor cortex – controls the articulatory muscles of the larynx, tongue, jaw and face

Tips and slips of the tongue
Behind the brain structure and the way our linguistic knowledge is organised within it, there are possible clues to why occasional speech production difficulties occur. We all experience them every now and then and perhaps more often after a night out. I bet you know the phenomenon when you feel like you know the word but it just won’t come to you when you want to use it. You might even have an accurate phonological outline, you might know the initial letters and how long the word is. This partial recollection you have suggests that our word-bank is partially organised on the basis of some phonological and semantic information while some items are trickier to be retrieved than others.  Sometimes when you finally seem to remember the word you articulate it only just to find that you got it wrong while there are often strong similarities between the target word and the mistake. These are normally referred to as malapropisms, after Mrs Malaprop in a play by Sheridan who constantly produced near-misses for words.

A similar type of speech production difficulty is the slip-of-the-tongue, also known as Spoonerism after an Anglican clergyman, Rev. William Spooner. Most of our slips involve interchange of two initial sounds in a phrase. Sometimes this might be done for comical effect like in memorable quote by Oscar Wilde Works in the course of the drinking classes. It has been argued that slips of the tongue aren’t random and that they indicate the existence of different stages in articulation of linguistic expressions and that our brain slips first failing at organising the message in the correct order before it gets out of our mouths. Sometimes we can also experience so-called slips-of-the-ear in which we mishear a word or phrase which would analogically suggest that the brain tries to make sense of the auditory signal it receives and again, occasionally fails at it.

The road to fluency

Hi. My last article received a great deal more attention than I could have ever hoped for; and for this I’d like to thank you all as my message has been spread. I appreciate all the comments and e-mails you were kind enough to send to me, it seems that my criticism of the pseudo-polyglots was justified. 

I speak English fluently
The war I’m waging against the pseudo-polyglots has spread as far as LingQ, an online language-learning community. It was there that I met Lilac, who, as one of many, complimented me on my English and also suggested that it would be a good idea to write an article on how I learnt it. In fact, unlike so many others in the language-learning blogosphere, I am actually fluent in a second language and, therefore, I presume I must know what fluency is and how one can achieve it. If you’re expecting some magic pill here or some three month/one year solution I’m going to have to disappoint you. Reaching my current level in both written and spoken English has involved a great deal of work.

First step – work, more work and… some more work
I remember attending English classes when I was younger and although I didn’t learn much I was exposed to English to a certain degree. I started taking things more seriously when I was about to graduate from high school and needed to take my matura (the Polish equivalent of GCSE) in a chosen foreign language. It was hard work; I remember nights spent home alone with a dictionary and grammar textbooks.

As it turned out, all my efforts paid off and at the age of 19 I passed my matura and scored 76% in English. Hours of study gave me the foundations for being able to communicate effectively. My vocabulary was nowhere near my current level, but rich enough for me to get by. I had a basic understanding of English grammar and my accent was very thick. I decided to move to England. As it turned out my language skills were only just good enough…

News flash
Right, so I moved to England. I was indeed equipped with the basic skills and I could converse in English, but it didn’t change the fact that I was absolutely terrified when I first heard natives speak to me and I don’t think I understood any more than about 50% of what was said unless repeated slowly and more clearly at my request. I knew that I’d thrown myself in at the deep end and it was a sink-or-swim situation. There was no option but to adapt… I could, of course, leave but it’s not in my nature to give up!

A mistake made by many a foreigner
I socialised a lot with the locals and this was key to acquiring English. Many people go abroad thinking this will somehow miraculously make them speak a foreign language. It doesn’t work like that. I’ve met Poles, Russians, Chinese, Spanish and many others who emigrated to the UK in little cliques or families and then tended to remain within these communities, working and living together – speaking their own language the majority of the time. The two Russians I shared a house with felt at home in their little enclave, speaking in Russian, eating Russian food and continually cursing in Russian too. Despite the fact that they had both lived in England for much longer than me, their English was dire. I made a point of not getting involved with fellow Poles while in England and would rather socialise with the British. As time went on I felt increasingly confident and understood much more of what was being said to me.

Serious killers don’t have any pennies on them
Don’t worry about any errors you might make when speaking in a foreign language. These are inevitable and sometimes of entertainment value. Every time I was asked for pennies in the shop, I'd blush as when pronounced it resembles the Polish equivalent of penis.  I suspect that Spanish speakers might be similarly surprised upon seeing pene on Polish menus (Polish for a certain type of pasta but Spanish for penis). Yummy! I also remember confusing a serious killer with a serial killer and one of the kids I used to teach English described an unfortunate event from his mum’s life as follows: My mum broke her rib and got laid in the hospital.

Fluent in body language?
Socialising is fun so the hard work I remembered from school soon evaporated from memory. I was becoming fluent at English and guess what? I wasn’t even trying! Pseudo-polyglots claim to be able to speak a foreign language pretty much straight away, skipping any hard work or intense exercises. That’s utter drivel. I’d never buy their useless e-books but I’d gladly pay to see them attempt to speak Polish without any initial study; better than any comedy methinks. If it weren’t for my past efforts I would have never been able to communicate in English at all. You need to memorise basic vocabulary at the least and learn about general grammatical concepts first… unless your aim is to, while speaking, completely exhaust yourself by gesticulating wildly!

Next step - more studying…
In total I’ve spent over 2 years in the UK, living and working in different environments and regions of the country. I have socialised with British people from various social classes as well as with many foreigners. While working as a client service administrator I familiarised myself with both formal English and office jargon. I learnt slang and idiomatic expressions - first those typical of the south of the country where I used to live in Cambridge and then in Welwyn Garden City (Hertfordshire near London), then those typical of the north (Cumbria precisely). When I returned to Poland and started studying English at University I realised that a lot of habits I’d brought back from England I needed to get rid of. Colloquialisms, slang expressions, regionalisms and even variations of British accents are frowned upon when your teachers expect you to speak coherent RP English, also referred to as Oxford English. Living in England was a lot of fun, but studying is now helping me select the positive aspects of what I acquired unconsciously and what, perhaps, I’d be better off without in order to speak academically-correct English.

How should you do it?
I won’t give you the answer to that question, but remember to never let anybody dictate to you what learning methods are best. You need to work it out for yourself as we all learn differently. I used to teach English and I could easily observe that some of my students remembered things better from writing them down, some from reading them out and some from hearing me say them. I think what’s important is to use a variety of learning processes. Nowadays study material in foreign languages is readily available and I find that listening to the radio or watching some television in your target language is helpful as you get used to real language in use. Finding yourself a tutor is definitely a good idea too. I’ve recently started learning Spanish and although I’m making great progress on my own I’ve arranged for lessons with a native Spanish speaker. Iván, if you’re reading this: Muchas gracias por tu ayuda. Eres el mejor profesor de español del mundo. It’s worth having a tutor even just to have somebody to ask about your doubts or confirm your assumptions. Whatever you do, just so long as it works for you that’s all that matters. Don’t let the pseudo-polyglots tell you flashcards are a total waste of time and studying is bad for you and that the only way you should learn is the way they do, as that’s about one of the most ignorant things one can hear from them.

Good luck with your studies everyone.

Polyglots or Polygloats?

Not so long ago I wrote an article What do you understand by fluency in which I criticise the pseudo-polyglots, as I like to refer to them. There were two people in particular I had in mind when I penned this short piece; however, I didn’t reveal their names at the time for various reasons. Today I would like to advise you against falling for these gentlemen’s dubious guidance, especially if parting with your hard-earned cash is involved. I find their practices highly immoral and, quite frankly, I despise the fact that they lie with impunity to their readers, leading them into thinking their tips will facilitate learning a foreign language in an incredibly short period of time.
Recently I've become aware of more and more pseudo-polyglots who claim to be able to learn languages within relatively short time spans. This idea appeals to people of the 21st century where everything must be instant. Some are even stupid enough to pay money to the aforementioned pseudo-polyglots for their precious tips on fast language learning. (…) I don’t understand what happened to good old scepticism and critical thinking ability. Are we humans just becoming increasingly gullible?

First polyglot under scrutiny…
Benny, also known as @irishpolyglot, has a popular blog, the url of which reads fluentin3months. That really is amusing when you consider the fact he has never actually learnt any language to a level anywhere near fluency in 3 months – read the list of languages he speaks and you'll find that he learnt them for much longer than that (e.g. German, he studied at school for years, even though he claims he couldn't speak it at the age of 21. It was at this point that I dared to question his skills and, I think, with good reason).

His definition of fluency is more confusing than all the seasons of LOST put together and couldn’t be further from the actual definition that can be found in a dictionary, which, I suspect, Benny does not possess. I wouldn’t even waste my time reading the utter rubbish he regularly thrusts down the throats of the hundreds of people who visit his website; however, there is something about him that won't permit me to just walk away without a fight. You’ll be as surprised as I was to find about the fact he also makes people pay money for his e-book.

I confronted him online several times not only on his website where he banned me after my first comment, but also on Twitter and another person’s blog where he called me a troll for touching on subjects not related to the actual article on which we were commenting. But tell me, where and how should one approach Benny if everyone gets banned and blocked for aiming words of constructive criticism at him? The article you’re reading now is therefore intended to be a warning for you. I don’t have anything to gain from writing it – I certainly don’t ask you to pay me for it. What he does is against my beliefs and all I’m trying to achieve is to open up people’s eyes. As many people as possible.

To see the article of his on which I commented - click here. I’ll leave you the link to his website and let you judge this pseudo-polyglot for yourself. Is the $57 he wants for the book money well spent? I’ll let you judge this yourself too...

Polyglot – illiterate in several languages?
The other pseudo-polyglot I wanted you to become aware of is @yearlyglot. I haven't wanted to talk about him in the past for personal reasons, but now I have no qualms about it. Unlike his colleague, Irishpolyglot, Yearlyglot promises his readers that one can learn a foreign language and speak it fluently after just one year! Perhaps this miracle takes him a bit longer than 3 months as he seems to get distracted by several languages at once – this year’s mission of his is Turkish, however, as he claims on his blog he not only learnt Polish within the last 2 months but also started speaking Macedonian… after reading just one article about it on Wikipedia! His e-book about learning Italian costs $26. I’m not happy to reveal more than necessary about the aforementioned gentleman, however, more attentive Twitter followers will probably know that we met up in Poland. What remained a secret until now is that I had to assist in the simplest of activities such as buying tickets and ordering food due to his poor language skills. Now listen – I heard him speak Polish once, namely when ordering a coffee in a restaurant. This involved him saying "Jedna kawa, proszę". Yearlyglot, however, didn't mention any of this at all on his blog. Imagine how surprised I was to read as follows:
While in Poland, I was able to buy food and drinks and train tickets. I was able to ask for directions and understand amounts and times. I found my way around and even gave directions to some Poles. When I didn’t understand something, I was able to ask in Polish for its meaning, and usually understand the explanation.
None of this is true. Furthermore, Yearlyglot eschews conventional learning techniques and says:
"Stop buying books. Stop studying." A little bit of study never harmed anyone, especially if you want to do more than order a cup of coffee.  Perhaps, this guy should learn a bit more about the grammar of his own language too. It’s a "definite article", not a "definitive article". Once I had pointed out his mistake he not only kept arguing his point but wouldn't even bother to check if what he said was correct and nonchalantly asserted that I was the one making a fool of myself. Sadly for him, it was the other way round and... the greatest ignorance is to reject something you know nothing about.

Are we really this gullible?

So, why are people taken in by the polyglots? Well, we like to take the course of least resistance. If there is an easy route we'll take it. The polyglots want you to believe that you can bypass all the hard work by way of purchasing their e-books and shave years off the length of time that it would normally take to speak a language fluently. I wonder if they can perform other miracles too? How about turning water into wine, or failing that, reasonably priced petrol?

It's all smoke and mirrors though. Their claims are usually grossly exaggerated. Either that, or they neglect to tell you about their related learning experiences or about their epic failures.

What really irks me about these self-professed polyglots is that they seem to think they are some sort of oracle when it comes to language learning and they won't even consider the possibility that conventional learning methods are not only valuable but perhaps even better than the methods they advocate. According to Yearlyglot, flashcards are a waste of time as he states on David Mansaray's blog. What about if you make the flashcards yourself? The mere act of making them is helping you commit the words/phrases to memory, how can that possibly be a waste of time? You should use the methods that work for you. Don't allow yourself to be dictated to by the sort of people who seem to revel in the fact that they can speak several languages badly.

This is not a personal attack. These, I believe, are just a couple of examples of pseudo-polyglots. Be wary! There are plenty of others out there, along with the guys on TV selling useless kitchen gadgets or instant weight-loss schemes, waiting to get into your wallet. I'll leave you with this thought - if something seems too good to be true then it probably is. The same applies to learning. If you put in the effort you'll reap the rewards and pseudo-polyglots' assistance won't be missed.

Step by step grammar 8: Interjections

Interjection, also referred to as exclamation, is used to express an emotion e.g. oh! shh! oops! and it is usually to be found at the beginning of a sentence.

Ouch, I stubbed my toe!
Hey! Don’t be moody!
Oh no, I lost my key again.

Interjections are also used to fill in the pauses in sentences, and then they express hesitation e.g. er, um, hm.

Interjection is not grammatically related to any other parts of the sentence and is often followed by an exclamation mark.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the series so far. We’ve covered parts of speech and next week we’ll be moving on to verb tenses. Have you subscribed to English Focused yet?

What do you understand by fluency?

Recently I've become aware of more and more pseudo-polyglots who claim to be able to learn languages within relatively short time spans. This idea appeals to people of the 21st century where everything must be instant. Some are even stupid enough to pay money to the aforementioned pseudo-polyglots for their precious tips on fast language learning. No, their tips won’t work like some magic pill and you won’t turn into a fluent speaker of a foreign language in a couple of weeks’ time. You want to speak a foreign language fluently? Let me give you my tip… for free! What about you try the old fashioned way and actually make an effort? I don’t understand what happened to good old scepticism and critical thinking ability. Are we humans just becoming increasingly gullible? Copy-paste from Google Translate and a video in which you read out some pre-prepared text in a foreign tongue is not what I understand as the ability to speak a language fluently. Perhaps it’s all about how we define fluency then. The "polyglots" will conveniently use their own definition of the fluency so as to satisfy their need for goal-achieving. The rest of us, however, will know we are fluent when we can sustain a lengthy conversation in our target language. Don't kid yourself; this is more likely to take years rather than months. The younger you are and the more effort you make will hasten the point at which you realise you really are fluent. Good luck.

So you think Polish is hard?

The truth must finally come out. I’ve heard enough of this utter rubbish about how difficult Polish is. If you’ve tried to learn Polish and failed to achieve decent levels of communication and understanding  this means you're either not trying hard enough or are just plain stupid. You can’t just say English is easier, because it isn’t! Sure there are grammatical concepts in Polish that are absent in English but don’t forget this works both ways.

Although some grammar books claim there are 16 tenses in English this isn’t true. It doesn’t make it any easier though as there are two tenses (present and past), four aspects (simple, progressive – also referred to as continuous, perfect and perfect-progressive). This is a formidable combination for foreigners, difficult enough to confuse us along with the very unclear rules surrounding the tense usage. I mean…. There are differences even between BrE and AmE as far as tenses go so are we supposed to get the right ones? Ugh. Now compare that with Polish: three tenses (present, past and future – couldn’t be any more obvious, right?) and two aspects (imperfective and perfective – pretty straightforward and all it takes is to learn the correct verb forms). We like it easy, don’t we?

Foreigners cringe when they hear about seven cases in Polish and I agree this can be a nightmare to grasp for a native speaker of a language that lacks this concept but all it means is that you’ll need to make an extra effort and pay a bit more attention to it while learning. On the bright side Polish has no articles. YES! YES! YES! (I hate articles in English and even though I’m super fluent I still make mistakes when using them).

Stop moaning. People always point to something difficult in every language and the sad ones use it as an excuse for not learning it. Fail! Fail! Fail! What I hate even more are Polish people spreading these rumours about how difficult our language is. No, it isn’t! Put this silly point of national pride behind you. The fact we have lots of consonants is not a problem, we are all humans and if my speech organs are capable of articulating something, yours are too no matter where you come from. I might have struggled with my th in English but here I am pronouncing it like a native. Make the effort! Polish, being almost fully phonetic, is actually easier than English, if you slowly pronounce each and every single letter in a word you’ll pronounce it right (NEVER the case in English, in fact even native English speakers don’t know how to pronounce certain words e.g. schedule).

 No language is hard. Depending on your native language, some languages can be easier for you. However, it doesn’t make them easy for everybody. I would probably find Czech much easier than English and similarly if you’re a native English speaker you will find German easier than Polish.  Lastly, I wanted to say it’s a pleasure to learn Polish. Why? Because most Poles you meet when you come here will be amazed to see you’ve made the effort to try to speak Polish (even if only a little Polish). We’re quite nice chaps, really!

So…. What are you still doing? Get back to studying Polish. I don’t want to see you back around here again until you’ve learnt some more. Good luck!