martes, 19 de enero de 2016


Why if I speak English well…,
English speakers do not understand me


By Enrique Rojas R.

It happens every time. A very dedicated student of English as a foreign language learns the lexis, the structures, the grammatical rules, the expressions; in addition he manages to demonstrate that is able to read and write in this language, but when they get in a situation in which they have to chat with native speakers, finds it very difficult to understand what they say, and even more grueling trying to make himself understood by them. For heaven’s sake! Why does this always occur?

If one were to learn a language from another part of the world, the first thing we would try to gain knowledge of would probably be the alphabet. In order to penetrate the system of transmitting ideas through words, you have to become familiar with letters, which are the main constituents of terms. Of course, it is also possible to just memorize sounds, to get to know what they mean and become able to produce those utterances. But we will not get to genuinely master a language that way. And it will not be the path we will follow if we are already literate people.

Now, when we refer to the most common western live languages, such as English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and others, we assume that we use the same alphabet for all of them but, is this assumption true? In this space we are going to briefly analyze the case of Spanish and English.

All of the mentioned languages use the Latin or Roman alphabet, which is still the most widely employed alphabetic system in the world, since it is the one used by most of Europe and the areas settled by Europeans. It has its origin in the Etruscan alphabet and it can be traced through Etruscan, Greek, and Phoenician scripts to the North Semitic alphabet utilized in Syria and Palestine about 1100 BC.( Encyclopædia Britannica). The name comes from Late Latin alphabētum, and this from the Greek  ἀλφάβητος : alphábētos, made up over ἄλφα : álpha 'alfa' y βῆτα : bêta 'beta', names of the first Greek letters.

In the first place, it may be convenient to define what we understand for alphabet. Encyclopædia Britannica describes it as a “set of graphs, or characters, used to represent the phonemic structure of a language” adding that “In most alphabets the characters are arranged in a definite order, or sequence.”  The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary depicts it as “A set of letters or symbols in a fixed order used to represent the basic set of speech sounds of a language, especially the set of letters from A to Z.” In both definitions we clearly observe the presence of two dimensions, a written or graphic one, and an oral, that deals with sounds. The graphic individual components are named graphemes and the oral ones, phonemes.
            For a native Spanish speaker there is probably no reason to know that there are languages with no one-to-one correspondence between sound and written symbol, since in our language there is a 1-1 spelling-to-sound correspondence.(*) They are aware that there are some differences in English pronunciation and try to imitate the most obvious ones without suspecting there is a whole phonological system they must become familiar with. As a consequence, they treat English graphemes as if they were Spanish graphemes, conferring upon them the same phonological value. Small wonder it is so difficult for them to make themselves understood by native speakers of English. It is no surprise also that although they can understand their peers’ English, and maybe their teachers’, they do not come to terms with the one spoken by people who have been raised with this tongue.

            So, our suggestion to English teachers is that, right from the beginning, you should convey to your students they have to deal with a different sound system. (See the article Teaching pronunciation, why is it so difficult? in this blog). And, for goodness sake, if you want your students to read (not to mention speak or write) you must teach them the alphabet (all of it) first.


Biodata
Enrique Rojas. Graduated in Journalism at the PUCP, Peru, Enrique Rojas R. holds a MA in Journalism and MA in Inter American History from Southern Illinois University, USA; an MA in Literature from University of the Americas, Puebla, Mexico, all the coursework for a MA in TEFL at Universidad de Piura, Peru and BA in Education from Universidad Federico Villarreal. He has also obtained Certificates of Proficiency in English both from Cambridge University and the University of Michigan and the Diploma for EFL Teachers from Universidad del Pacifico. He is an Oral Examiner for the Cambridge University exams and has been awarded the title Expert in E-Learning from Asociacion Educativa del Mediterraneo and Universidad Marcelino Champagnat. He has worked as a professor in universities in Peru, Mexico and the United States; as a newscaster and a producer in radio and television stations in the United States and Mexico, and as a writer and editor in daily newspapers of the same countries. He has been in the staff of CIDUP for 17 years teaching English and Spanish specializing in International Exams, English for Business, ESP and Teacher Training. He is a member of the Research Area of Centro de Idiomas de la UP.


8 comentarios:

  1. Dear Enrique,

    I find your article very realistic and interesting.
    I know many researchers suggest that immersion is the best way to learn a new language and to avoid this kind of problem. That is a student needs to be surrounded by the target language the most possible. You know watching movies, news, reading articles, browsing foreign language websites, and more, but of course the most important part of this is engaging the student in active communication, creating needs to talk in class.
    Having seven hours of class a week to teach students to internalize and use the target language effectively is kind of tough but the kind of activities we do in class and the kind of homework we give them really matters to me.

    Good luck and I look forward to your response!

    Rosario Uribia.

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    Respuestas
    1. Thank you for liking my article. I agree that immersion offers many benefits. Most of us teachers now are very aware that in order to learn a language, students have to use it in a meaningful, real-world way; and an excellent way to do that is through immersion. The students won’t be just learning a language, but learning many other things while doing it. They will be acquiring the new language through culture, art and music. Martha Abbott, executive director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), goes so far as to assure that in addition to the benefits of bilingualism, learning a second language activates different parts of the brain.
      But I still think that students should be made aware of the English alphabet, not only their graphic symbols, but all their phonemes as well, and distinctions be made with their native language. The five Spanish vowel sounds are not enough to speak and understand English. Some of the students, maybe through immersion, will be able to pick this up by themselves, but the majority needs to be taught. And we teachers are hardly doing it.

      Eliminar
  2. Dear Enrique,

    I find your article very realistic and interesting.
    I know many researchers suggest that immersion is the best way to learn a new language and to avoid this kind of problem. That is a student needs to be surrounded by the target language the most possible. You know watching movies, news, reading articles, browsing foreign language websites, and more, but of course the most important part of this is engaging the student in active communication, creating needs to talk in class.
    Having seven hours of class a week to teach students to internalize and use the target language effectively is kind of tough but the kind of activities we do in class and the kind of homework we give them really matters to me.

    Good luck and I look forward to your response!

    Rosario Uribia.

    ResponderEliminar
  3. My American colleague Bryan Thalmayer wrote:

    Hello Enrique,

    I just read your article from this week Tuesday, "Why if I speak English well…, English speakers do not understand me".

    You had me smiling there in the second to the last paragraph: "For a native Spanish speaker there is probably no reason to know that there are languages with no one-to-one correspondence between sound and written symbol..."

    Especially with the conclusion: "Small wonder it is so difficult for them to make themselves understood by native speakers of English. It is no surprise also that although they can understand their peers’ English, and maybe their teachers’, they do not come to terms with the one spoken by people who have been raised with this tongue."

    And that is the problem I am meeting at this point: "although they can understand their peers’ English". There is a belief out there in ESL-land that the English spoken at English institutes by non-native speakers is the "real thing" or that it is some kind of ELF or "international" variety that can be used in all situations. Whereas I would chastise any institute that would leave students with the belief that what they have is really "English". :)

    It has been my firm belief to have learners approximate one of the several standards (US Midlands, Canada, Multicultural London, General Australian, etc.) rather that accept that the "a e i o u" of Spanish is good enough for English. I am not being believed, it seems. Oh, well! :)
    I so very happy to find your article at this moment in time! Someday I will share the details!

    Best,

    --Professor Bryan Thalhammer
    Lima and Chicago, IL USA

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    Respuestas
    1. Dear Bryan,
      It’s always very refreshing to get your comments. Sometimes I feel I am a lonely soul howling to the moon or shooting the breeze on the dessert. That is why it is so reassuring to have voices agreeing with me, especially when those voices come from somebody so authorized and knowledgeable as you. You hit the nail right on the head: It’s time we teachers realize the “five vowel English” won’t cut the mustard. We need to teach our students the real sounds of English.
      The best for you

      Enrique

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  4. Dear colleagues:

    I found myself in that situation three years ago while doing and internship in LA.

    I took myself for granted I believe because I never thought the English I knew at that time was enough to make myself understood by others.

    There were many things I had to work on during my spare time,for instance:omiting vowel sounds in two-syllable words or boosting my vocabulary range but most important was to cool down and stop feeling the pressure of having to speak ,listen to and comprehend a foreign but beloved language.

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    Respuestas
    1. Congratulations Carol,

      You have good ears and possessed the capability to distinguish that there are lot of sounds in English you had to get to know and perfect, much beyond what it's usually taught at schools at home. That helped you.
      About the pressure, I think maybe it's not all that bad because it helps you learn.

      Thank you for writing.

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  5. I agree about the importance of pressure. An ESL teaching environment, often has the same pupils, listening to the same voice artists and conversing with a limited set of pupils throughout their course. Every opportunity is taken to minimize the discomfort
    of the pupils. In real life, the Anglophone or English speaker will be rude, bored, hungover, late or sick. When native materials are supplied -they are generally generic. The students will flick through the big banng theory-CSI and Katie Perry
    Some peculiarities of English are not taught. Is the After tense..more important than cleft sentences? I know which I heard more often.
    Then things like style come into question -do you get to the point quick enough. Do you sound indecisive because you are using a lot of qualifiers. In both cases the listener might be irritated or confused.

    This is why it is important to shake things up in our classroom. To surprise and challenge our pupils. The real world laughs and ignores you.

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