If there’s one thing I’ve learned in studying languages: everyone wants to learn Chinese, nobody seems to want to learn Arabic, making it extremely tough to find resources for teaching or learning my favorite Middle Eastern tongue. In case you’re in the same boat, here’s a site with a fine collection of links to external resources.
Sometimes you read something that has a way of getting into your head, and causing you to rethink a lot of assumptions, understandings and opinions that might otherwise pass completely unchanged. For me, one of those sometimes can be summed up into two ideas: cockroaches and social pressure, the implications of which I’m sure will lead to many a thought on how people tick.
What’s the relation? It turns out, following studies outlined in the book The Upside of Irrationality that our performance is invariably affected by the pressure of performing when all eyes; however many there are, land on us. In humans, the studies were done with anagrams. Participants of one group were asked to complete a series of anagrams in private, while the other group was asked to go up to a board and solve them in front of an audience. The participants with an audience scored worse. In the case of cockroaches – and this is where it gets fascinating for me – lone bugs were “tested” on their ability to run a straight line, and two navigate a maze. This was the control group. The experiment was to determine the effect of having another cockroach within perceptible distance. The subject bug and the “social pressure bug” were placed in a plexiglass container, so that the subject bug could see and smell the other roach. The result? In the simple, straight-line task, the bug performed better. In the complex, maze-task, the bug performed considerably worse, if indeed it was able to navigate the maze at all.
What are the implications of this bug business for language learning? Well, obviously we’re humans and not bugs, but let’s not forget the anagram experiment. It would seem that for simple tasks, we perform better with an audience, but the opposite is true if the task is too challenging.
This lends an explanation to something that any of us who’ve learned or taught language are probably well aware: we often perform very well in the safe environment of the classroom, or with small groups, or even one on one with a teacher, but when it comes to real-world language production, we choke.
The solution? Like the cockroaches with the simple task, I think perhaps we need to set ourselves, and our students, up to be able to perform language tasks we can complete with ease in front of a group, or in the real world, to gain confidence as we build our skills. Conversely, setting a student up to fail in public by making them perform far beyond their abilities is likely a waste of time a best, and detrimental to future progress at worst.
Accents are a way of life. Everybody has one. I remember a while back I was talking to my mother and mentioned something about our Newfoundland accent, and she seemed to be convinced we don’t have an accent. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that accents refer to something truly noticeable, like British or Australian.
“What about Irish?” I asked.
“Hmmm… you know our accent is decidedly similar to an Irish accent.”
Anyway, I never did make much headway with all of that. It turned out that my mother was doing what a lot of people do: confusing accents with familiarity. In that respect, I guess I’m also falling victim to a certain ignorance. I have to admit, after living in Korea for a while, the accents around me tend to meld into one. No longer does a British accent sound quite so distinct, and my own pronunciation sounds more or less neutral even to others.
“I just can’t place where you’re from.” I often hear.
“Huh? Well do you like pasta?” I say with a clearly Canadian “a” that Americans like to poke fun at.
What is it about the way we pronounce sounds that gets so hard-wired in our psyche that we can’t even recognize that the way we speak is different from the way others speak. The languages I’ve had the fortune of dabbling with offer up quite a variety of sounds, many of which are extremely difficult. In ‘Easy’ is in the eyes of the beholder I mentioned that one of the biggest challenges of learning a new pronunciation is getting your head – or should I say tongue – around new sounds.
Half the battle of pronouncing a new language is actually hearing the new sounds. Children are equipped to hear the entire human linguistic spectrum, but that skills quickly gets lost to as we tune our ears to our mother tongue. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to hear the difference between hard and soft sounds of Russian to absolutely no avail, you know what I mean. Another example can be heard in foreign accents. Think of the way a Japanese speaker of English says “thank you”, now a French speaker and finally a German. They’re all different, because speakers of each language hear something entirely different as they try to incorporate the sound. The commercial where the German coast card responds to “Mayday! Mayday! We’re sinking, we’re sinking!” with a timid “Hello? Zis is ze German coast guard. What are you sinking about?” is a great example.
If hearing the sound doesn’t get you down, then pronouncing it just might. There are plenty of examples: many a Canadian gave up on rolling their French ‘r’s a long time ago. Americans, well, how many of you can pronounce “gringo“, “real” or “repetir” authentically? Those are by comparison to other tongue acrobatics required by some of the world’s more difficult to pronounce languages.
Take Chinese, for example. I remember reading a statistic somewhere that it takes a good three months to pronounce Chinese tones adequately enough for a native speaker to have the slightest idea what you’re trying to stammer out. Take the following phrase:
妈妈骂马吗？/ Māma mà mǎ ma? / Is mom telling the horse off?
I’ll never forget when I told my Chinese teacher 我喜欢喝血 (wǒ xǐ huan hē xuè or ‘I like to drink blood”) when I meant to say “I like to drink sprite (雪碧 or xuě bì ).
Or how about Arabic? Whether you think it’s beautifully hypnotic – as I do – or rough and ugly, there’s something to be said for a language with 27 consonants, depending the dialect you speak. Especially when so many of them are made by contorting your throat in seemingly impossible ways. One Arabic textbook I owned in university described the pronunciation of one consonant something like this: “The sound is made by constricting the muscles in your lower throat. The only time native speakers of English use these muscles is when vomiting.”
“Is everything okay in there, dear?”
“Yes, mom, I’m just practicing Arabic.”