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.)
I am teaching a class of Chinese students (plus one Saudi Arabian and one Iranian). They are graduate students who have all studied English for many years, and perhaps were under the impression that they spoke English when they arrived on our shores. They were rudely greeted by professors who gave incomprehensible lectures, and the general public which insisted in speaking fast and incomprehensibly as. All of us who have studied second, third, and fourth languages know the feeling.
I was working with them on a minimal pair yesterday, “t” and “d”. One is voiced, and one is voiceless, but the mouth is in basically the same position to make both sounds, and these two sounds are common to most languages, though they may be pronounced slightly differently.
I gave them a list of words beginning with either “t” or “d” — tap, drive, trunk, tender, television, dare, dumb, etc. They got those very well.
We moved on to words which have the “t” or “d” in the middle — better, bidder, writer, rider, letter. They discovered that the t’s in the middle of words were actually pronounced “d” if they were between two voiced sounds, such as vowels. They tended to give full value to the “t,” which was not how Americans speak. There is not enough time to withdraw from a voiced sound, d, speak a competing voiceless sound, t, and then return to a voiced “d.”
The most important difference between “writer” and “rider,” however, is a slightly lengthened preceding vowel (a diphthong)– “raaaiider” and “wraider.” This was very hard for them to catch, and they didn’t do so well on this one, but we practiced it and perhaps their ears have gotten more attuned to the differences.
Then we went on to t’s and d’s at the end of the word — hat, had, shot, set, part, hard, wend, bend, cart. (It is always good to include a word like “wend” which the students would probably not know so that they do not follow expectations, but rather pure sound.) The success rate for this pattern was also pretty low.
The difference between the final “d” and the final “t” is barely perceptible, and slight lengthening of the “e” sound in “wend” as compared to “went” is very sophisticated phonology and probably will not be achieved by a speaker of English as a second language. We are not talking high tech phonology here, but the ear of the second language speaker. Once again, the actual sounds made at the end of these words are barely different from each other — both the “d” and the “t” are swallowed. It’s almost as if the speaker is saying, “I’ve given you enough information on the front end — you have to figure out how it ends.” Since there is no voiced vowel following the final “t” or “d” there is no need to voice it if it stands alone so it sort of disappears into thin air.
This is just single word listening. It got REALLY interesting when we put words together!
In previous posts I wrote about Subject-Verb mismatches when a clause intervenes, and when a prepositional phrase intervenes. There is another, perhaps more pernicious, form of mismatching, the There is malformation. This has become widespread not only in my students’ papers, but on television, in political speeches, and in print articles. Here are some examples from my students’ essays:
Before I die, there is a couple of things I would like to do.
Going away to college was always a goal, which I have now accomplished, but there is now plenty of more things I want to do.
In my lifetime, there has been occurrences when I made the wrong choice and my life seemed to be going wrong
This is the things that are going through their head when they are in assisted living.
There is now plenty of more things I want to do in my lifetime that going to college set me up to do.
Let’s review: Sometimes there is a Subject, a Verb, and an Object (Fred loves ice cream – A loves B). When the entities on either side of the Verb are the same (I am a teacher – A equals A), the Verb simply links these two entities, and is referred to sometimes as a Linking Verb. The word to the left of is (I) is the same entity as the word to the right (a teacher). They are both singular, and the verb between them is therefore singular.
In the A = A construction, there or this serve as empty placeholders to the left of the Linking Verb. They absorb all of the qualities of the word to the right, and the verb agrees with the word to the right. In the first sentence above, things is plural, and the verb should be are. There is no singular element in the first sentence at all, so no place for a singular verb.
As with all matters syntactical, this it not always that simple. Consider the caption to a photo on page A6 of The New York Times on May 16, 2012: Valérie Trierweiler and France’s new president, François Hollande, are the first unwed couple to occupy the Élysée Palace. There is a plural, compound subject (Trierweiler and Hollande) to the left of the Linking Verb (are), and a singular noun (couple) to the right. The writer has chosen to make the verb agree with the entity to the left, which is plural. [Trierweiler and Hollande] is the first unwed couple… doesn’t sound right.
When the entity to the left of the Linking Verb is empty, like there, the Verb should agree with the only entity which has number; the noun to the right. That does not happen in the examples above.
The only explanation I can come up with to explain this phenomenon is phonetic. It is much easier to say “there’s” than “there are” or some shortened form like “there’er.”
Since there is no unifying explanation for the various Subject-Verb mismatches discussed in earlier posts, I would choose this possibly phonetic explanation for the dissolution of agreement between Subject and Verb in all cases. If one can slip phonetically into, “There is many reasons,” then one can also say, “The reasons my mother gave me is the best ones.” That is also easier to pronounce than “there are.” If one can use a singular verb with a plural noun in that case, why stick to the rules of agreement in other settings? It is for this reason that I call this form pernicious – it has leaked into the foundations of the grammatical structure and upset all manner of sentences which are built on this structure.
When I told my husband that President Obama frequently says such things as “There’s many reasons for this,” he said that was impossible. Listen for yourself. Listen to news announcers and pundits, to former President Bush. Our language role models are using this grammatical form, and it is being picked up by my students. As if to illustrate this point, in a PBS program about Johnny Carson, one commentator said, “When he went on the air there was tremendous expectations.”
Perhaps this change will be permanent, or it will pass. In the meantime, how do we approach our students’ papers? I am deeming There has been occurrences, and There is many reasons incorrect, but I do so without hysteria. It must have been upsetting when people stopped using the familiar thou form a couple of centuries ago, and when the subjunctive started going out of style (If I were going to the concert in the park, I would buy an umbrella). Before John Lennon, I didn’t know what a yellow submarine was, and found the change from Mrs. or Miss to a ubiquitous Ms. unsettling. Language is the harbinger of the future, and thus of change. It tests our flexibility of mind, and challenges our assumptions.
Exercise: Since the There’s many reasons epidemic is upon us, it would be helpful to do some class exercises in which the students filled in the correct verb form in there or this sentences. Make up sentences using these words, with nouns of varying forms on the right side of varying forms of the verb to be. Even if the language changes, your students will at least be able to control the sentences they write. The standard written form will undoubtedly remain There are many reasons for some time to come. They must master standard forms for their own future good.
Collins has published a new dictionary which has several useful features. I believe it is still in beta form. It impressed the heck out of me.
1. Definitions, of course, and the phonetic representation of the word.
2. A comprehensive list of synonyms and of related terms and related words. For the word “beat,” for example, related terms include “beat it,” “beat up,” etc., and for nearby words there are “beat a retreat,” and “beat around the bush.”
3. Audio audio files which pronounce the word using standard American English and standard British English. Not all words have this feature.
4. Translations of the word into 24 different languages, from Finnish, to Korean, to Arabic. I noticed that Hungarian, Swahili, and Hindi were missing.
There are also English to Spanish/German/French versions, though these seemed very beta to me.
5. Usage examples: for “doggie” (or “doggy”) there is “A close friend describes their Kenmore Hills home, on Brisbane’s westside, as doggy heaven.” COURIER, SUNDAY MAIL (2004)”
6. In the case of doggies and many other nouns, there are photographs.
7. The origin of the word is also given, though not as comprehensively as in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Even more enticing — the dictionary is free online at :
Exercise: This will be a welcome addition to exercises on lexicography, such as comparative definitions, and comparative features.
It will also be of interest to students who are struggling with mastery of standard forms of English, since the audio files are very clear.
One assignment for my mostly-Chinese ESL class was to transcribe the words of the song “Danny Boy” from a Youtube clip. The results were fascinating both for the way they constructed meaning out of the sporadic hints they gleaned from the clip, and for the way they created words out of similar hints.
One line is, “…from glen to glen and down the mountainside,” which seven students transcribed as “…from gland to gland and down the mountainside.” I can think of a many ways to discuss this choice of words, but focused on the minimal pair – “e” and “a.” The Chinese students could not hear the difference. (One study has suggested that if students are not exposed to sounds very young, they will not be able to distinguish them.)
A colleague, Bekah Palmer, suggested I do some work with minimal pairs, and that sounded like an excellent idea. I devised a list of e/a minimal pairs, they were: bad, pet, men, Hal, gland, lag, send, thresh, glen, beg, pat, man, rap, rep, leg, hell, sand, and thrash. I read these words aloud and they wrote what they heard. Some students had one error; some had eight. The most difficult was Hal/hell.
Tomorrow, I will read a list of another set of minimal pairs, this time “p” and “t”. They will be: tie, die, write, ride, set, tear, hat, had, tunes, dread, said, trunk, dill, dip, drunk, dare, tip, tread, and till. I will be interested to see if they catch “tread,” which is a word from “Danny Boy.”
Since none of these students heard these sounds as babies, it is very difficult for them, but it will be interesting to see if they become somewhat more proficient at distinguishing these sounds from one another.
If a person is not introduced to a language’s structure as a baby, the language will not be instinctual. The structure of the brain changes as children age, and in babies there is a particular constellation of emotions which attach to certain sounds, and that changes rapidly. After a certain age, language enters through a different portal.
One piece of research suggests that Japanese students don’t hear the American “l,” and thus don’t reproduce it in their speech, if they have not been introduced to it before 18 months. They can master the “l,” but takes a lot of lab work and repetition. My Chinese students do not hear and thus frequently don’t reproduce the morphemes (s), (ed), (ing) at the end of words because they do not use morphemes for the same purpose in Chinese.
Both my Chinese and my Malay students struggle with “th.” Sticking their tongue between their teeth and blowing feels almost obscene to them. They simply don’t do it in their languages. The obstacle to producing the sound is obviously not physical, since nothing could simpler, but it makes them giggle, their ears do not catch the difference between “s” [I am sinking, instead of I am thinking] in others or themselves, and they are usually well understood because in context, meaning is clear.
I have observed that phoneme deafness occurs more often with a subtle sound like “th,” (as opposed to “s”) than with a big, bold African click, or a growling Arabic guttural.
We also underestimate the muscle memory involved in speaking. The French have strong purse-your-mouth muscles, but it’s tiring for me to produce pursed French “u” for long. Malay and Chinese tongues do not often thrust themselves forward between the teeth. My throat is clearly capable of producing an Arabic guttural, but rebels.
How much of this is emotional, habitual, physical, or mental has not been studied as far as I know. It’s just something to listen and look for.
Exercise: Go to http://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php, and choose English and another language. The sounds of each language are represented in an illustration, and they can be compared with the sounds of English, thus alerting students to the sounds they should pay particular attention to, or vice versa.
I am teaching an ESL classes at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey this term, and am having great fun introducing American English to speakers of other languages; in this case, mostly Chinese and Malay, with two Arabic speakers and one Portuguese speaker. Our next class will be on the phonetics of American English, and it seems to me that this is something native American speakers should be familiar with too.
Americans brought many forms of English with them, and learned English in many different ways when they got here, so it is hard to make too many generalizations; however, there is a generally accepted Standard American English.
The standard for American pronunciation has changed from a style which comes from the south of England, to a style which today is heavily influenced by waves of immigrants – Italians, Jews whose native tongue was Yiddish, and now Spanish, among others. American English has also been influenced by the African languages spoken by the tens of thousands of Africans from various tribes who were brought here as slaves. Even today, there is sometimes difficulty understanding people who speak what is known as African American Vernacular English, or AAVE. A case could be made that the social standing and power rank of people of color depends more on the language they speak than on the color of their skin. With hip-hop and rap, some aspects of this language have become standard, and show up in the everyday speech of young Americans of all colors and backgrounds.
In some parts of the U.S., communities which were historically isolated retain language habits from several centuries ago, making them hard to understand. Some examples are the dialect spoken deep in the Appalachian Mountains, and Gulla, spoken in coastal parts of Georgia. Television, radio, and increased mobility for purposes of work and education has gradually begun to conform these accents and dialects to Standard American English. You might wonder aloud in your class whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
For the most part, and to a greater degree than on the British Isles themselves, Americans can understand each other, and always have been able to.
For English learners, the distinctive sounds of Standard American English which they must learn to reproduce are the “flat a,” represented as [æ] as in flat, laugh, ask, the soft r [ɻ] of rat, harm, really, and diphthongs, diphthongs, diphthongs. For example, the common word “hi” is pronounced languidly, going from a breathy h to a long ahhhhh to a tiny ee.
Exercises: Give the class some tongue twisters.
For th: The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday.
For r: Pirates Private Property
Fresh French fried fly fritters
For ei and ai: Six slimy snails sailed silently
Seven slick slimey snakes slowly sliding southward.
For r and l: On a lazy laser raiser lies a laser ray eraser.
Can you figure this one out?
11 was a racehorse, 22 was 12, 1111 race, 22112. (Answer: Wunwun was a racehorse, Tutu was one too, Wunwun won one race, Tutu won one too.)
We should not undervalue phonetics and phonology in the study of language, though most teachers concentrate on reading and writing.
Having timed exercises can place knowledge in what an athlete or a dancer would call “muscle memory,” that is, the athlete or dancer doesn’t think before acting — it comes automatically. The calisthenics of common tongue-twisters, which can be given both in English and in some other language, are fun and challenging, especially for students of English as a Second Language (ESL). They isolate and delineate each vowel sound, and can increase awareness of the various consonant groupings as well.
English (Say each one three times):
The bootblack bought the black boot back.
Can you imagine an imaginary menagerie manager imagining managing an imaginary menagerie?
Fred fed Ted bread, and Ted fed Fred bread.
The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.
She sells seashells on the seashore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
Les Chaussettes de l’archiduchesses sont-elles sèches?
Gros gras grand grain d’orge, tout gros-gras-grand-grain-d’orgerisé, quand te dé-gros-gras-grand-grain-d’orgeriseras-tu? Je me dé-gros-gras-grand-grain-d’orgeriserai quand tous les gros gras grands grains d’orge se seront dé-gros-gras-grand-grain-d’orgerisés.
Il était une fois, un homme de foi qui vendait du foie dans la ville de Foix. Il dit ma foi, c’est la dernière fois que je vends du foie dans la ville de Foix.
And one I learned in Greece, presented here in the English alphabet:
Say over and over, quickly, “dekatostritos siderodromos, dekatostritos siderodromos, dekatostritos siderodromos,” which means “Thirteenth railroad.”
Another speed exercise: Divide the class into two or three teams. Give them a word for which they need to find synonyms, and see which team can write down the most in 30 seconds. Some suggestions: friend, person under 13 years of age.
Another speed exercise: Divide the class into teams. Name a country and ask one team to give the name of the corresponding nationality. How many can they give in 10 seconds? France-French, Albania-Albanian, China-Chinese, Brazil-Brazilian.
Then ask another team the questions, using a different set of countries and nationalities. Who wins?
You might have fun devising the prize that the winning team receives. I usually tell them they will receive the respect and admiration of the rest of the class, for today only.
Some of these would be more suitable for ESL students, but even native speakers can have fun with it, and you may be able to devise other speed challenges.
Obviously, the way to pronounce “gh” sounds like “f” — examples; rough, enough, tough.
Obviously, the way to pronounce “o” sounds like “i” — example: women.
Obviously, the way to pronounce “ti” sounds like “sh” — examples: nation, emotion
Put them all together and you have — FISH.
Tracing the reasons why “ghoti” does not spell “fish” would require quite a detailed investigation into historical changes in the English language, and the choice of phonemes in English. Why does “enough” use the “f” sound, but “bought” does not? For some reason or reasons, many centuries ago we rejected the Germanic “ch” sound, as in the word “knight.” We preferred the softer sound of English. All a linguist can do is to tell you that this happened, but none of us knows why. Language often develops as a result of a popular song or political movement, or some other random historical quirk.
I sometimes ask my students what a “yellow submarine” is. They all know it comes from a Beatles song, and have some sense that it is a symbol for the crazy place where we all cohabit, but there is no logic to it. It just stuck for reasons which we will never be able to analyze.
That is what we mean by a “soft science,” when we refer to Linguistics, Sociology, Psychology, etc. In soft sciences, absolute proof is often lacking. This makes the soft sciences both more fascinating and more nerve-wracking.
When groups speaking different languages gathered to accomplish something (for example, trading in ports, or running a plantation when slave and owner speak different languages), they had to communicate. Either they agreed to speak a common language (French, Russian, Chinese, Latin, English and many others have historically been that common language), or they scrambled together a mutually comprehensible language based on all the language groups involved, which is called a pidgin. Pidgins usually become just sophisticated enough to accomplish the task at hand, but occasionally develop into a full-blown language. An example is Tok Pisin, the trading pidgin which now is one of the official languages of New Guinea.
Pidgins are miracles of inventiveness, often using the vocabulary of the more powerful language group and the syntax of the less powerful group. They often do not have an extensive vocabulary, so lexical items can bear a heavy burden. For example, Australian aboriginal pidgin calls whiskers grass along face. Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, was referred to by pidgin speakers in New Guinea as fella belong Mrs. Queen.
Creoles are more highly developed languages. They develop in the same way as pidgins, using syntax, phonology, morphology, and semantics from various languages, but they progress to be a society’s native tongue. Some well-known creoles are Haitian Creole (based on French and African languages), Gullah (an English-based, African influenced creole spoken on islands off of Georgia and South Carolina), and Krio (partly based on English, it is the de facto national language of Sierra Leone, though English is the official language).
While pidgins and creoles are based on parent languages, an English, French, Chinese, or African language speaker cannot necessarily understand the pidgins and creoles based on their language. I have found that I think I am understanding, because the vocabulary is familiar, but at some point, I get lost.
Watching Creoles and pidgins develop has taught linguists many things about how all language was created, and how the human brain works.
Exercise: Here are some links to sound files of English-based creoles:
1) Gullah: http://www.knowitall.org/gullahtales/tales/elephant/flash/index.html2)
2) Jamaican Creole:http://www.jamaicans.com/speakja/patoischildstory/LambWhoLovedLaughPatoisJamaican-