The Musical Ear

There is a very popular belief that musicians are “good at languages” because they have a “musical ear.” My friend and former piano teacher Peter Basquin is an accomplished concert pianist who speaks several languages. I am a pianist-turned-language teacher who also speaks several languages. Classically trained musicians in particular seem almost always to have a proficiency in more than one language.

Popular musicians, on the other hand, are not particularly known for an affinity for languages. This is the first indication that we might have to look elsewhere than in the ears of musicians for whatever it is that makes them “good at languages.” Let us first dispose of the notion that pop musicians are not so musical as classical musicians. Many pop musicians have extraordinary ears. Jazz musicians have the ability to improvise (compose music while performing), which would be impossible without an extraordinarily musical ear.

Jazz pianist Art Tatum had the respect and admiration of such classical music giants as Vladimir Horowitz and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once asked a bus driver to either speed up or slow down because he couldn’t sleep in B natural. These men had musical ears that rivaled those of the greatest classical musicians. Yet, they were not known for their prowess in languages other than their mother tongue, while Horowitz and Rachmaninoff could speak more than just their native language of Russian.

So, why this assumption that a musician who also has the ability to speak multiple languages is endowed with an ear that is more “musical” than most? Like most assumptions, it is a quick conclusion that is made without much thought. In the first place, as we’ve already seen, it’s the classical musicians who get this credit, and not the equally musical pop musicians. There are two very good reasons for classical musicians having the ability to speak more than one language. The first is that classical training in music always includes the study of at least one more language. For opera singers in particular, it is imperative for the execution of their repertoire.

For the second reason, I will quote my friend Peter Basquin. He and I were discussing our mutual love of languages and our ability to learn and speak them. We both agree that it has very little, if anything, to do with a “musical ear.” As Peter put it, “A musician figures out very early on that, if he wants to play that scale correctly, he has to play it a hundred times.” In other words, the same practice principals that produce a good musician also produce a good language learner. I never tire of pointing out that these principals apply to the acquisition of any skill, not just music and language.

by John DePonte

 

How Would Ted Williams Learn a New Language?

Ted Williams was arguably baseball’s greatest hitter. How did he become a great hitter? Let’s see what Mr. Williams himself had to say about it: “And then to practice, practice, practice. I said I hit until the blisters bled, and I did, it was something I forced myself to do to build up those hard, tough calluses. I doubt you’d see as many calluses today. Most players hit with those golf gloves, to begin with, but more important, they don’t take as much batting practice—as much extra batting practice, and that’s how you learn…You see it even it the Little Leagues. With all the regimentation they get, and all the emphasis on playing games instead of practicing, a kid isn’t afforded the time he needs in the batting cage (1986 Williams and Underwood, The Science of Hitting).

It wasn’t only in baseball that Ted Williams saw the necessity of practice: “Look at Snead and Hogan and those other golfers, they’re out there hitting practice balls forever. I’m lucky if I can get fifteen practice swings a day. If I could get an hour’s batting practice every day I could hit .450.” (1986 Williams and Underwood).

Who did Ted Williams admire as a hitter? He considered Rogers Hornsby to be the closest thing to a complete hitter that ever lived. What did Hornsby have to say about hitting? “A great hitter isn’t born, he’s made. He’s made out of practice, fault correction, and confidence” (1986 Williams and Underwood). Williams and Hornsby used to have hitting contests after practice.

What has all this got to do with learning a new language? Everything! A language is not a subject you learn about; it’s a skill you acquire. If you want to learn about language, study linguistics. If you want to learn how to speak a language, practice it. Little Leaguers playing games instead of practicing is akin to language learners engaging in conversation before they have practiced enough to be ready for it. To know that you have to practice a language is the first step. To know what to practice is the next step. There is no more efficient way to acquire a language than to practice the small phrases within the authentic sentences of native speakers.

Ted Williams once said of another player, “He practiced as much and as hard as anybody on our club but he didn’t practice the right way” (1986 Williams and Underwood). To practice a language the right way, you must repeat each small phrase of a sentence until you can say it with the fluency of a native speaker. Imitating a native speaker is best in the beginning. Then work through all the phrases until the end of the sentence, and then to the end of the book, article or whatever text you are using. Then continue to do the same thing with the same texts for the rest of your life and add more and more texts as your skill improves. When a text becomes too simple for you, discard it. But don’t underestimate the value of reviewing relatively simple texts even after you are fully fluent in the language.

Why do I turn to Ted Williams for advice on language learning? Ted Williams excelled at a skill that is, in his words, “the single most difficult thing to do in sport.” (1986 Williams and Underwood). Fluency in a new language is such a difficult skill to acquire that most of us don’t even know anyone who has succeeded at it. We all hear such common refrains as, “I took French in high school but I don’t remember a thing.” Adults who can speak the foreign language they “took” in high school are far and few between because this skill requires consistent, correct practice and most people just don’t have the determination to practice “until the blisters bleed.” That internal desire, that cannot be instilled by anyone but the student himself or herself, is what makes speaking a new language a rare and wonderful accomplishment.

by John DePonte

The Etymology of “Speakening”

The word “Speakening” is a trademarked name I created by combining the words “speaking” and “listening.” This neologism refers to a technique of listening to a foreign language that gives you the ability to clearly hear fluent, rapid speech. The biggest problem that language learners face is understanding their new language when spoken by native speakers. After studying so hard and working so long, most language learners become utterly discouraged when they encounter a native speaker whose rapid speech is incomprehensible to them. It is at this point that even the most dedicated students are inclined to give up, erroneously concluding that they simply don’t have the talent to learn a new language.

As a life-long language learner, I of course had to grapple with this same problem. Fortunately, I was always too stubborn to quit. I assumed that if anyone could become fluent in a second language, then everyone could. This was my assumption when I read about a man who could simultaneously repeat out loud whatever he heard someone else saying within 1/4 of a second. I concluded that if he could do this aloud, then anyone could do it silently. I also guessed that this skill was related to successful language acquisition. It just might be the key for transforming the “gibberish” of native speakers of other languages into clear, understandable speech.

So I took my new technique to the television where I tuned in to RAI Italian programming. Until this time, I had been able to make out a word hear and there, but had not yet become a “fluent” listener of Italian. As I consciously repeated silently what I was hearing, a miracle occurred. For the first time, Italian was as clear to me as English. Even if I didn’t know the meaning of the word I was repeating, I could spell it correctly and look it up later.

This was an important breakthrough for me, and my students. It was the last step to total fluency in a new language and it works for every language. It requires effort in the beginning, to be sure. But it eventually becomes natural, and the effort is automatic. That is, the speakening technique eventually becomes unnecessary when the new language always sounds as clear as one’s mother tongue.

One other important point: You must be ready for the language you are about to hear, or even your native language may fool you. A friend of mine from Hungary told me an important story of an incident when he could not understand perfect Hungarian because he was not prepared to hear it from a Chinese concierge. After three or four repetitions from the concierge, my friend finally realized that the concierge was speaking Hungarian, and the problem of understanding him instantly disappeared.

While it is not easy for everyone to employ the speakening technique at first, it should never be abandoned. It is the key to understanding fluent native speakers. So practice silently repeating what you hear in your native language first. When you can do that, try it on your new language. It does require effort, and it will fatigue you at first, but nothing worth knowing ever comes easy.

by John DePonte

 

Why I Created Speakening.com

During my seven years of teaching English as a Second Language in a New York City public high school and The College of Staten Island, City University of New York, I researched and discovered many of the linguistic needs of the English language learners who come to live here in the United States. My experience teaching English in China has confirmed these discoveries. Many students born and raised in the United States share some of the same needs. I have had international students who outstripped their American classmates in English as well as in the other academic areas. They received some of the highest scores on the New York State Regents Exams in all areas. Yet, both these English language learners and the American-born students find it quite difficult to construct grammatically correct sentences in English.

Speakening.com is my solution to this persistent problem. Speakening.com is a website that gives English language learners the practice they need to become fluent English speakers. The main course, English for Everyone consists of 100 brief dialogues called Lessons. Students who work through these Lessons as directed by the author will acquire the foundations of English sentence structure the way the native speaker does it: through practice guided by a native speaker of Enlgish. Our parents provide this guidance when we are learning our native language. I have used this approach in my own acquisition of several languages as an adult, and the result is that I am able to write error-free translations without ever having written a single grammar exercise or taking any exams in any language.

While English for Everyone is brief, it is comprehensive in that it includes every kind of sentence structure used in the English language. Simple practice of the Lessons will provide the desired result: success. By working several times through the course, the student will attain mastery of English sentence structure more completely, quickly, and easily than ever imaginable. After two or three tours through the course, it will actually become as entertaining as visiting with old friends, the way we grow accustomed to spending an evening with our favorite television characters.

I offer this website, not only to share my experience and expertise in language learning and teaching, but also to share my joy of learning. The best way for me to share that joy is to teach what I have learned. Not only have I learned to speak several languages on a level I never thought possible when I was a child, I have had the time of my life doing so. It is my sincerest wish that, while the students who use this resource will learn to speak and write grammatically correct English, they will have fun in the process.

by John DePonte