Today I was teaching class and had a realization when a student read a sentence from a dialogue we were working on.
The sentence was: “I’ve got two potential applicants for the position in your company.”
A single student read the sentence, because recently whenever I’ve introduced new material to the class I’ve been asking them to read it one-by-one, rather than in the group, so that I would have a chance to listen to the students’ tone and word emphasis carefully.
In this case, when the student read the sentence, she had no pronunciation problems in terms of the individual words. She produced the sounds of each word perfectly, as if the rules of pronunciation of the International Phonetic Alphabet (the IPA) had been hard-coded into her brain (which they pretty much have, by this point).
But I noticed a problem. It was that she wasn’t using tone and emphasis to indicate that the word “two” was in fact the number two, not the word “to”.
For example, take a look at two sentences:
“I know to dance.”
“I know two dances.”
Do me the favor of ignoring for a moment that “I know to dance” is kind of a nonsense sentence, and think about this question: What is the pronunciation difference between these two sentences? Of course, as a native speaker of English, you know that the word “to” is pronounced more like “tuh” in the first sentence, whereas the pronunciation of “two” in sentence two is louder, clearer, and longer, with a long “ooh” sound at the end.
But what is the pronunciation difference between “to” and “two”? Can you explain it?
After teaching English as a second language for a year and a half to age groups from college to primary school and everything in between, I don’t remember anymore if I could have succinctly answered that question before I came to China. But I doubt it.
I certainly had zero familiarity with the IPA, and didn’t even know, at the time, that my soon-to-be students would have been relying on the IPA to learn the pronunciation of words since their childhoods when they first started studying English.
For most of my first year of teaching, in fact, I still had no idea how to write or read the IPA, much less, for that matter, how to teach the individual sounds of English other than standing in front of my students and saying, “It’s thhhhhhh. THHHHHH! Put your tongue between your teeth! Watch me! THHHHHHH!”
But that’s because I hadn’t taken the time to learn the IPA. Every time I looked at it I got a headache. The IPA is that pronunciation coding that you find in some dictionaries when you look up English words. It’s the one that virtually all native English speakers ignore, because they never had to learn it.
I still hate looking at the IPA, but I’ve learned its value. Just to give you a peek at what it looks like, here’s the sentence above that my student read, rendered in the International Phonetic Alphabet:
aiv gat tu: strɔ:ŋ kændədəts fɔ:r ðə markətiŋ pəzɪʃən jʊr lʊkiŋ tu: fɪl
If you put this string of funny looking characters in front of a Chinese student in middle school or above, she can read it. I learned it because last semester I grudgingly taught a course in English pronunciation. I started teaching the class only knowing a few of the several dozen characters, and by the end I knew all of them, just by bloody in-class repetition of use and by having to teach the students the letters one-by-one.
The necessity of the IPA for language learners is pretty obvious. If you have no inborn knowledge of English, and you reference the dictionary, and it tells you that “pretentious” is pronounced pri-ten-shuhs, how are you supposed to know how to read that any better? Is the i in pri the same as the i in prize? Or is it the i in ship? The IPA solves that kind of problem by giving a character whose pronunciation is always the same.
But the funny thing about it, and the reason I say that your (meaning native English speakers in general) understanding of language is too simple, is that Chinese people are generally shocked and confounded when I tell them that we never learn the IPA in school in the United States, and that most native speakers don’t even know what the IPA is.
How, then, could you learn to read? How could you see a five syllable word on a page and produce it flawlessly, without ever learning a system to explain English’s idiosyncratic, deeply flawed spelling system? (For reference on the “deeply flawed” part see approximately half of the comedian George Carlin’s stand-up material.) The answer is just that when you are born in a language, and are then surrounded by it every day during the formative period of your life, the first 8 to 15 years, you are exposed to so much of that language that you learn it naturally.
But that concept is difficult to understand for someone who grew up in a differently language. Thusly for me and Chinese. When I first started studying Chinese, the fact that every Chinese word has a tone (flat, rising, dipping, or falling) was overwhelmingly frustrating to me. It seemed impossible that anyone could ever speak that way truly comfortably, truly fluently.
Of course, I was wrong, and over the past six months I have been at times surprised to see myself finally expressing Chinese sentences with minimal thought applied to tones but the tones actually coming out right. All it took was constant exposure and a kind of unhealthy obsession.
Even uttering the most basic word in the beginning, “hello” 你好 or nǐ hǎo, was nearly impossible. I could produce the correct tones when sitting alone in my apartment, but I would walk out the door, go to the convenience store outside, open my mouth, and an aberration would come out. Something not even close to the proper tones.
Because foreigners across the board have sucked at Chinese tones since the beginning of time, when I meet people they often greet me with intentionally mangled tones, as though they think it will be easier for me to understand that way. Cab drivers do this the most. I open the cab door and deliver the accurately pronounced “hello” that I’ve worked on for nearly two years, and they give me a very weird sounding hello in response.
My landlord does this, too. At this point I’ve lived in the little apartment that’s adjoined to his and his family’s for eight months, and I’ve had numerous lengthy conversations with everyone in the family throughout which I’m confident nearly all my tones were correct, but every time I see him he still gives me a “hello” with crazy tones, as if he thinks all laowai (foreigners), even ones who can speak Chinese, still can’t tell a wrong tone when they hear it.
Every time he does this, I can’t help thinking of what it would be like if a Chinese person lived in the U.S. for two years, learned OK English, and then every time he ran into his landlord, he received a loud “HERRO!” in greeting.
My Chinese teacher in my first year was a young Psychology teacher in my department named Ms. Li. The reason I got her as a teacher was (as I learned later) because she could speak pretty good English. Ms. Li is just a few months older than me and thin and attractive, with light freckles on her nose and cheeks and a wide, slightly tan face.
One experience I will never forget is her trying to teach me how to pronounce the word “umbrella” 雨伞 or yǔ sǎn. Those little up-side-down triangles over yu and san indicate that each of the characters should be pronounced with the third tone, a slow, low, dipping tone.
But the thing I didn’t know, and Ms. Li didn’t know to tell me, was that when there are two third tones in a row in Chinese, the first one becomes a second tone.
Ms. Li didn’t know that. Of course she knew it, in that she produced beautiful spoken Chinese every day, by dint of a native speaker’s effortless, masterful control of a language. But she didn’t know it consciously in that she could teach it to me. She couldn’t explain it to me. She could only sit there, and say: “Two third tones. Yǔ sǎn. Yǔ sǎn. Yǔ sǎn!”
There are things we don’t know. And there are things we don’t know we don’t know. And then there are things we know, but we don’t know that we know. Those things, maybe more than anything else, consist in language. And that is one of the major things I have learned in my time here.
If you want to learn a language, you must do so in chunks. You must find audio recordings of native speakers conversing at natural or near-natural speeds (forget all of those useless Rosetta Stone tapes. They are all bullshit) and you must push yourself to copy their pronunciation as perfectly as possible.
You must remain flexible. You must remember that there are rules, but every rules has an exception. You must focus on memorizing words, and then stop memorizing words for a while and practice listening, and then practice pronunciation, and then do tongue twisters, and then walk around town talking to anyone who will talk to you, and then go home and memorize more words, and then do the cycle all over again.
You must alter your strategy every month or so and focus on something new, but then you must also have consistency. You must do the same thing every day. You must do things to get yourself in the company of strangers who can’t speak English, you must go on boring trips, go to dinner with people you don’t like, sit for hundreds of hours listening to people talk and not understanding them.
You must slowly, gradually, allow yourself to expand. You must never wonder if it’s worth it. You must understand that you will never speak the language as beautifully as the clumsiest native speaker. You must accept that painful truth. You must keep going anyway. You must gain confidence gradually, and then lose the majority of it in one disastrous encounter in which communication fails completely. You must gradually regather confidence.
You must forget the you who couldn’t communicate at all in the tongue you can now speak. You must realize, now, that you are worse than a child, even in the language that you now speak. You must accept that your skills in your native language have actually become slightly weaker, that there are new words, new concepts, that have actually emerged since you left your native country that you now know nothing about.
You must do all these things to learn, but why? I don’t know why. Because it’s interesting. Because in the beginning every week you realize that you have taken a step forward, and you said something. And then a few weeks later you said something even better and longer, and then a few months later you sort of had a conversation, and then several months later you understood everything she said to you, and then a year later you spent a whole day with someone without uttering a single English word, and then you come to know someone in that language, and then you laugh in that language.
It’s not about thinking in Chinese. It’s not about dreaming in Chinese. Anyone who has studied Chinese seriously for more than a few months has done both, I think. It’s about becoming a person in the language you want to speak. Building yourself up in a new language, a new person, of sorts, but the same person. It’s about all those things. And along the way, you learn that language is a hell of a thing.