Does your second language sound good?

soundoffSometimes we reach levels of fluency in a language where we run into roadblocks or repeat the same mistakes over and over without addressing the issue or dealing with the root cause of the problem. We may not even be aware of what the problem is.

I often find myself explaining to my Business English clientele and other trainers that language learning should be more like a child learns how to speak. Often we focus on grammatical exercises, rudimentary frameworks and what is considered to be best or usual practice without thinking about what might still be missing. Sure, you can make and see progress with these traditional methodologies, but what if something more fundamental was blocking our participants’ and our own potential to learn.

To that end, I have been studying the sounds that my four month old twins have been making and conducting research into what I term ‘predictive learning’. I am not sure if what I am discovering here has an official term but having kids has definitely allowed me to prove more pointedly what I have always suspected about language learning. And that is quite simply, that language is innate (angeboren).

In principle, it is a skill that all of us have and that anyone can do. It is code that needs to be unlocked rather than learned and the deep mysteries about how to do this go far beyond what I can write about today. However, here are some interesting facts that I have discovered on my linguistic research journey into ‘The origins of language learning’ that support this direction.

1. All children, no matter what language their parents speak, learn language much the same way.

2. When babies are born, they can make and hear all the sounds in all of the languages in the world. That’s about 150 sounds in about 6500 languages! However, no one language makes use of all 150 sounds.

3. These sounds are called ‘Phonemes‘ and English has about 44 (more in different regions). German has about 58 ‘Phoneme‘ of note (give or take). Source: How Do Children Learn Language?

So, as a B1 German learner struggling myself to improve fluency and grammatical structure, I decided to test out ‘How my German sounds’. I sat down with another German native speaker and practiced reproducing all of the German Phonemes in the list above. I had a problem with 17/58 and more than several errors in 4/58 (from this original 17). In future, I plan to run the same phonetic tests on some English learners and to write about these results and how useful the exercises are.

The results I obtained above gave me an insight into where my linguistic roadblocks are and what I need to focus on. It also explained to me how local Germans could detect I was an English speaker despite speaking perfect German and why some students could not understand some German words I was pronouncing or translating. I simply had not mastered the art of this most basic and essential skill and was repeating the same mistakes without addressing the root cause.

This might all sound very elementary but an awareness of any problem is the first step to dealing with an issue. The quote below highlights the challenge for young learners and equally new adult beginners.

Young students often have difficulties letting go of the letters and just
concentrating on the sounds in the spoken word.

For a little bit of fun and to illustrate the point further how important sounds are – watch this YouTube video on Skwerl. It’s how English sounds to other people (that don’t speak English) when you mix up the sounds.

So in addition to your tense tables, grammatical exercises and business coursebooks – you might also want to double check how your English or German sounds. You could also write down words you have problems with and check them against the list of phonemes above to see if it shows you mistakes that you make repeatedly.

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