Some things about English that native speakers do not consciously know…

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

As speakers of English, we are often confused by the lack of vowels in some other languages.  For instance, “Kyrgyzstan” -> how the hell do you pronounce that???  It probably just looks like “kerrrrrrstan” to most English speakers.

But guess what, we confuse the hell out of non-native speakers too.  (And most of us do not know these consciously.)  Let me give you some examples to illustrate my point:

Consider the word ‘world’.

It’s really pronounced as ‘werrr-rerld’, as if there were another vowel between ‘r’ and ‘ld’.

But someone trying to learn English would not be able to understand that.  Especially speakers of languages like Turkish, Japanese, Chinese etc., where every syllable consists of a vowel.  And in the romanized versions of these languages, the vowels are all explicitly spelt out!

Consider the word ‘will’.

It’s supposed to sound more like ‘wee-ill’, but many non-native speakers tend to say ‘wil’.

Honestly, we can find many more examples -> and this goes to show that either:

1) 26 letters in the alphabet is not enough to describe all the sounds in a language

2) we actually have a really bad correlation between the way our words are spelt and the way they are said

So really, if English is not your first language, and you have trouble understanding the pronunciation, try this trick: there might be ‘hidden vowels’ in many words.  Try to read a word assuming that there’s a hidden vowel sometimes.  You may discover that hey, I’m able to sound more correct now!

And if you have a friend who does not speak English as the first language, try helping him or her to pronounce the word ‘world’.  I think he or she will be grateful to you. 😀

So… anyone has more examples of these oddities in English? 😀

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First useful words to learn in a foreign language…

August 28, 2010 Leave a comment

… depends on how old you are!

A toddler can’t tell the difference between language A and language B consciously, so there’s no point for him to learn “How do you say ‘XXX’ in English”.  Instead there’s always the danger of the toddler doing things to accidentally hurt himself or herself, so it’s more useful to teach the toddler the foreign equivalents of simple words like “Daddy” and “Mummy” and “help” so that he or she can sound out when hurt or in danger.

Meanwhile, an adult who learns “Hola” in Spanish can only say hi to a new Spanish-speaking friend using that and then feel awkward for the lack of words to continue the conversation.  Instead, it might be better to learn the foreign language equivalent of these questions e.g. “How do you pronounce / say / write this in language X” and “I didn’t understand.  Could you repeat?” and “I’ve got a question.  What does this word mean?”  These are questions that can help you to pick up the language more quickly.

Finally, a professor or high ranking official needs to maintain his position of authority and cannot be seen to ‘not know’ anything, so if they speak in a foreign language, they need to already be extremely fluent in it.  So the first useful words for them is probably an entire speech about thermodynamics or the country’s economy.

For me, I also recommend learning how to ask questions to which you already know the answers in terms of content.  For instance, now that I am in Singapore, “What is your impression about Singapore?”.  (e.g. In German: “Was ist dein Eindruck von Singapur”, In Mandarin: 你对新加坡的映像怎样?) is a very important question to ask my foreign friends whom I meet here 😀  You will probably already expect some of their answers.  While you leave it open to them to answer it in their language, you can probably pick up new expressions as they describe what they think to you.  And you can be sure that most of the time, it’s not just a yes or no answer if you’re sincere about it 😀

So what are some of the first words you would learn in a foreign language?

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Sandra Bullock speaks German! :D [Learn some German along with the video]

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Learn German!  It’s spoken by really nice people like… Sandra Bullock!

Anyway, in the 41st – 45th seconds, we learn that Sandra Bullock was once a:

“Kellnerin” = waitress

“Putzfrau” = cleaner (lady)

“Discotaenzerin” = disco dancer

Hope you’ve had a good time picking up some words here.

Notice how she says “Dann war ich X” three consecutive times.  You can see if you can incorporate such a way of speaking German too.  It’s simple, useful for telling a little story about yourself, and it makes your German sound natural and fluent too. 😀

And notice how she uses the words ‘aber’, and ‘mal’ throughout.  These are also words that ‘soften’ and ‘naturalize’ her German.

What do you think?

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How we were taught to learn Chinese

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Foreigners who are learning Mandarin must be curious how the native speakers learned it.  After all, if we are all so good at it, and we did some of it at school, there must be something that we did that worked, which could work for you!

So here goes:

1. For us, every day we had to do ‘writing practice’.  We learned 5 new words everyday, and wrote them 10 times each.

2. Every week, there was a ‘spelling’ test.  A teacher read out the words, and you had to know the meaning from hearing the words, and then be able to write it out.

3. We read poems.  In addition to getting our tones right, we got the melody of the language right.

4. The teacher explained very similar words all the time.  e.g. the word ‘ask’ is 问, but it could be coupled with a lot of other words such as 盘,访,追 etc., and each becomes a different way of asking.  For instance:

盘问 means ‘probe + ask’ = to interrogate.

访问 means to ‘visit + ask’ = to interview.

追问 means ‘chase + ask’ = to badger.

She explained the meaning of 盘,访, 追 so that we understood how it modified the meaning of the word 问.

5. Making sentences.  We had to construct sentences with new words.  This improved our intuitive sense of the grammar.  Simple sentences were ok, as long as the new words made sense in the sentence.

But more than that, I have five essential tips for you:

1. Honestly, the first thing you have to do is to forget about the alphabet when learning Chinese, because there isn’t one.

2. The second thing is to accept the fact that you have to learn about 1,000 words before you can speak, read, or write anything meaningfully.  So you have to be extremely patient.  Start with the knowledge in mind that you will be hardly able to do much with the language until 2 years later.

3.  Read my post about tonal languages.  Compare the ‘tones’ to music, and you will find it easier.

4.  Look at the objects around you.  Table, chair, spoon, fork, chopsticks, knife, plates, books.  Learn how to say them in Chinese, and practice the pronunciation.  Get used to the fact that they are made up of one to three words.  That each word is monosyllabic.

5.  Understand that this is the same for many Asian languages: Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese etc.  Just because we’ve been speaking English and other European languages all this while doesn’t mean that other language systems don’t exist.  Knowing that lots of people have similar systems probably helps to realize that it’s not as uncommon as you think.  It’s just foreign! 😀

Ok, I hope these tips help.  Happy learning Chinese!

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Why is it hard for the Asian-Asian to speak in an American accent?

August 25, 2010 Leave a comment

There are two reasons:

Reason 1: If you notice carefully,we, the Asians, move our lips a lot.  The Americans, including Asian-Americans who learned English growing up there, moved their jaws a lot.

Reason 2: Again, if you notice carefully, we, the Asians, speak with a voice coming from our throat.  The Americans, including Asian-Americans who learned English growing up there, speak more or less from the diaphragm.  They breathe (and look like they are sighing) a lot when they speak English.

So obviously, if you use different parts of your body to pronounce the words, it’s going to sound different.  I’m not trying to say there’s a right or wrong way to speak English, but if 300 million people speak English using a similar style, they probably have a right to say that they set the standard (just like how China can claim to speak standard Mandarin because they have a billion people speaking it).

My suggestion is: if you want to speak American English, try moving your jaws more and ‘sigh’ a bit more to speak from the diaphragm.

So can I speak American English although I’ve lived there for a few years?  No, I can’t do it .  It’s weird to move my jaws and use my diaphragm to speak English having grown up in a place that uses the lips and throat.  Lol.

But just for kicks, normally I tell people this story to explain why I can’t do American English:

“Look, the American accent is not funny to imitate.  It’s supposed to be the proper way to do it!  But how we Asians in general speak English is actually quite adorable.  The Singaporean accent, the Japanese accent, and the Chinese accent all sound kind of cute.  If you want, I’ll try doing the Indian accent for you, but not the American one.” 😀

One final note: Americans are likely to sound ‘cute’ when trying to speak many other languages -> especially the European ones, because they’re not used to the ‘lips and throat’ concept.  Here’s a test you can use: ask a German whose German sounds clearer -> an American’s or a Chinese’s.  I think although both have accents, the American’s accent would be a little more apparent.

No offense meant to anyone in writing this post; rather, here’s how everyone can benefit from it: Americans who want to learn other languages can see that it’s the ‘throat’ and ‘lips’ that are important, whereas those who want to learn American English should start to use their ‘jaws’ and ‘diaphragms’.


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Time is important in both languages with and without tenses!

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

There is an joke that goes like this:

A European was wondering why a Chinese was late for an appointment.  The Chinese replied casually, “You Europeans have watches, we have time…”


Well -> the message today is: many Europeans find it hard to learn Chinese, or Thai, or basically languages where tenses are not important.  Similarly, Asians find it hard to learn European languages because they don’t understand why you have to change a tense when you can just say the time.

Hence, to an Asian-language speaker, it is perfectly fine to say “Yesterday is a good day.”  Since you’ve already mentioned yesterday, why do you need to change ‘is’ to ‘was’?  (In many Asian languages you just mention the time and do not modify a verb to reflect the time.)

To the European, he probably thinks -> “Oh, I could just say “It was a good day.”  I said ‘was’, and in the last sentence I said yesterday already, so I don’t need to say it again and you know what I’m referring to.”

Perhaps this is why the Swiss are so good at making watches, and culturally to the Chinese, giving someone a ‘clock’ is interpreted as sending someone to his death… LOL. (It is true, never give a Chinese a clock…)

To sum up -> Time is important in both types of languages, but to different degrees of detail.  Let’s learn to respect each other’s concept of time, and we can learn each other’s language more quickly… 😀

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Vietnamese Speakers learning English -> some common pronunciation difficulties

August 24, 2010 Leave a comment

I have a Vietnamese friend who’s lived in Singapore long enough to know how to speak English way more than fluently (come on, she’s in a local University now and more than likely a top student there…)

Yet, there are some words that still tell people that she’s not local when she says them.

I’ll give you two examples here:

“Time”, and “Climb”.

She pronounced them as “Taamm” and “Claamm” -> and there is really no way for her to detect it, or for someone who is not attuned to hearing these words detect it, but everyone can tell there’s something wrong about the sound.

So here’s what I suggested to correct her:

I said -> say “thai” like “thailand”, and say “m” like the letter “m”

Combine them, you get -> “Thai-M”.  Say it fast enough, it’s “Time”.

Similarly -> say “Cli” like “client”, and say “m” like the letter “m”.

Combine them, you get -> “Cli-M”.  Say it fast enough, it’s “Climb”.

This post is dedicated to her.  So that she can make a reference here. 😀 (And increase traffic to my blog!!! Lol.)

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