Interview with an English Teacher

My friend, Bryan, is an English teacher in China. Currently, he’s teaching elementary school age learners. He’s got quite a bit of teaching experience, and has mastered the ability to make English fun and interesting for his students. Bryan also has learned Mandarin and Cantonese fluently, making his living experience in China especially enjoyable and rich. Bryan is a perfect example of a successful ESL teacher that loves his job and has been able to help many people succeed in learning English, while getting the most out of the local culture.

Watch the YouTube video link to see my interview with Bryan.

Here is a list of Bryan’s tips for learning English. These are not only helpful for students of English, but also ESL teachers and all language learners.

Biggest Obstacles:

  1. Pronunciation. Perfect your pronunciation by watching native speakers. Chinese speakers often have trouble pronouncing the “th” sound. Mimic American English speakers and don’t be shy about sticking your tongue out a little bit.
  2. Grammar. In Chinese, there are tones which English speakers find difficult to master, but English has 16 different time frame tenses. These are complicated, and even native speakers don’t use or understand them all. Don’t worry too much about grammar, just work on being understood.

Mastering Fluency:

  1. Live the language. Bryan relates how he was forced to become fluent in Chinese when his roommate didn’t speak English. It forced him to communicate as best he could, and this made him learn quicker. Don’t worry about being ‘book smart’ when it comes to a language, get out there and use it. Put yourself in situations where you use the language.
  2. Watch videos. Watch videos and TV in English. Don’t just watch them to be entertained, watch them to learn something. Repeat what you are watching, even if you learn just a few sentences. Go ahead and learn things, even if they seem silly. Bryan learned how to ask people if they prefer cats or dogs and then went to China Town in New York and asked every Chinese person he could find his question.
  3. It takes time. Bryan estimates it takes 3 years to become fluent enough to hold a conversation in English for about an hour. This could vary, depending on the person and learning opportunities. The important thing is not to give up, but keep trying and learning. Don’t worry if after years of learning, you still don’t understand everything, that’s normal.

How Do You Know How the Letter ‘C’ Should be Pronounced?

My last post was about that tricky vowel ‘Y’. This topic leads to the question about the consonant ‘C’. Sometimes ‘C’ is pronounced as a ‘K’ and sometimes as an ‘S’. Do you know why? Do you know how to tell the pronunciation of the ‘C’ when reading an unfamiliar word? Watch my latest video to find out the answer! You will also find out why the word ‘circle’ is pronounced the way it is.

In the video I talked about assibilation. This is a linguist term that has to do with the way a sound can change. It means the sound is changed to sibilant sound. A sibilant sound is made with air flowing over the tongue and across the edge of the teeth, like the hissing sound of the letter ‘s’.  ‘C’ when it is pronounced as an ‘s’ is a good example of this process. You don’t have to understand the complicated terminology or components of linguistics to understand the concepts! You can improve your pronunciation and reading skills simply by learning to recognize a few linguistic basics, like how the vowel sound can affect a letter like ‘C’.

The Great Vowel Shift

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Great Vowel Shift was a historical event that occurred around the 15th century. The way vowels in English words were pronounced changed quite a bit, especially the way long vowels were pronounced. Linguists know this happened from a variety of sources, such as rhyming songs and poetry and the way words were spelled. Spelling is a big clue, even spelling mistakes, because often people make spelling errors that are phonetic, or according to the way words sound or are pronounced. We are not exactly sure the reason this happened, but there are many theories, including movement of the English people, political changes or even people copying speech impediments, or problems, of influential rulers. Whatever the reason, the result for us today in Modern English makes for some unusual spelling and pronunciation rules.

Change is nothing unusual in the history of the English language. For example, the ‘K’ sound was voiced in Old English, not silent, like it is today in Modern English. That is where the spelling of words such as knee, knife or knit with a ‘K’ came from. (Spelling a word with a silent letter is called an aphthong). While the disappearance of the ‘Kn’ sound is not a vowel sound that is part of The Great Vowel Shift, this dramatic change illustrates how pronunciation changes complicate the language.

Let’s look at some examples of vowel changes to better understand The Great Vowel Shift:  Home used to rhyme with gloom, ‘boiled’ used to be ‘byled’, ‘join’ was ‘gine’, and ‘work’ was pronounced ‘wark’. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic work of literature, Canterbury Tales, ‘oo’ words all rhymed with ‘food’. ‘Tough’ had a guttural ‘o’ sound that was pronounced just as we still spell it.

While some of the spellings have changed to reflect the modern pronunciation, not all of them have. Also, some pronunciations of vowel sounds were not consistent because of regional variations, and this makes it difficult to have pronunciation and spelling rules that do not contain exceptions. Even in Modern English, you will find regional variations of the pronunciation of vowels related to accents. For example in American English, there are different ways to pronounce words such as ‘roof’ (it can rhyme with ‘stuff’ or ‘booth’), ‘route’ (it can rhyme with ‘about’ or ‘boot’) and ‘water’ (it can rhyme with ‘rudder’ or ‘hotter’).

6 Keys to Fluency: 2. Learn by Listening

You can learn quite a bit just by listening.  Listening engages your brain and helps you to recognize and remember things you have learned.  When learning a language, like English, taking time to listen is very important.  In this video, I’ll discuss what you can listen to and how listening can help you understand native speakers better and even speak more fluently, just like a native speaker.  This is done through stressing the proper words and understanding sounds– take note of the example I give.

Try this:  Listen for the schwa sound in native pronunciation.  It is that neutral “uh” sound that is described by an upside down ‘e’ in dictionaries.  Native speakers use the schwa sound for function words and to connect words together, and this can make it difficult with listening comprehension for learners.  Mastering the pronunciation and usage of the schwa sound in words is important to achieving fluency in English.

Intonation on The Great Wall of China

The English language is a stress timed language.  Syllables are pronounced using different amounts of time.  Sometimes, this makes it difficult for learners of other types of languages to get the intonation of English. Intonation is the variation of pitch when speaking. This video, filmed while visiting The Great Wall of China, discusses tone in language and how to recognize and properly use 3 types of intonation to end a sentence.

Tongue Twisters for Fluency Improvement and Accent Reduction

Want a fun and easy way to improve your fluency and reduce accent?  Try out a tongue twister.  Watch this week’s video for Aaron’s tongue twister performance.  How fast can you say them?

More tongue twister fun.

Be sure to visit our Facebook page for more cool stuff, and give Aaron’s English Page a ‘like’!

Student Question: Is it OK to say “I could care less”?

A student recently asked the question, is it OK to say “I could care less”?  This phrase can be confusing to non-native English speakers, because when taken literally it means ‘I have the ability to care less’ or ‘I care to some degree’.  However,  any native English speaker knows that when a moody teenager mumbles this to their parents as they roll their eyes, the idea is clearly ‘I don’t care at all’. It is easily recognized as the phrase ‘I could not care less’ with the ‘not’ being excluded, as if to emphasis the lack of caring.

Although the question is not about where the phrase came from, it is worth noting that the dropping of a word in a phrase is a common occurrence in casual English.  It happens when something is awkward or a little difficult to say. It is the reason we use contractions in English.  For example, ‘don’t’ is easier and quicker to say than ‘do not’. Because the mouth and tongue must work harder when the ‘not’ is in the phrase, it is altered for ease of pronunciation.    Because ‘I could not care less’ became common enough as a phrase, omitting the ‘not’ became a habit of speakers and it was understood to mean the same thing. In fact now without the ‘not’, it is often given a sarcastic tone to emphasis the point being made.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘I could care less’ is considered an American colloquialism. ‘I could not care less’, was originally a British saying that was picked up by the Americans in the 1950’s, who started to drop the ‘not’.  Because it is a casual phrase, this phrase is not appropriate to use in formal settings, such as business English.  Some English speakers feel this is a sloppy pronunciation habit that should be avoided at all costs. However because the meaning of the phrase is widely understood with either pronunciation, really it is up to the speaker to chose to use it or not.  In casual conversation with friends, it can be OK to use, in the sense that no one will misunderstand what you mean.

Sarcastic:  Using words that mean the opposite of what you really are trying to say, especially in the case of insulting someone, showing irritation or trying to be funny.