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.
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.