Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Language learning’ Category

Modal Miscommunication

Posted by Neal on July 31, 2015

I got a Facebook message from someone who had friended me based on my linguistical online presence. From his profile, he seems to be Middle Eastern. He was asking about graduate linguistic programs in the United States, and whether I knew of professors who had similar research interests to his. Trying to be helpful, I asked about his research interests, then mentioned a few of the professors at Ohio State, and wrote:

I would check the CVs or webpages for [these syntacticians] and email them if you’re interested in asking about studying at Ohio State.

I saw later that the Facebook friend had responded. I was startled to see that he was thanking me for being willing to do that for him.

Whoa! I wanted to be helpful, but not that helpful! At least, not for someone that I only know through Facebook. Where did he get the idea I was offering to actually craft an email for him? I looked again at my previous message, and then wrote back:

I’m sorry, I miscommunicated. When I wrote “I would email them”, I was using an implicit conditional sentence, in which I left an “if” clause unsaid. If I had written it fully, it would have gone “If I were in your situation, I would email them.” This is a way of making a suggestion or giving advice, but it was not an offer to email these professors for you. I think an email coming directly from you would be better, although if you wish, you can mention my name (for example, “Neal Whitman recommended that I …”).

By the way, to make an offer, I would probably write “I COULD email them” (to mean “I could email them if you wanted me to do so”), or “I CAN email them” (to make the same offer, but more emphatically), or “I WILL email them” (to indicate that I intend to do it without waiting for you to accept my offer).

I know that it’s often tough for English-language learners to get a grip on all the shades of meaning for all the modal verbs in their different tenses. If any of you have learned both English and some other language that’s not your native language, what do you think? Are English modal verbs (and quasi-modals like ought to and have to) harder to learn than similar verbs in other languages?

Posted in Language learning, Lexical semantics, Modal verbs, Politeness | 2 Comments »

Too Much

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2011

Back in October, I wrote about the opinion that thank you much is ungrammatical. I quoted a comment I left on one website where the issue came up:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

In the course of writing the thank you much post, I came across this video for learners of English as a foreign language:

In it, a teacher named Valen explains how to use much, many, and a lot of. Her explicit message is that much goes with mass nouns; many goes with count nouns; and a lot of goes with either. But in her examples, she seems to send the message that unadorned much is a no-no. Valen’s first two examples with much are:

I drank too much water.
Our teacher gave us too much homework.

Then she moves on to an example with many: Many cars are equipped with GPS systems. After that, she illustrates the mistake of putting many with a mass noun:

*I drank many coffee.

She then reiterates that since coffee is a mass noun, it can’t go with many, but can go with much. She erases many from the sentence, and replaces it not with much, as she seemed to be getting ready to do, but with too much:

I drank too much coffee.

Never a word of explanation why she’s doing this. (Also noted: She pronounces /str/ as [ʃtr], at least in the word abstract.)

Since that post last month, I’ve been thinking more about whether much is becoming (or has become) a negative polarity item (NPI). Whatever its status, it’s certainly not purely an NPI, since there are so many positive polarity contexts in which it sounds OK; for example, in the company of modifiers such as very (as in Thank you ~ much) and too (as in the video), much doesn’t sound bad at all.

As it turns out, Ji Won Lee at SUNY Buffalo has been looking into the question of NPI much, using an arsenal of corpora to find out. On her web page are handouts from several presentations on this topic. Her findings include that the development of much as an NPI was followed by the rise of a lot of/lots of, and that the shift to mostly-NPI much (and to some extent many, too) happened pretty quickly, between the late 1890s and 1940.

UPDATE, Nov. 29, 2011: Joe Kessler (in the comments) and JillianP (via Twitter) and Ji Won herself (in a polite email) have made me aware that I chose the wrong gendered pronouns to refer to Ji Won in the post. I have made the corrections, and apologize for the error. I’m also embarrassed that I didn’t remember meeting Ji Won at LSA 2011; she reminded me that she had come to look at my poster, and I see in my notes that indeed she did.

Posted in Language learning, Mass and Count Nouns, Morphology, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar | 11 Comments »

Let’s Hear Some New Grammar Songs!

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2011

“You know there’s a helping verb song, right?” Doug asked. “One of Mrs. M’s students wrote it years ago. Mrs. M. taught it to us in fifth grade, and now we all remember all the helping verbs.”

“Really?” I asked. I’m teaching a college ESL class this fall, and had noticed that choosing the right helping verb was a problem in many of the students’ written sentences. Doug had asked how the class was going, so I’d told him. Doug then obliged me by singing the song, to the tune of the chorus of “Jingle Bells”, into my phone’s microphone:

Helping verbs, helping verbs, there are 23!
Am, is, are, was and were, being, been, and be,
Have, has, had, do, does, did, will, would, shall and should.
There are five more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, could!

I figured I could play it for the class, but later, I got a better idea and looked for the song on YouTube. I found at least half a dozen versions, so I’m not sure I believe Mrs. M’s student really did write it. But it’s possible that someone right here in our town was the source of the meme, so I’ll withhold judgment. This video is the one I played for the class:

They loved it, and had me play it several times. I hope it helps them, and I’m not going to say anything to these students about how this song (and various other grammar resources) always leave out the verb having, as in Not having finished his homework, Doug wasn’t allowed to go play with his friends. It doesn’t help to form any of the verb tenses, active or passive voice, so why inflict this complication on English learners at this level? (I did tell Doug and Adam about it, though.)

My students told me I should use more music in the class, so I tried to figure out some way of putting into a song the rules about which main verb forms go with which helping verbs. I eventually settled on “Red River Valley” (or as I was introduced to it in summer camp, “When It’s Hog-Killing Time in Nebraska”). Here’s what I came up with:

Helping verbs need to go with a main verb.
But which form of the main verb is right?
Use the plain form with all of your modals:
Can, could, shall, should, will, would, must, may, and might.

Use the plain form with do, does, and did, too.
Use the past participle with have, has, had.
Use the –ing form with all of your be verbs.
When you know your verb forms you’ll be glad.

Those two verses, including that rather lame last line, were all I wanted to give my class. (If someone has a better last line, I’ll take it!) But I felt compelled to write a final verse, lest someone take the first two verses too much to heart, and be afraid to use past participles with be when they’re more advanced. So here’s verse 3:

This last verse tells about a complication.
Sometimes past participles can go with forms of be.
When they do, it’s a big change in meaning.
Who’s performing the action is key.

Creative Commons License
Helping Verbs and Main Verbs by Neal Whitman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

It occurred to me that teachers could probably use some other grammar points put into popular song formats, and that’s what brings me to the latest Grammar Girl book giveaway contest that I promised in my last post. The rules:

  1. Between now and 11:59PM November 14, take an existing melody and write some new lyrics for it, explaining some area of English grammar.
  2. Post the lyrics in a comment, giving the title of the original song and your new title.
  3. If you wish, you can make a video of the song and link to it.
  4. Grammar topics can cover the same areas as existing songs about English grammar, or present topics that haven’t been put into song yet.
  5. Be linguistically responsible. Prescriptive rules are OK (they’re what this contest is about), but make sure they’re in line with what good writers actually do when writing in standard English. For example, saying that the third-person singular present tense is formed with an -s or -es suffix is OK, but saying that whose is only for animate or human referents is not.
  6. Don’t plagiarize!
  7. Don’t give me something you already published, on the Internet or elsewhere. I want this contest to generate some new and hopefully useful teaching resources.
  8. I’ll wait until it’s November 15 all over the world to make the cutoff, and the writers of the two best songs (in my judgment) will each receive a copy of Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart (thanks to Mignon Fogarty for providing them!).
  9. As far as I’m concerned, you retain all rights to your song, but in the spirit of making new teaching resources available, I hope you’ll put them under a Creative Commons license, as I did with mine.
  10. All other things equal, I will give preference to:
    • Songs whose melodies that are in the public domain.
    • Songs linked to a video.

So let’s hear your grammar songs! If you need some inspiration, allow me to suggest “The Forgotten Helping Verb”.

Posted in Language learning, Morphology, Prescriptive grammar | 5 Comments »

Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 3

Posted by Neal on September 7, 2010

For the last two posts, I’ve been reviewing Peter Culicover and Beth Hume’s Basics of Language for Language Learners, and now I’m ready to finish up with Part 3 of the book, “Acting Like a Native Speaker”. This last section contains three chapters, one of them a general chapter on language and culture, and the other two covering politeness and taboo. C&H sum up the reason for covering these by-and-large extralinguistic topics thus: “The better you understand the culture of the language you are learning, the better you will be able to interact successfully with native speakers” (p. 176).

Chapter 10, “The Link between Language and Culture”, begins by making the point that just as the connection between a word’s sound and its dictionary meaning is arbitrary, so is the connection between the forms used (i.e. the particular words as well as syntactic structures that speakers choose) and what they call social meaning. C&H observe that a culture (by definition) has norms for behavior, and since language is a part of behavior, some of these norms will be language norms. Areas to be on the lookout for these norms include formality, politeness, taboo topics, and how to conduct yourself in a conversation. As for why you should The better you understand the culture of the language you are learning, the better you will be able to interact successfully with native speakers. (p. 176)As in Parts 1 and 2, they give exercises to prompt the reader to think more carefully about their native English than they would probably bother to otherwise, and in so doing, prepare to make the same kind of analyses in the target language. A typical exercise is to write down the different ways you would ask someone to repeat themself because you haven’t understood them, depending on whether the someone is a younger sibling, a parent, a close friend, a teacher, or — and here’s where C&H subtly underscore the importance of these subtleties — a cop at a sobriety checkpoint.

But beyond simply being aware of potential differences in the target language culture, what can you do to discover them? C&H recommend keen observation. Instead of just noting that some phrase is used as a greeting, for example, they ask the learner to write down any overheard greetings, noting the age and sex of the speakers, and the situation. Then look for patterns; in other words, think like a linguist doing fieldwork. C&H make this recommendation after discussing two non-recommended methods. One is to ask your language instructor, but the trouble with that is that people might lie about sensitive topics, and it might even be taboo to discuss the rules regarding them. Here’s their wry presentation of the other non-recommended method:

An alternative means of learning whether or not something is a norm is to violate it and see what happens. The reaction of people around you will probably be a fairly good indication of whether or not the norm exists. Of course, the major drawback of violating a potential norm is that it may trigger discomfort, embarrassment, or any number of other negative reactions. (p. 179)

(Off topic: That passage reminded me of an old Ernie and Bert sketch; the relevant bit is about 30 seconds in.)

Next, the chapter discusses language varieties, pointing out that they exist in other languages just as they do in English, and discussing attitudes and stereotypes regarding speakers of “non-prestige” varieties of a language. Knowing that variety exists will, C&H hope, prepare language learners for experiences they’ll have hearing whatever variety of the target language is spoken where they visit, and allow them to appreciate each variety instead of assuming its speakers are ignorant or rude.

The last section of Chapter 10 covers gesture. C&H first discuss gestures that are familiar to English speakers, but whose usage in various situations may be different from their usage among English speakers; e.g., handshakes, kisses, or bows in greetings. Next they cover gestures that look familiar, but which can have dangerously different meanings in other cultures; for example, the “OK” gesture. This one, in fact, is often covered in books just about gestures in other languages, and C&H mention one such book by name. Finally, they mention a few sample gestures that don’t exist at all in English, just to give a taste of the kind of unexpected things you might have to look out for. But once again, how to learn these unwritten conventions? The exercises again involve observing speakers of other languages, but doing so with more attention and purpose than you might otherwise.

Chapter 11 focuses specifically on politeness. Whereas errors in grammar from a nonnative speaker are usually tolerated and forgiven, C&H write, errors where politeness is concerned usually aren’t. With that motivation established, C&H begin by introducing the ideas of positive politeness (striving to be friendly and inclusive) and negative politeness (striving not to inconvenience anyone, especially your superiors), which are actually useful concepts to know about even when you’re using just English. The next section shows ways in which politeness is expressed in English by way of grammatical forms: modal auxiliaries, choice of verb tense, the use of preparatory moves such as, “Is this a good time?” After the look at politeness in English, C&H move on to politeness in other cultures. They talk specifically about different cultural norms for giving and receiving compliments, and for making requests. Finally, C&H discuss languages in which politeness is built into the grammar, bringing up French and Japanese in particular. The exercises are similar to those in Chapter 10, involving introspection about English and directed observation for the target language.

Chapter 12, “Swearing, Insults, and Taboos”, starts off with a warning: You may be eager to learn the target-language equivalents of your favorite cuss words, but you can’t assume that the slightly impolite phrases in English will have slightly impolite translations, or that the really offensive phrases in English have really offensive translations. As different cultures assign differing importance to various societal taboos, the words that refer to these taboos will vary in offensiveness from language to language. How to learn these taboos? C&H recommend asking your language teacher (if they’re comfortable discussing it), or a good dictionary that goes into this kind of depth (if one exists). The rest of the chapter discusses some common bases for taboo in world cultures: sex, religion, your mother, social status, and animals. (A minor complaint about the last one: C&H mention humans’ “higher position on the evolutionary scale” (pp. 209-210), an outdated metaphor that I don’t expect to hear from college professors, even those in fields other than biology. And on that subject, way back on p. 6, they refer to “highly evolved creatures”. For more on this complaint, I recommend reading any book by Stephen J. Gould.) This chapter doesn’t bother with exercises, though at this point the learner who has diligently done the exercises in previous chapters should probably be able to learn a lot by careful observation.

These chapters are faster and easier reading than those in Part 2, but even so, occasional lapses in organization slowed my progress. For example, in Chapter 12, one paragraph about making requests is located in the section about compliments. So is a paragraph about adding disclaimers such as “if God wills it” when expressing wishes or plans (i.e., not compliments). These meanderings caused me to have to re-read sections, to make sure that the misplaced content really didn’t belong, and that I hadn’t just missed some connection.

Unlike the material in Parts 1 and 2, most of the material in these three chapters is available in other books for non-linguists; plenty of books for business travelers talk about politeness and taboo, for example. However, none that I know of situates these topics in the larger landscape of differences that learners of a foreign language should be on the alert for. Despite the problems in presentation in Parts 2 and 3, BLLL has a lot of good information and suggestions that will help the adult language learner — provided they have the discipline to follow through on them. I am reminded of my piano teacher telling me that I would show more and faster improvement on a song by spending some time concentrating on just the troublesome sections, instead of just playing through the whole song and continuing to stumble through the problem areas. He was right; the trouble was in marshaling the discipline to follow his advice.

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 1 Comment »

Review of Basics of Language for Language Learners, Part 2

Posted by Neal on September 6, 2010

In my last post I began reviewing Culicover and Hume’s Basics of Language for Language Learners, and got through Part 1 of the book, which deals with the sounds of foreign languages. In this post I cover Part 2, “Thinking Like a Native Speaker”, which gets into syntax and semantics. The payoff in these chapters is a bit more abstract than the payoff in Part 1. There, they gave concrete examples of how you could make sounds that at first seemed completely foreign, by using already-familiar gestures used in English sounds. In Part 2, they can’t really do that. But the fact is, even in Part 1, learning to make an actual foreign sound won’t help you, unless you happen to be learning a language that has that sound. All it really does is to give you a taste of what else is out there in terms of phonetics, and show how you might be able to handle it. The analogous exercises in Part 2 have you analyzing structures of English and other languages, in order to get a taste of what else is out there in terms of grammar.

Chapter 7, “The Work That Language Does”, begins by making a four-way distinction between a sentence’s content, its form, its function, and its force. To illustrate, C&H talk about a situation involving a waiter, a customer, a cup of coffee, and an action of giving. This situation is the content of the sentence. Different forms of sentences could contain this same content: declarative (You’re giving me a cup of coffee), interrogative (Are you giving me a cup of coffee?), or imperative (Give me a cup of coffee). The function is what, on the surface, in a literal-minded way, the sentence does. The declarative makes a statement; the interrogative asks a question; the imperative gives a command or request. The force is what the speaker actually intends for the sentence to do. For example, the declarative You’re giving me a cup of coffee could be taken as a command, rudely expressed. The interrogative Are you giving me a cup of coffee? might be expressing a speaker’s impatience more than posing a question to be answered.

I found this part of the chapter confusing, even though the concepts were familiar to me. Part of the trouble is that C&H try to take a preview-then-fuller-picture approach. In one section, they work through the example of the cup of coffee, mentioning some of the technical terms in the course of the discussion. In the next section, they focus more intensely on the ideas of form, content, function, and force. The result is that some of the ideas get presented twice, which made me think on the first reading that I had misunderstood what they were saying in the previous section. In particular, the idea of force is blurry. For example, they give the sentence “What kind of dog is that?”, saying that “[t]he force is that the hearer should provide the answer to the question.” Maybe, but I could easily imagine this as a rhetorical question, with the intended force of insulting the hearer’s dog. Other readers who imagined a similar scenario might find themselves thinking they’d misunderstood the difference between function and force.

Why do C&H need to make these distinctions? The point they’re leading to is that it is a language’s grammar that contains the rules for linking particular kinds of content and functions with the right forms. (Force is quietly dropped from the picture at this point, I assume because it depends so much more on context.)

Next, C&H turn to the idea of structure of a sentences and phrases — the kind of thing I do in posts that show syntactic tree diagrams. They spend a page in defense of learning grammar, and it’s here that they best state the purpose of learning these technical concepts:

We already know intuitively how our own language works; the challenge is to acquire knowledge about how another language works. And we want that knowledge to be usable.

To put it another way, the grammar of a language is the set of “rules” … that specify how units are arranged to form phrases and sentences and how the parts of a sentence correspond to its meaning. For anyone who wants to learn how to communicate thoughts in another language, some insight into the grammar of that language can be very useful, and in some cases it may even be essential. (p. 96)

Another good statement of their aim in increasing awareness of English grammar:

[I]t does help to know that another language could use a different order of words, but we have to know precisely what the order is. In other words, we know what questions we should ask about how another language forms [sentences], but we do not necessarily know what the answers are going to be. (p. 98) [NW: The actual phrasing is “how another language forms questions”, but I think this has to be a cut-and-paste error.]

The rest of the chapter is devoted to developing very basic phrase-structure rules for languages that differ from English in, for example, putting the subject after the verb. The analogy they use is that of a “Chinese menu”. All that means is “choose something from column A, something from column B, and something from column C,” which apparently is how menus in some Chinese restaurants are set up. The exercises here are mainly consciousness-raising about the structure of English phrases, with some comparison exercises like those in Part 1, this time comparing how English and some other language form verb phrases or different kinds of full sentences.

Chapter 8, “Talking About Things,” goes more specifically into the grammar of noun phrases. C&H begin by introducing the category of noun, but once again I got thrown off by their strategy of giving a small taste of the material to be covered in one section and then the fuller treatment later. C&H talk about how languages differ in how they indicate definiteness of a noun, and on how (or whether) they mark singular and plural. This material is covered again in later sections, which had me going back to this first section to see if it really was the same subject matter or if I’d misunderstood something. The next section covers determiners, including issues of agreement, gender and sex, noun classes (the more general notion of which gendered nouns are just a special case), placement of determiners, and learning to use them. Here C&H give one piece of specific for learning other languages: Memorize nouns and the determiners that go with them as set phrases. Although it’s good to understand the rules that generate these phrases, for effective communication they need to be accessible instantly.

The last subsection in the section on determiners is called “Describing Things,” and is not about determiners at all, but about adjectives and relative clauses. Huh? It turns out that this is just a segue into the section on adjectives (“We discuss how this works next.”). This is another example of how the organization of the chapters in Part 2 is hard to follow. It doesn’t help that the headings for the main sections and subsections aren’t intuitively clear on their hierarchical position. I found myself flipping back to the beginning of the chapter to look at the font of the first section, or looking for a section heading immediately atop a subsection heading so I could determine whether the (sub)section I was entering was part of the previous topic, or a new one.

C&H discuss the rules for ordering determiners, adjectives, and nouns in English, and compare the rule to some used in other languages, pointing out different ordering possibilities, and the fact that some languages make adjectives agree with nouns in number and gender (or noun class). The next section does the same for relative clauses. The exercises involve figuring out phrase structure rules for determiners, adjectives, nouns, and relative clauses in a few languages, again with the apparent aim of raising the language learner’s consciousness of these other possibilities, and minimizing surprise and confusion when they are encountered in a target language.

Chapter 9, “Expressing Meaning,” is the longest chapter in the whole book. In it, C&H do for verb phrases what they did for noun phrases in Chapter 8. Because of the longer length, the presentation problems mentioned above make this chapter even more difficult going. The overall picture C&H present is that a verb is the heart of a sentence, because it says what role all the noun phrases play in the event being described. Various roles include agent, theme, instrument, goal, source, and experiencer. These roles are part of a sentence’s content; how they are expressed in a sentence is an issue of form. When talking of form, we don’t talk about roles, but grammatical functions: subject, direct object, indirect object. There are three main ways of identifying these grammatical functions in languages: word order, case markings, or agreement, and prepositions. Whoops! Make that four main ways! Which role is linked to which grammatical function depends on the individual verb. A verb is said to directly govern the roles that it expresses with grammatical functions, and indirectly govern those that it has to express via prepositional phrases.

C&H also discuss the difference between main verbs and auxiliary verbs, active and passive voice, tense, mood, and aspect. By this time, the language learner may be getting overwhelmed, and there is simply no way to cover all the other ways of doing things that a target language might have. All C&H can do is raise the learner’s awareness enough to allow them to ask the right questions, and hopefully assimilate the answers better than they would if these possibilities were coming as a surprise. For example, in the section on mood, C&H tell the learner, “As a language learner, you will have to come to terms with the different ways in which your native language and the language you are learning carry out these functions” (p. 152); in other words, “You’re on your own here, and good luck.”

Chapter 9 continues, as C&H tell how verbs express different the different functions previewed in Chapter 7. They give a good overview here of how English and a few other languages differ in making statements, posing questions, and giving commands. The exercises are the same type as in Chapter 8, inviting the reader to think about how the rules work in English, and how they work in other languages that they already know.

Part 2 of BLLL is a tough read, because of the amount of information squeezed into it and because of the problems in presentation. However, this book is aimed at intelligent, motivated learners, and after a second pass through the chapter, there is a lot of good, general information about how languages express various kinds of meaning, information that will probably help the learner who pays attention and thinks about these things while learning a foreign language. I hope that in future editions, there will be more diagrams showing the interplay of the various concepts introduced. There are two pages of phonetic charts at the very back of the book; why not some charts showing semantic roles, grammatical functions, sentence forms, agreement, and the like?

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 18 Comments »

Review: Daily French Pod

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2007

Every now and then, I feel like brushing up on the French I had in high school and college. About ten years ago, I subscribed to the French version of Reader’s Digest for a year. Years later, I got a copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in French and I have now read almost to the end of chapter one in it. Ah, who am I kidding, using the present perfect tense that way? Let’s be honest: I read almost to the end of chapter one. Oh, and the table of contents, where I was interested to find out that the French word for magic wand is baguette. My trouble when I read things in French is that I keep vacillating between what I want to accomplish. Do I want to read just for the meaning, getting the gist and passing over the words I can’t get from the context? Or do I want to improve my vocabulary, paying special attention to precisely those words? Only for the shortest texts can you try to accomplish both goals, and I don’t have a nice, convenient set of short French texts.

That wasn’t a hint for a Christmas present. I don’t want a nice, convenient set of short French texts, because for the past couple of months I’ve been listening to archived episodes of Daily French, “your daily dose of French language as it’s spoken by native speakers.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 5 Comments »

Coffee Break Scottish English

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2007

If you’re interested in improving your Scottish accent (“and who isn’t?”, I believe it’s customary to say at this point), then don’t pick it up it secondhand from Shrek or Groundskeeper Willie. Instead, learn from actual Scots in a convenient, free, online resource: the weekly podcast of Coffee Break Spanish, “the show which brings you language with your latte.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Language learning, Reviews | 14 Comments »

Got Me Learning Japanese

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2004

A guy by the name of Big Ben left an interesting comment on my last post, talking about the Japanese word nurui ‘warm’, whose semantics are parallel to the unusual semantics my son has for the English word. The Japanese datum reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post a review of the Pimsleur introductory Japanese course I recently finished working through. And as if to encourage me further, I was alerted to this new linguistics blog, which has a discussion of Japanese /r/ in this post, just the phoneme I had planned to mention in my review. So…

I became aware of the Pimsleur language courses because of the strong recommendedation for them in this book by Barry Farber, and the first one I tried was for Mandarin Chinese. (I won’t review that one here, since the comments I’ll make for the Japanese course are for the most part applicable to the Chinese course, too.) I found it easy enough and fun enough that when I saw the Japanese course in the library, I checked it out on impulse. It contained four cassettes, for eight 30-minute lessons; it took me about six weeks to work through them in the car during trips to the grocery store or post office.

One of the two things I liked most about the Pimsleur language course is that when they give you a phrase to repeat, they say it first all together, and then break it down, having you repeat just the last syllable, then the last two syllables, until you’re saying the whole phrase. This alone gives these courses an edge over many learn-in-your-car type courses. For example, I tried a Mandarin Chinese cassette course from a company called Language30, and trying to repeat all the phrases they threw at me, said once each and not broken down, was like trying to drink from a firehose: Too much information was coming at me and I could hardly take in any of it at the speed they were sending it. To get anything, I’d’ve had to spend most of the time rewinding again and again to try to catch the syllables I’d missed. Pimsleur’s approach saves you this trouble, and removes one barrier to learning the language.

The second thing I like most about the Pimsleur courses is actually a hallmark of their approach, as I learned from the Farber book. After they’ve broken down a phrase and you’ve been properly introduced to it, they don’t just move on. They have you repeat the phrase a couple of times, and then continue to have you work it into your responses throughout the rest of the lessons, at wider- and wider-spaced intervals. So, for example, Lesson 1 of Japanese teaches you the phrase for “Excuse me”: [smi masεn]. After you’ve gone from [sεn] to [masεn] and ultimately to [smi masεn], the first thing they ask you is, “How do you say ‘excuse me’ in Japanese?” Your reaction will probably be, “I just told you that, for crying out loud!”, but better that than, “I don’t know yet, let me just rewind and hear it one more time.” By Lesson 8, “Excuse me” doesn’t show up that often, but once or twice it does, as part of a longer answer that by this point you’re able to put together.

There are a couple of bonus features of the Pimsleur courses that aren’t specifically intended as selling points (as far as I know). One is that the conversations are mostly parallel in the different courses. In the Chinese and Japanese lessons (and so far, in the Russian course I’m working through), the conversations progress from asking if someone understands English and saying that you’re American and understand a little bit of the target language, to asking if someone wants to eat, and if so where, in Lesson 8. Consequently, you can build parallel vocabularies in the different languages. I know how to say beer in Chinese and Japanese now, and I predict I’ll learn how to say it in Russian in the current set of tapes.

The other bonus is that the syllable-by-syllable breakdown can reveal phonological patterns for those interested. Well, OK, that only happened once, on the Japanese tapes. But I was pleased to identify it. The pattern concerned the Japanese phoneme, mentioned above, that is the closest thing they have to an [r]. In words borrowed from English, the /r/ would sometimes sound like a flap (a sound discussed here), which I will write as [D], and sometimes as [l]. So for example, restaurant in Japanese is [lεstoDan]. At first I couldn’t figure out whether I was hearing [D] or [l], since in fact I was hearing both. But when the word was broken down, all became clear. The progression went like this:

  • [lan]
  • [toDan]
  • [lεstoDan]

Aha! Based on just this data, it looks like the Japanese /r/ is realized as [l] at the beginning of a word (or maybe at the beginning of a stressed syllable), and as [D] elsewhere. I’m sure this is well-explained in Japanese grammars, or given as a phonology problem in linguistics textbooks, but I found it as an Easter egg in an audiocassette course on Japanese.

The only drawback to the Pimsleur courses that I’ve seen so far is that there’s only so much you can fit into eight lessons, given the degree of repetition in them. Though you probably retain more of the information presented, there’s still less information than on other audio courses. And the advanced courses cost a helluva lot more than the introductory ones–like, at least a couple hundred dollars. And that’s why I’m here talking about three introductory Pimsleur courses, instead of one comprehensive one.

Posted in Language learning, Phonetics and phonology, Reviews | 10 Comments »


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