Tag Archives: speaking

Language Roulette

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I like to study. It’s just that I like knowing the things that you can only learn through studying. Since speaking a new language is one of those things that require constant study and practice, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make the language learning process more efficient and fun.

My latest experiment involves cutting the material down to even more digestible chunks. Since I need to practice more than one language at a time, it simply isn’t realistic for me to work through an entire chapter for each language every day. After all, each sentence has to be broken down into several useful phrases each to be repeated many times. So I practice one page of one language three times before moving on to the next language.

This week it’s Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. The texts I use have beautiful grammar sections complete with translated sentences that I practice for total fluency. When I’ve completed one page of Italian, I move on to Japanese, and then to Spanish. It’s a sort of language roulette. It’s quick, effective, and fun. Any book with translated sentences will do. There are some great books of idioms in many languages that are quite useful for this purpose.

Let’s look at an example. If you’re learning English, your page may have five to ten translated sentences you need to practice. Let’s say the first sentence is: If I practice English this way, I’ll be fluent in no time. This sentence divides nicely into four useful phrases. Read the first phrase while looking at the text: If I practice English. Now say it without looking at the text: If I practice English. Imagine you’re saying it to someone you know; you’ll remember it better that way. Now read it again while looking at the text: If I practice English.

Now, apply this technique to the next phrase: this way. That’s a short, easy one, but very, very useful. Then with I’ll be fluent. And finally: in no time. Each one of these phrases can be used in an infinite variety of contexts. That’s why this method of language practice is the best. You never need to memorize an entire sentence, unless the sentence itself is a short, useful phrase.

When you’ve completed the first sentence, continue through the rest of them until you’ve worked through all the sentences on that page. Now do the entire page the same way two more times, for a total of three repetitions. Depending on how many sentences there are on the page, this can take anywhere from around five to twenty minutes. You can continue through as many pages as you want in one language, or switch off to another language. It’s entirely up to you. If three repetitions of the page take too long, do two, but no fewer. The brain loves repetition; humor it.

by John DePonte

Fast Talk Reading

When I was first learning Spanish, I was standing next to a Spanish speaking family on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry. The little girl tried to kick her father in the shin. I smiled at the father and said, “Una patada,” or “A kick.” The father and mother smiled and Dad let out a stream of Spanish of which I understood not one word. I smiled and nodded in order to avoid embarrassment, rather than admit I didn’t understand. Evidently, my reaction was inappropriate because the mother and father looked at each other, raised their eyebrows, shrugged their shoulders, and looked away. Whatever Dad said required a response that was quite different from what I did.

We’ve all pretended to hear something that we didn’t hear an nodded our heads as if we had, and most of the time no harm, no foul. Sometimes, though, we are expected to give an answer and when we nod our heads, we betray ourselves. Our esteemed listener realizes that we haven’t been listening, we didn’t understand, or we simply didn’t hear. If they believe we did, they might even be hurt because our non-verbal response actually makes sense, but it’s offensive. We’re innocent of this offense because we never heard them in the first place, but they don’t know that. The moral of the story: It is always better to admit you didn’t hear or understand than it is to pretend.

Of course, it is always better to understand in the first place. I’ve said it before, and I will continue saying it: learning to understand the speech of a native speaker in a new language is the most difficult part of the language acquisition process. When a student encounters a difficulty, his/her job becomes to make it as easy as possible. There is one thing that language learners can do that will not only help them to understand native speakers, but will make them fluent speakers themselves. I call it “fast talk reading.”

Whether you’re working through a textbook, a conversation manual, a newspaper, whatever, divide the sentences into small phrases of two or three words each. Practice these phrases aloud as fast as possible. This technique has a twofold effect: the muscles of the speaking apparatus receive training in the pronunciation of the new language at fluent speed, and the ear receives training in hearing the language at fluent speed. Even if your fastest speaking speed is not yet fluent, keep practicing. It will be. There is no need to put these phrases together into complete sentences. The brain automatically knows what to do with them.

After you’ve worked through your text using the “fast talk reading” technique, “fast read” through it without talking. Try not to physically sub-vocalize, i.e. don’t move your mouth or tongue while you’re reading. Make it all happen in the head. This is not so easy as it sounds, but if you keep it in mind, it will eventually become natural. You will find that your “fast reading” can become as fast as the speech a native speaker, and this will be your crowning achievement.

 

by John DePonte

Word for Word

There are language courses that warn their readers never to translate word for word. The reasoning is that since languages don’t always translate word for word, you would not be learning your new language properly. So, when an English-speaking student sees the Japanese sentence, “Watashi wa amerikajin desu,” he or she should translate it as, “I am an American.” After all, that is what it means.

Unfortunately, there are three reasons that make it absolutely necessary to learn a language word for word. First, we learn vocabulary within the contexts of phrases and sentences. That means we must know what each word or lexical unit in a sentence means if we are to use those same units in other contexts. If I don’t translate “Watashi wa amerikajin desu” word for word, I will assume that “Watashi” means “I,” “wa” means “am,” “amerikajin” means “an,” and “desu” means “American.” In fact, “Watashi” does mean “I,” but that’s the only one I got right. I need to know much more than the mere meaning of the sentence in my native language.

I need to know that “wa” is a topic marker that is not translated into English, but means something like “As for.” “Watashi wa” means “As for me” (literally: I/ as for). It’s pretty clear that “amerikajin” is the word here that refers to the English word “American,” but it actually refers to an American person, i.e. “an American.” “Amerika” means “America” and “jin” adds the meaning of person. “Desu” is the Japanese equivalent of “is,” “am,” or “are.” So our literal translation is: I / as for / an American / am. It would be translated: “As for me, I am an American.” The final, idiomatic translation would be: “I am an American,” “I am American,” or “I’m American.”

The second reason that we always need word for word translations is that they provide us with insight into how the native speakers of a language think about the world we share and how they express their ideas about it. When I speak any language other than my native English, I don’t first think of the English sentence, then translate. I think of the words in the order that a native speaker would use to construct the sentence. It’s even helpful to think of the words you would use in your native language in the word order of the language you’re learning. This will help you develop a feel for putting sentences together naturally and easily in your new language. Ultimately, I say what I have to say without recourse to my native language. In other words, I think in the other language. In fact, I develop a different speaking “personality” for each language so I can commit to speaking that language like a native speaker.

The third reason that word for word translation is essential is that it is simply impossible to actually acquire a language without it. Remember, when we say we “acquire” a language, we mean we gain the ability to speak it like a native. The native speaker of any language can tell you what virtually every word in his or her sentences means. This is not a coincidence. Word for word translation, i.e. knowing what every single word means, is an indispensable feature of the language acquisition process whether we are studying a second language, or learning our mother tongue.

by John DePonte

Language Mastery: The Pincer Maneuver

The term “pincer maneuver” is derived from tools that are used to grasp things from two sides. Tweezers and tongs are examples of pincers. The pincer maneuver is a military tactic that involves attacking the enemy from opposite sides. So, what on earth does the Pincer Maneuver have to do with language mastery? Well, I’ll tell you.

Once I have reached an advanced level in a new language, the most challenging part of the language acquisition process still lies ahead: becoming fluent. After achieving fluency, you still have to work to maintain the ability to speak the language. Use it or lose it. One of the most effective techniques I have found for these purposes is what I refer to as the Pincer Maneuver. It simply means practicing with two different books at the same time: one basic, the other advanced.

The Pincer Maneuver approaches the language from two opposite sides: beginner and advanced. Each side complements, supports, and improves the other. Most good language books will have readings, conversations, and grammar explanations. I prefer to work through the readings and conversations without referring to the grammar. After completing both books in this manner, I like to work through the examples in the grammar sections of both books. Occasionally, it helps to read through some of the grammar explanations too.

Start your Pincer Maneuver process with the two best books you can find: basic and advanced. Work through these books in the way I have described above several times. You can use these books as the basis of your language maintenance for the rest of your life. Other books can be added for constantly increasing your vocabulary, but your two “pincer” books will have already provided you with a formidable vocabulary along with most of the grammar you will ever need. Don’t worry. Most real-life conversations do not involve complex vocabulary or complicated sentence structures. Just think of the daily conversations you have in your native language.

You will find that the Pincer Maneuver is not only highly effective, but a heck of a lot of fun. The advanced material will make the basic and intermediate levels seem so simple that they become automatic. That is, you will start to become truly fluent. In addition, the advanced level will become clearer and clearer. Perhaps the most important result of using the Pincer Maneuver is that your confidence in using the language will rise to a level that will have you fearlessly conversing with native speakers.

by John DePonte

Shanghai in New York

I landed in Shanghai with very little Mandarin under my belt. I had studied on my own during the New York school year as I concluded teaching my high school ESL classes. No harm though. Almost everyone in the Shanghai town I stayed in didn’t speak Mandarin. They spoke Shanghainese. It’s considered a dialect but, like most Chinese dialects, it’s far, far from Mandarin.

For the first time, I was in the same position in which many of my New York students find themselves; I couldn’t understand the locals, nor make myself understood in many situations. If I spoke Mandarin, some appreciated the effort, others not so much. When I asked one shop worker for “cha” (tea), she pretended she didn’t understand and told me the correct word was “ta.” It isn’t

Of course it didn’t help that, at the time, China and Japan were experiencing a conflict over a fishing island in which the U.S. supported its ally, Japan. This didn’t earn me any points with my neighbors. At one deli, a woman asked where I was from. When I answered, Meiguo (America), she turned and walked away in disgust. Another women stuck her tongue out at me on line at a supermarket. This made my Chinese friends uncomfortable, but I took it as a tremendous learning experience.

When I caught a cab driver running up my fare, I said, “Shensheng, zhe ge tai gui” (Sir, this is too expensive). He flipped, started screaming, and turned off the meter. They are very afraid of being reported. I overpaid him anyway and did not report him. The tuition for a lesson well learned. This was also happening to my Chinese friends when the cabbies thought they were from out of town. Sound familiar New Yorkers?

The one word that most aptly describes the experience of not being able to communicate with anyone when you need to is “frustrating.” This may seem obvious, but it is not easily understood. I felt it most acutely when I had to leave all my purchases with a security guard in order to go buy a bag in which to carry them. When I couldn’t find my way back to the guard, I was utterly lost. I couldn’t ask anyone, I couldn’t mime, and even though I had seen the English word “Information” written on a sign hanging over the Information desk (somewhere in this gigantic store), no one could understand the spoken word. It took an eternity to find my way.

Fortunately for most immigrants in New York City, there’s a community that speaks their language. Nevertheless, I am now more keenly aware of how many people are experiencing Shanghai in New York. And heaven help the cabbie or shop worker I catch being “unhelpful” to someone who doesn’t understand English.

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