Category Archives: language

Why Pronunciation is Important

Last week I wrote about the importance of learning correct pronunciation when studying a foreign language.  If you did not read that post, click here to find it.  Today I want to give a more specific, and quite hilarious, example of an English mispronunciation.

One of the things that makes pronunciation difficult is the fact that each language has its own unique set of sounds that native speakers learn as babies.  When learning a foreign language, sounds that are not part of your native language can be very difficult to replicate, as your mouth isn’t trained to make the new sounds.  This is the reason people have accents when speaking a foreign language; the speaker does their best to produce the sounds of the foreign language, but it is very difficult to make sounds that are not a part of the speaker’s native language, resulting in an accent.  For example, the “th” sound in English is not found in many other languages, resulting in a challenge for non-native English speakers.

(I promise there is a funny story coming.  I just need to share the background of pronunciation challenges before sharing the story!)

In the Japanese language there is no “l” or “r” sound.  Instead, there is a sound that is like a combination of the two, a sort of “soft r.”  Native Japanese speakers have a very difficult time pronouncing the “l” and “r” sounds in English, and they often use the two letters interchangeably.  Many times when my Japanese friends wrote my name in “English” they wrote “Sala” instead of “Sarah.”  This R/L pronunciation difficulty is where we get the term “Engrish,” referring to the funny misuse of English by native Japanese speakers.  There is a hilarious website dedicated to English mishaps- check it out here!

One of my favorite “Engrish” stories from my time in Japan came when I was on the Kwansei Gakuin University cheerleading team.  My university had one of the best American Football teams in the country, and when I studied there, American-style cheerleading had recently become a big fad at the football games.  Having been a cheerleader in the USA, I decided that joining the KGU cheer team would be a great way for me to keep up my skills and make friends.

Because we cheered for American Football, the cheerleaders in Japan did their best to emulate American cheerleading.  Many of our dance moves and stunts were taken from cheerleading movies and footage of cheer competitions on ESPN.  A few of the cheerleaders on my team had even been to California to attend cheer camps and learn from American cheerleaders.  In order to be as “American” as possible, we often cheered in English.  This in itself was quite comical, as the translations of the cheers were never very good, and when combined with the Japanese accent made the cheers utterly unintelligible to a native English speaker.  The best English cheer mishap, however came in written form.  As we learned new cheers, the captain would pass out a sheet with the English cheers written down for the team to learn.  This particular cheer was meant to rouse the crowd into joining us in repeated clapping of our hands.  Because of an unfortunate L/R mishap on the part of the captain, I was handed a piece of paper that said:  “Crap! Crap! Everybody Crap!  Ret’s All Crap Together!”   Somehow I managed to keep a straight face, but this remains one of my favorite stories from my time as a cheerleader in Japan.

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The Problem with Foreign Language Education

I’ve come to the conclusion that most people learn a foreign language the wrong way.  If the purpose of learning another language is to be able to effectively communicate with people of another culture, the most important thing you can learn is correct pronunciation.  Don’t get me wrong, grammar is important, but if you can’t pronounce “baño” no one is ever going to be able to direct you to the bathroom, even if you conjugate correctly.

Think about this: when you learn your native language (English for me) you learn by listening to people speak that language.  Your parents don’t sit you down as an infant and make you learn how to conjugate verbs.  As a child you learn language by observing those around you.  You learn words by repeating things you hear.  When babies start to speak, the emphasis is on vocabulary and pronunciation.  Parents know that their child will not be understood unless they can correctly pronounce the words they are learning, and to this end most parents spend countless hours working with their children on their pronunciation as they begin to speak.  There are even speech therapy classes for children who can’t properly form the sounds of their language.  When you learn your native language, grammar isn’t taught until you have built your vocabulary and can correctly pronounce the words.

So why do we learn our second language so differently than we learn our first?  So many language teachers focus so much of their attention on grammar, and students rarely get the opportunity to practice conversing with native speakers of the language they are learning.  I believe there are a few reasons for this.  First, schools and standardized tests put so much value on grammar, and teachers have no choice but to teach to the expectations of the administration and standardized testing.  Second, most foreign language teachers are not teaching their native language.  Let’s face it- very few Spanish teachers in the USA are native Spanish speakers, just as very few English teachers abroad are native English speakers.  The foreign language teachers themselves speak the language they are teaching with a definite accent, making it difficult to help their student with correct pronunciation.  Don’t get me wrong; there are some incredible foreign language teachers out there doing an excellent job of teaching a language that is not their first.  I had a fantastic Japanese teacher in high school who put so much emphasis on listening and conversation, and I credit my success as an exchange student in Japan to her exposing me to native speakers through movies, music and conversation with the Japanese exchange student at our high school.

The problem with learning grammar only comes when you go to a foreign country and attempt to speak the language you have been learning.  I have worked with so many exchange students who arrive in America with excellent grammar, but who can’t speak English.  They have learned how to read and write nearly perfect English and can correct the grammar of American students, but they can’t carry on a conversation because they have never learned to pronounce the words they can read and write.  Because they have never heard English spoken by a native speaker, they don’t understand the words we are saying, even if they do know the vocabulary.  They can read and understand the words written down, but they can’t understand the same words when spoken by a native speaker because they are not used to the correct pronunciation.

Years ago, Berlitz Language had a great commercial illustrating the importance of listening to native speakers when learning a language.  Even if you’ve seen it before, watch this short video- it cracks me up every time!  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yR0lWICH3rY

So what can language teachers do to help their students achieve maximum proficiency in a language?  In my opinion, the best thing to do is replicate the conditions under which you learned your native language.  Full and complete immersion in a foreign language is the best way to learn.  Teachers, find ways to expose your students to native speakers.  Watch movies, listen to music, bring guests into the class to speak to your students in that language.  Even if your students don’t understand the majority of the words in the movies, they are being exposed to native speakers and learning the cadence and sound of the language.  Never underestimate the power this has on language acquisition.  Take your students on field trips to the International District, or visit a Hispanic or Asian grocery store and require them to speak with native speakers.  Utilize the foreign exchange students in your high school, or the parents and grandparents of your students who have immigrated here and are native speakers of the language you are teaching.

Again, I’m not saying to scrap grammar completely, but students should feel comfortable conversing in the language they are learning (even more comfortable than they are conjugating)!  Because isn’t the purpose of learning another language the ability to effectively communicate in that language?

Foreign language teachers:  I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  What do you do in your classroom to expose your students to the correct pronunciation of the language they are learning?  Students:  do you have a foreign language teacher that stands out?  What did they do to help you learn to communicate in the foreign language?

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