Linguistics helps me teach Chinese speakers

My linguistics background is particularly useful when teaching my Stevens Institute of Technology class of 14 Chinese, 1 Saudi, and 1 Iranian graduate students. The class is called English Communication because the arriving students have studied English for years and could not be called Second Language Learners.  They arrive in the U.S. for a year or two of study thinking they speak English, and then cannot understand their professor or anybody else. It is shocking and depressing.

Never have I so appreciated my class in Phonology.  I now am able, for example, to tell my students that the difference (when spoken) between “meat” and “mead” lies not in the “t” and the “d,” but in the length of the vowel. I can show them how to position the tongue and the lips to make a “v” or an “l” (the bugabears of Chinese speakers).

Nothing surprised me as much as what one Chinese student told me during an individual conference.  He said that at times when I cannot understand a student, the other Chinese students can.  For example, one student kept talking about a “garment,” and I could not understand her — until she added the “v,” making is “government.”  The other Chinese students could understand her. There is no substitute for experience with native speakers. If Chinese English-speakers only talk with other Chinese English-speakers, they will just invent their own language, not learn English.  That is what has happened with my students.

A hint:  Of course, nothing speeds up learning English better than an American girlfriend, but if you can figure out ways of laughing in class, that’s second best.  Laughter frees the spirit and routs nervousness almost as well as sex. (Don’t tell anyone I said that.)

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