Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1

Posted by Neal on September 1, 2010

Back in April, I was somewhat embarrassed to receive an email from someone named Dmitry, who asked me:

If you know English language (and, it seems, others) so well, perhaps you know the best way to learn a language? As many others who learn a language when they already have a job and family, I don’t have that much time to spend on learning. So I try to spend time as effectively as I can.

Wow, someone asking me for advice on how to learn a language. It’s a standard joke among linguists (at least American linguists) that when people learn your profession, they ask, “So how many languages do you speak?” and the usual answer is “One.” I developed an interest in language only in high school, well past the critical period for me to learn a language and have any hope of native-like proficiency. While linguists (including me) bemoan the fact that most schools in the country don’t offer foreign languages until junior high school, I was the guy who balked at having to take Spanish lessons in elementary school in El Paso, Texas, surrounded by Spanish-speaking classmates! And even in college, although I minored in French, the languages I studied most were ones no longer spoken, and I never even looked into the possibility of studying abroad. Or doing fieldwork on an endangered language as a graduate student. What was I thinking?

So I’m not the best person to try to answer Dmitry’s question, but two other linguists have published a book that attempts to do so: Basics of Language for Language Learners, by Peter Culicover and Elizabeth Hume. I don’t know how many languages these two have learned, but Peter specializes in syntax, and Beth in phonology, and in this book they provide a linguist’s point of view on what kind of language differences are most likely to catch language learners off guard. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say that I got my copy of this book for free. When the current and former OSU folks were congregating at the LSA conference back in January, Beth and Peter offered to get me a copy when it was published, and I took advantage of their offer.

The main thesis that BLLL advances is that linguistic knowledge will not make learning a foreign language easy, just somewhat less difficult and confusing than it might be otherwise. Despite its generality in talking about learning any language, this book is necessarily specific in one regard: It is written for speakers whose first language is North American English, and uses English throughout as a basis for comparison to other languages. (There might be an opening here for C&H to team up with speakers of other languages and make editions geared toward native speakers of various other languages. On the other hand, with most of the rest of the world already accustomed to being multilingual, there may not be as much of a need for these other editions.) More specifically, BLLL is written for serious, highly motivated language learners whose first language is English, and it tries to help in two ways. First, it alerts the language learners to ways (other than the obvious differences in lexicons) in which the target language might differ from English, so that they can be on the lookout for them, and (hopefully) spend less time on being bewildered about some difference, and more time on actually learning it. Second, it gives advice on what kind of hard work will get at the troublesome areas most efficiently, some of it very specific, some of it more vague.

In the introductory chapter, after an overview of child language development, C&H lay out all the ways in which adults are at a disadvantage compared to young children in learning a language (including Dmitry’s), but point out that adults do have a couple of advantages: the ability to learn grammar rules explicitly and consciously focus on them; and the ability to take steps to make language-learning easier and more interesting for themselves.

The rest of the book is divided into three parts: “Sounding Like a Native Speaker” (Chapters 2-6), “Thinking Like a Native Speaker” (Chapters 7-9), and “Acting Like a Native Speaker” (Chapters 10-13). These parts are quite different from each other. For that reason, and to cut down the length of individual blog posts, I’ll review just Part 1 in the rest of this post, and Parts 2 and 3 in subsequent posts.

“Sounding Like a Native Speaker” takes on the problem of foreign accents because of mispronounced sounds. Chapter 2 is more or less an overview of the next four chapters, introducing the idea of different sound inventories for different languages. In it, C&H talk about several general kinds of pronunciation mistakes speakers of any language might make in learning any other language: replacing the unfamiliar sound with a phonetically similar sound from the speaker’s native language (L1); omitting the unfamiliar sound; and inserting sounds to break up strings of consonants that are impermissible in their L1. For each mistake, C&H give examples of how speakers of one or two non-English languages often make it when pronouncing English words, and examples of how native speakers of English often make the same mistake in other languages. Next, C&H move on to word stress, tone (for tonal languages), and phrasal intonation, three more sources of pronunciation errors. They discuss more specific kinds of errors in subsequent chapters in this section, but those errors require some phonetic background.

Chapters 3 and 4, titled “How to Make a Consonant” and “How to Make a Vowel”, provide this background. Before getting down to consonants specifically, Chapter 4 introduces some general phonetic concepts, such as gestures made by the tongue, lips, and other parts involved in speech; and narrowing the passage in the vocal tract. C&H present an encouraging message: No matter how strange a sound in another language may seem, you can pronounce it using the right gestures. In many cases, you already know the gestures from sounds in English. They give an example with the vowel [y], heard in words such as the French tu; and the click consonant [!]. For each example, C&H give step-by-step instructions on how to make the sound. Their instructions for [y] were straightforward, as I expected, but I was surprised to find that the instructions for how to make the more exotic [!] were just as easy to follow.

C&H’s discussion of the phonetics of consonants and vowels is much like you’d find in many introductory linguistics textbooks. For consonants, they discuss the various places of articulation (lips, palate, etc.), manners of articulation (stop, fricative, approximant), nasality, voicing, and consonant length. For each of these features, they list the appropriate consonants from English’s phonetic inventory if they exist. If they don’t (e.g. uvulars and pharyngeals), C&H describe sample sounds from languages that do have them. As with [y] and [!], the instructions for making the sounds are clearly written. I do have one complaint about C&H’s presentation of consonant length, a feature that is not used to distinguish English words. They give the Italian minimal pair fato “fate” and fatto “made”, but nothing in English. But if they had considered minimal pairs of two-word strings like pickup and pick cup, C&H could have demonstrated how consonant length can convey meaning even in English, with an example that English speakers would know they had pronounced correctly.

In the cases where English does have the kind of consonants or vowels under discussion, C&H tend to simply give the ones English has and not show how additional such sounds exist in other languages. For example, they correctly list [p, b, m] as the English bilabial consonants, but they do not say, “Other bilabials that are not part of English’s phonetic inventory are possible. For example, Spanish has bilabial sounds [ɸ] and [β] that are like [p] and [b] except that instead of there being a complete closure of the airstream at the lips, some air is allowed to escape.” To some extent, this is understandable: My suggested addition involved talking about manner of articulation, which C&H don’t discuss until they are finished talking about place of articulation, which is where the English bilabial consonants are inventoried. To avoid this problem, perhaps they could have taken time at the ends of these two chapters to fill out the logically possible combinations of features. On the other hand, such a presentation could well be overwhelming, as it could theoretically expand to include every known sound of any human language. C&H seem to figure that if you’ve understood the material on the various features, you should be able to create sounds with whatever physically possible combinations of features you like: “Keeping these points in mind, you should be able to tackle the pronunciation of new sounds” (p. 49).

Even so, C&H curiously leave out discussion of some entire classes of consonants: the so-called non-pulmonic consonants, which comprise clicks (such as [!]), ejectives, and implosives. C&H include them in the IPA chart on the inside of the back cover, but they’re different enough from the other consonants that some of C&H’s easy-to-follow instructions for making them would have been especially welcome. For example, they could have described ejective consonants as “pronounc[ing] a consonant while holding your breath,” as Ryan Denzer-King puts it.

The chapter concludes with a step-by-step procedure for a time-consuming exercise, but one of lasting value: taking a phonetic inventory of both English and the language to be learned; identifying sounds not in English, and using your new knowledge of phonetic features and families of sounds to figure out how to pronounce them.

Chapter 4, “How to Make a Vowel,”goes straight into the phonetic features of vowels. Using the same approach as they did in Chapter 3 for consonants, C&H introduce the distinction between front, central, and back vowels; then vowel height and rounding. They continue to provide simple instructions for making non-English sounds, with high central and front unround vowels in the spotlight this time. They continue on to monophthongs and diphthongs, nasality, and vowel length. They conclude with an exercise similar to the one for consonants in Chapter 3: identifying and charting all English vowels and all vowels in the language to be learned, and trying to make the unfamiliar ones, armed with newly won phonetic knowledge and awareness.

Having covered vowels and consonants, C&H move on to consonant clusters in Chapter 5, “Putting Sounds Together.” They begin by observing that there are 552 theoretically possible consonant clusters to begin a word, but in reality, there are less than 50. After drawing some generalizations about permissible two-consonant clusters in English, C&H enumerate the permissible clusters, with examples for each, and noting a few combinations that are permissible only in foreign words. (One such combination that they overlook is [sf], as in sphere, sphinx, sphincter, and sphygmomanometer.) Then they do the same for three-consonant clusters, and give a chart that shows how even among the twelve possible clusters that meet the general constraints, only eight are actually used in English words. Even if the chapter stopped right here, it would be a good resource for increasing an English speaker’s awareness of the patterns in their language. Even speakers who have studied some linguistics should find this a useful reference.

The chapter continues with a presentation of some languages that allow fewer word-initial consonant clusters than English does, some that allow more, and some that allow about the same number, but a different set. Then C&H turn to word-final consonant clusters and go through the same kind of presentation as for word-initial ones. The chapter ends with the same kind of exercise as in the previous two chapters, this time with consonant clusters. Again, these are exercises that will take days to do, but should really solidify a learner’s knowledge of the target language’s phonetics — as well as that of English.

The last chapter in Part 1, “Common Pronunciation Errors,” focuses on eight kinds of errors that come up again and again, for multiple languages. With the exception of the first one, these errors all fall in the category of replacing an unfamiliar sound in the target language with a similar one from your native language. They are:

  • Not getting familiar with the spelling conventions of the target language, and making pronunciation errors as a result
  • Aspirating stop consonants when you shouldn’t, or vice versa
  • Pronouncing what are alveolar consonants in English ([t, d, n]) as such in languages that pronounce them as dentals
  • Pronouncing intervocalic /t, d/ as a flap in languages that don’t have that rule / Not pronouncing a flap when needed (e.g. Spanish /r/)
  • Not releasing stop consonants word-finally in languages that release them, or vice versa
  • Reducing vowels to schwa in languages that don’t do that
  • Pronouncing /e/ and /o/ as English-style diphthongs in languages where they’re monophthongs
  • Pronouncing the unrounded back vowel [ɯ] as the rounded back vowel [u] (Instead of [ɯ], C&H give it as [ɨ], which I assume is a typographical error.)

Despite the omission of non-pulmonic consonants, I think Part 1 of BLLL all by itself justifies at least half of its ~$25 suggested price. How many times have you looked over a pronunciation chart for another language, and found the descriptions of the sounds that aren’t in English crammed into the same one or two lines that all the familiar sounds get, with explanations like “the ch sound in German Bach“, or “a soft d sound” (whatever that means)? This book takes the time to get as explicit as necessary to tell you what might be going on in sounds that are unfamiliar to you. The presentation of English phonotactics, the tough but inarguably sensible exercises, the compilation of the most common pronunciation errors that English speakers make — all in one book — make this an interesting and useful reference. And although I can’t claim fluency in any language but English, learning explicitly about all these phonetic features in linguistics classes has helped (not perfected, but helped) my own pronunciation of what I do know of Spanish, French, German, and other languages.

18 Responses to “Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1”

  1. dw said

    […] consonant length, a feature that is not used to distinguish English words

    I’m being a little hypercritical here, but many dialects of English, probably the majority of those outside North America, do use length to distinguish words. I have at least three phonemic length distinctions in my own native dialect (close to English RP):

    Mary (long) vs. merry (short)
    caught (long) vs. cot (short)
    calm (long) vs. come (short)

    For example, if I say “caught” and shorten the vowel, changing nothing else about its quality, then the result sounds to me like “cot” — it’s not identical to my typical pronunciation of “cot”, but it sounds to me more like “cot” than anything else, including “caught”. And vice versa: if I lengthen “cot” then the result sounds to me like “caught”.

    Of course, if this book is aimed primarily at speakers of North American English then these examples won’t be of much use (the third one is probably pretty idiosyncratic even among RP speakers). Thanks for the review!

    • But surely these examples are about _vowel_ length rather than consonant length?

      • Neal said

        Actually, these examples are differences in vowel quality. C&H do talk about vowel length, noting that for example, the [i] in bead is shorter than the [i] in beat, but if you lengthened them or shortened them people would still understand you; whereas in other languages, changing the length of the vowel would change the meaning of the word.

      • Dw said

        You’re right: I can’t read.

        As I attemt to explain above, for me those distinctions are phonemcally length, not quality distinctions. (Unlike bit vs. beat, which for me _is_ a quality distinction).

      • Neal said

        I’m sorry — reading your comment, I see you did make it clear you meant a phonemic distinction in length, but I was so unprepared to believe it I concluded you must have meant the vowel quality distinction. What you say is complete news to me. To other readers: Do Dw’s distinctions hold for you, too? I think I’ll also forward your comment to John Wells, who could probably shed some light on the subject.

      • Neal said

        I did indeed ask Wells if he knew of phonemic vowel length distinctions in English, and he offered “shed vs shared in many kinds of English English and Australian English.”

      • dw said


        I’m surprised JW didn’t mention several morphological length distinctions in Scottish English, since they are mentioned in Accents of English:

        kneed [i.e. past tense of the verb “to knee”] (long) vs. need (short)
        brewed (long) vs. brood (short)
        stayed (long) vs. staid (short)
        towed (long) vs. toad (short)
        baaed [i.e. what a sheep did] (long) vs. bad (short)
        gnawed (long) vs. nod (short)

        See Accents of English, vol. ii, p. 401. Possible Google Books link here.

      • Neal said

        Thanks for the additional data and the link!

    • Glen said

      This is most likely a personal idiosyncrasy, but for most English homophones, I perceive very slight differences when I say them (though not necessarily when I hear them). Cot/caught is just one example. I even perceive differences from different spellings of the same word. For instance, if I’ve known someone as ‘Stephanie’, and then later I discover her name is spelled ‘Stephenie’, I will slightly alter the way I pronounce her name. This probably makes me a weirdo.

      • Neal said

        You are a weirdo, but not because of what you’ve said here. First of all, cot and caught are homophones only in dialects in which the so-called “low back merger” has occurred, such that the [ɑ] of cot and the [ɔ] of caught are both pronounced as [ɑ]. For the past decade or so, you’ve been living in a place where this low back merger is widespread.

        Second, although unstressed vowels are usually, or at least very often, reduced to [ɘ] in English, they aren’t always, and careful, conscious articulation is a prime situation for non-reduction.

  2. dw said

    One error that’s not mentioned above, but which I find myself hitting a lot when I’m trying to speak Hindi, is devoicing of voiced sounds, especially stops. In English we tend to partly devoice /b, d, dʒ, g/ unless they’re surrounded by other voiced sounds. In Hindi, and indeed most languages of the world, it’s necessary to continue the voicing all the way through from beginning to end.

    • Neal said

      Good one. The closest C&H come to this is in the aspirated/unaspirated distinction. Maybe in a future edition this error could be generalized to “voice onset time errors” to include the error you mention. An error I thought about is making clear and dark /l/ as you would in English, in a language that has only one or the other, or in a language where the two are different phonemes. I know it happens, but maybe it wasn’t common enough to make the list. For that matter, how did C&H decide which errors were common enough to discuss in the chapter?

  3. Loz said

    As Chris at The Lousy Linguist likes to quote:

    “Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have.”

  4. Ran said

    > For example, Spanish has bilabial sounds [ɸ] and [β] that are […]

    Isn’t [ɸ] for /f/ stigmatized/nonstandard in Spanish? (Or does it depend on the dialect?)

    • Neal said

      I’ve just realized that knowing that [β] is in Spanish, I have assumed that its voiced counterpart is, too, but have never actually come across it. Maybe it does exist in nonstandard dialects; I don’t know enough to say.

  5. The Ridger said

    It’s a standard joke among linguists (at least American linguists) that when people learn your profession, they ask, “So how many languages do you speak?” and the usual answer is “One.”

    Perhaps if linguists hadn’t taken the word, which first meant someone who knew languages, they (we, I should say) wouldn’t have that problem. We should have stuck with “philologist”!

  6. […] Comments The Ridger on Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1Neal on Boy Scout BackformationNeal on Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, […]

  7. […] Comments Glen on Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 1Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 2 « Literal-Minded on Review of […]

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