By Hugh O'Connell
Many people consider it one of globalisation’s greatest inequities that English, one of the world’s hardest languages, has become the international one. Few languages of any type have a grammar as complicated as English’s, and English – which, like so many of the world’s other languages, stems from a number of distinct linguistic lines – adds to the grammar rules a catalogue of exceptions that’s enough to make new learners despair.
But, fortunately, languages are more than their grammars, and the upside to the situation is precisely that English is almost everywhere. Anyone who really wants to learn English – and it’s one of the best-kept secrets of the teaching of English that only those who really want to learn the language, for its own sake, have much of a chance – can gain exposure to the language in a variety of ways, many of them fun.
Finding places to store all the baggage of English in your brain is always time well spent, but what’s more important is to get the music of English in your ears. Having a large English vocabulary and strong command of standard word order and sentence structure is generally helpful, and almost enough to get most students through the things they need to read. But if that reading includes fiction, new problems may emerge. In English, fiction writing often reflects and even mimics the spoken language, making knowledge of how English sounds when native-speakers use it essential understanding.
Understandably, students think that reading and writing are the essential English skills, and they are – while you are a student. But once you enter what English speakers like to call “the real world” – or if that’s the only place you need English, as is the case with most people who work in the world’s largest industry, hospitality and tourism – it’s listening and speaking that are likely to be the most important.
It’s the rare new learner of English who isn’t shy about speaking the language – often remaining stuck in that shyness for long periods of time. Given how far English is from being a phonetic language, that’s completely understandable. Groups of letters that are pronounced in one way in a certain word are spoken using completely different sounds in another. Few people want to be heard making a pronunciation mistake and being laughed at. Yet, like most everything else in life, it’s mistakes that people learn the most from.
So, people who really need or want to use English as a communication tool learn early to overcome their inhibitions and start speaking out, fearless of the consequences. One of the first things most of them learn is that native English speakers are, overall, a forgiving lot. If they can understand what the speaker is trying to say at all, they’re most likely to overlook errors of pronunciation. At most, they’ll correct them, but they’re unlikely even to do that (unless they’re asked to). The truth is, most native English speakers don’t speak another language, for the simple reason that they don’t have to, and consequently they are both self-conscious about their own language limitations and appreciative of the trouble other people go to trying to communicate with – and usually help – them.
Along with the other things it is, speaking is a muscular activity. Like a sport, it needs to be practiced to get the complete physical apparatus – tongue, lips, throat and mouth cavities, nose, even sinuses – to perform properly. Unlike most sports, however, once the physical effort of getting the sounds correct has been mastered, it doesn’t require practice anywhere near as intense to maintain. Once learned, an English phoneme, or basic sound, is seldom forgotten.
The real fun, though, is in listening practice. The sources of good listening exercises are virtually innumerable. Oddly, the less effective ones are the more academically oriented tools such as cassette tapes, CD-ROMs, and listening-oriented videos. The problem, not obvious at first, is that their content is limited in scope to a particular situation or set of circumstances. In short, they never change. As a result, the student who uses them learns what a particular set of words means in an even more particular context. What’s missing is the flexibility that is the lifeblood of any language. The student learns only “canned” responses to highly specific groups of words – and then in a particular order. There’s not much gain for the pain, to return to the sports-training analogy.
But almost everyone – certainly anyone who needs to learn a second language – owns a radio, the most basic source of English as actually spoken by native speakers. And most people own or have ready access to a television and some kind of VCD or DVD player. With those basic pieces of equipment, you can gain virtually unlimited access to the sound of spoken, vernacular English. There’s simply no substitute for hearing native speakers use their language in the full range of ways they actually do in real life to “get an ear” on English.
Listening to English for which there is no accompanying printed text is initially frustrating for most learners. But the feeling that listening to foreign sounds unaided is a pointless waste of time usually disappears quickly, as patient listeners begin to pick up repeated word patterns, the rise and fall of the actual sounds of English sentences and questions, and words and phrases they have encountered in other contexts (just not with the sounds associated with them).
Still, probably the least appreciated language teaching tool in the world is the subtitle. Being able to read the words while hearing them (whether in English or in the student’s native language) offers the best possible chance of coordinating comprehension with real-time exposure to the spoken sounds. The specific learning opportunities are countless.
At the most obvious level, there’s vocabulary, which is absorbed most quickly in context. But beyond the meaning of individual words are all the ways of using them that together constitute what linguists mean by the “idiomatic” use of a language. At the most obvious level, that means “slang,” the way people speak when they’re not necessarily attempting to speak correctly. But it also has to do with the use of actual idioms – words that have one meaning when taken individually but an altogether different one when used in other combinations – and even proverbial ways of speaking (which are used far more often in “common’ speech than most people realise). Simply learning how to understand English when it is not being spoken in complete sentences, as it typically is not in conversations, can be an ear-opening experience.
What’s far too seldom noted is that when people starting getting English “in their ears,” they also start making fewer errors in speaking and writing. Especially in matters such as articles – about which there are rules, although many and confusing – it’s when learners start to say and write what “sounds right,” rather than what conforms to a learned rule, that they more often get it right.
Getting to know how characters in English TV dramas and action film stars speak – and what the things they say mean – often “back-translates” into better academic English as well. Learning to understand Superman can help your English take tall leaps forward.
Hugh O’Connell is a business owner and university lecturer. He is a director of Plan-it Consultants Limited, Thailand and UniRoute Limited, Hong Kong. Plan-it provides off line resources to students wishing to study overseas: study abroad program. UniRoute offers online advice on study abroad and study UK. Currently Hugh resides in Thailand and is working towards his doctorate.
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