Why do we need to pay so much attention to the sounds in English as ESL learners?

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Why do we need to pay so much attention to the sounds in English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? When learning English, it seems as though much emphasis is placed on the spoken form of the language, unlike learning Chinese, where a lot of emphasis is placed on the written form of the language. Especially for those of us who are native Hong Kongers, we would not even study the spoken form of our mother tongue language Cantonese at all, but rather we would spend a lot of time practice writing out every new Chinese character that we learn in our exercise books for homework every week, starting from kindergarten. However, English seems to be very different as there is also the study of phonics and IPA (International Alphabet), where sounds are broken down into smaller categories, such as the English vowel ‘i’ being separated into the long I (i:) sound and the short I (i) sound. So for a word such as ‘income’, we would still need to practice pronouncing it with the short ‘i’ sound instead of the long ‘i’ sound, even though the listener may only hear a slight difference and may not treat it as a mistake at all. So the question is, why do we still need to spend so much time perfecting the sounds in English?


Some people say that learning English is like learning how to play an instrument. With so many different accents to choose from, it’s almost as if we’re picking up a specific instrument to play with when we are practicing English. Even when we are practicing English writing, we still need to stick to the one type of musical language for the specific instrument that we’ve chosen, as each variety of English has its own unique written form. However, English is very interesting because there are many of those who can be incredibly good at speaking but not at writing. Yet, we still tend to admire those who are good at speaking a lot more than those who are good at writing, just like a singer performing on stage draws a lot more immediate attention than the songwriter who wrote the song. But in Chinese, it seems as though people tend to be a lot more impressed by your ability to write. Especially for a Chinese language like Cantonese, where the written language is entirely separate from its spoken form, it requires a lot of time and great dedication to improve your skill in it. So if you tell someone that you know Cantonese, it might just mean you have an ability to speak it.


So if we know that English is so different and that sounds are more important when learning it, why aren’t we making the effort to practice them? Well, perhaps the world is now changing in a way that people don’t tend to communicate as much verbally anymore, as messengers like Whatsapp and WeChat allow people to communicate much more efficiently and conveniently. Even though there are countless resources for learning English on the internet, we are now living in an age where people are not as aware of each other’s speech sounds anymore as most of us prefer texting, compared to the past when there was no internet and people had to communicate face-to-face or by phone call all the time. So for a place like Hong Kong, even though the mother tongue policy has had a huge effect on people’s English proficiencies, people’s native language proficiencies are actually also declining due to people relying more on the internet for communication nowadays. In fact, a recent study has shown that Cantonese people nowadays use a lot less Chinese idioms in expressing themselves than they did in the past because experts believe that such expressions tend to require a real life environment to induce them.


Nevertheless, to us Chinese ESL learners, the sounds of the English language catches our ears because compared to Chinese, English has so many different accents and there can be so much variation even for native English speakers who are living in the same country. While I was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Language and Translation at a university in Hong Kong, there was a subject called Sociolinguistics where I studied the characteristics of different English dialects, which denoted different socioeconomic classes. For example, in New York City, there once was a linguist called Labov who did research on New Yorkers and found out that the ‘r’ pronunciation was a prestigious trait, and that middle and lower classes liked to utter this sound in their dialogue, such as for the phrase ‘fourth floor’, in order to mimic a higher social class. However, in a Chinese community like Hong Kong, even though there has been a recent trend called the ‘Fake ABC’ where the situation is similar, people are mimicking the higher class through a method called ‘code-mixing’. ie. The local university students and graduates in Hong Kong like to mimic American Born Chinese people by incorporating English words into their Cantonese dialogue, in order to sound like they are of a higher social class. But have we taken an appropriate attitude towards learning the sounds of English, apart from imitating them in order to sound cool? 🙂


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為什麼我們要非常注重英文語音?當我們學習英語時,學習過程中好像永遠都那麼重視會話的方面,相比讀中文時,學習過程中好像永遠都那麼重視書寫的方面。尤其是作為香港的本地學生們,我們連平時說的廣東話都不會在學校學習,反而從小時我們就習慣了每星期花許多時間做抄寫中文生字的練習,彷彿學習中文永遠都那麼重視寫的方面。另外,中文的語言學很不像英文的,猶如英文的自然拼讀法(phonics)或國際音標(IPA —International Phonetic Alphabet)能夠把語音分割成較細緻的類別。例如,英文的元音i可以分割成長音i:和短音I。不過,即使我們發音不太準確,例如把英文字“income”的i音發成長音i:,外國人只可能會聽得出一點的差別,或許都不會認為是一個錯誤。所以問題就是,為什麼我們都花那麼多時間鍛鍊出完美無暇的英文發音呢?

有些人說學英語就像學懂彈一種樂器。由於英語的世界裡存在許多不同的口音,當我們學習英語時,我們彷彿在挑選某一種樂器來彈出自己喜愛的音樂。即使我們只是在練習英文寫作,由於每一種英語口音擁有自己獨特的書面語,我們練習寫作時彷彿也需要學會某種樂器的音樂語言。 不過,英語的世界裡是非常有趣的,即使你遇見一些說話伶俐的人,他們亦未必太懂得書寫。然而,我們永遠都比較崇拜能夠說流利英語的人,就像我們永遠都被聲音好聽的歌星深深的吸引著,而未必太理會背後的作詞者。但在中文的世界裡,事情好像是相反的。尤其是好像廣東話的這種中文語言,由於口語和書面語是完全不同,要鍛鍊到較佳的寫作能力真的需要花很多時間和心機。因此,如果你對某人說你懂廣東話,這可能只代表你懂得說廣東話。


無論如何,對於我們以英語為第二語言的學者來說,由於英語有許多不同種類的口音,英語的聲調總是吸引著我們的耳朵去聆聽。當我在香港上大學就讀翻譯系時,我修讀過一個課程叫Sociolinguistics(社會語言學),分析過不同的英語方言的特徵,從中可推斷出一個人的“socioeconomic class”,即是社會經濟地位。例如,在紐約城市裡,曾經有一位叫Labov的語言學家做了一個調查,發現紐約人認為英文的“r”音是一個較為社會地位高的人時常會發的語音,猶如“fourth floor”裡的兩個r音。相比在亞洲方面,例如香港,雖然出現了同樣的現象,人們是透過“code-mixing”,即是語碼轉換的方式,來提高自己的社會經濟地位。換句話說,香港的大學生和大學畢業生們都很喜歡在他們日常的廣東話對話中加插許多英語,務求顯現得較高尚,彷彿是來自貴族家庭,從小就被送到外國留學。不過,我們是抱著真誠的態度學習英語,還是利用英語來顯現自己呢?☺

Why should we ‘immerse’ ourselves in learning English as ESL learners?

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Why should we ‘immerse’ ourselves in learning English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? The concept of ‘immersion’ may seem strange and foreign to those grew up under the Asian education system, as the traditional way of learning has always been through a cognitive and written approach, like the way we learn Mathematics or Science by memorising facts and figures from textbooks and practicing what we know by doing written exercises. In addition, Chinese itself is quite a cognitive type of language, as all of us spend a lot of time every week practice writing out every new Chinese character that we learn in class in our exercise books, as if knowing the written form of a character is a very important in helping us understand and remember the character, which it is indeed. So the question is, since most of us Chinese ESL learners are so used to the cognitive and written approach of learning, shouldn’t this also be the most suitable method for us in learning English?


When it comes to learning a foreign language, experts say that the best way is through immersion, which means that you will most likely have to place yourself in a foreign country where everyone speaks the language. However, even when we are just practicing speaking English in class, most of us are still very afraid, as if immersion to us is like diving into a pool of water. In addition, immersing ourselves to speak English like a native English speaker may mean that we have to lose our own cultural identity, in order to truly speak and sound like one. After all, as ESL learners, shouldn’t our native language be the primary language that we speak? Also, why should we bother so much about sounding like a native speaker, especially when it means being just like a foreign person?


So as a former ESL learner who has now reached a native level in English, what do I have to say about ‘diving into the pool of water’ when it comes to learning a foreign language? After having seen other ESL learners who have had the same opportunities as me in immersing themselves in an English-speaking environment, it seems as though it is not easy for an ESL learner to bother climbing out of the pool once they have immersed themselves into it. While I was studying Translation at a university in Hong Kong, my classmates used to have commented that I sounded like an ABC when I spoke English, even though I still spoke Cantonese with them daily. But what about those who don’t speak their native language anymore? Not only would they sound like outsiders, but also what would their parents think of them? This may be the one danger that a person needs to be aware of when immersing himself to learn a foreign language.


In linguistics, there is even a theory or hypothesis called Sapir-Whorf, which is that the language that a person speaks determines the way they perceive reality, or the language that one speaks determine the way they think, feel, and act, which means your whole brain could be ‘rewired’ as a result of learning a foreign language. At the greatest extent, a person may even lose touch with the habits, cultural traditions, and world views of their own native language, which could mean that they have become an entirely ‘different’ person. Nonetheless, immersion is the most effective way in learning a foreign language because it trains all four areas of our language capacities – listening, speaking, writing, and reading. But perhaps there is still a way to stay conscious of who we are as a cultural being, which is by keeping our heads out of the water by learning how to swim during the immersion process.


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作為一個過來人和一個英語水平已經達到母語程度的學者來說,我對這個學習外語的方法“沉浸式”有什麼見解呢?在我的讀書路途之中,我曾經遇過許多跟我一樣的中國人擁有同樣的過外國留學沉浸英文的機會,但是在我印象中好像有許多人“跳入水池或大海”之後,由於太過習慣了外國文化,於是回不上岸。當我在大學時就讀翻譯的時候,即使我每天都跟香港的同學們說廣東話,他們也說當我說英語的時候,我好像ABC(American Born Chinese)。若我有點像一個“外人”的話,那些不再說自己母語的中國人會算是什麼呢?還有,他們的家長會怎樣看兒女不再說自己的母語呢?這或許就是採用“沉浸式”來學習外語的一個重大危機。


Why do we need to put on our thinking caps as ESL learners?

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Why do we need to put on our thinking caps when we are learning English as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? For many of us ESL learners, it seems as though all kinds of English grammar rules and vocabulary need to be explained to us before our brains can retain a decent memory of them. To understand an English word, especially a long one, it can be very difficult for us, as English is unlike Chinese, which is a pictorial language. For example, how can we know what the word “prosperous” means by just looking at it? Even worse, when we read an English book, it can take us a considerable amount of time to understand what is happening, as we have little or no English language environment to refer to. So the question is, are all of us ESL learners really stuck at relying on our English teacher to explain things to us?


If we look at famous figures like Bruce Lee in the past, we can probably pick up a quote such as “Don’t think, feel.” Even though Bruce Lee was not a linguist, there is certainly some correlation between martial arts and language, as language is also an art. So if we were to apply his learning philosophy to English learning, what would be the result? On one hand, it can still be very difficult to feel what a word means by just looking at it, as English letters are nothing but a bunch of ‘雞腸’ (meaning chicken intestines in Cantonese, like a bunch of meaningless curly lines) to us. But on the other hand, the method of ‘feeling’ to understand a language makes a lot of sense because language is form of human expression. However, without a native English speaking environment, how are we able to feel what a word means, especially when the word is not commonly used, or may only have a slight difference with another word that is much simpler and easier to utter?


Perhaps one way of looking at this is to ask ourselves to ‘put on our eating cap’ when we eat a meal. Even though there may not be such a phrase in English, I would define it as being able to have an appreciation for different kinds of food. For example, when we’re so used to eating a certain type of dish, we would probably want to change to eating another type of dish to develop our taste for food. So if we were to look at English words as different types of dishes, we can probably better satisfy the appetite of our brain if we know how to use different vocabulary for expressing the same meaning in our conversation. Eg. Kind, nice, benevolent, and generous, for describing people of good character. However, we can also lose our appreciation for simpler words if we try to use too much advanced vocabulary all the time, and we can end up sounding pretentious and snobby. Likewise with food, in order to maintain the appreciation for expensive foods, one must also try the cheaper foods.


When it comes to learning a second language, there is certainly a level of difficulty involved. But have we ever thought that the process of learning can be enjoyable as well? We may not be taught such a method of learning while studying under our education systems, as most systems focus on the end goal of doing well in the exams. Even if we attain a decent grade in an exam, our teacher might still say to us that there is still room for improvement. So with other people’s expectations set so high on us all the time, how can we ever truly grasp the joy of learning? Therefore, whenever we face enormous pressure in our studies, we would probably want to put on our eating cap, playing cap, doodling cap, or whatever cap one can think of, in order to escape reality for a while. But let’s not forget that we should put away any irrelevant caps when we are back in study mode…

為什麼我們學英語時需要戴上“thinking cap”?

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為什麼我們學英語時需要戴上“thinking cap”?來自英文慣用語“put on your thinking cap”,這句“戴上你的思考帽子”的意思就是認真地思考某事情。對於我們以英語為第二語言學者來說,所有英文語法及詞彙都好像需要透過老師的解釋,我們才能明白和把知識保持良好的記憶。由於英語不像中文擁有圖象,要明白一個英文字的意思頗為困難,尤其是一個比較長的英文字。例如,我們怎樣能夠從字面上看見“prosperous”這個英文字的意思呢?另外,當我們閱讀英文書的時候,由於沒有足夠的英語環境,我們可能需要花許多時間才能明白故事的內容。所以問題就是,對於我們以英語為第二語言學者來說,我們是否永遠都要透過聽老師的解釋才能提升得到我們的英語水平呢?

若我們回看一些歷史上學過英語的名人,猶如李小龍,我們或許會尋找到一些對我們印象很深刻的金句。例如,李小龍曾經說過“Don’t think, feel.”(意思是“不要想太多,憑感覺吧。)雖然李小龍不是語言學家,但是功夫和語言可算是有一個密切的關係,因為功夫和語言都是藝術。因此,當我們應用他的學習理論在英語學習時,結果會是怎樣的呢?在一方面,由於英語對中國人來說好像一堆雞腸,要憑感覺來看透一個英文字的意思真是非常困難的。在另一方面,憑感覺來學習語言就是非常有道理的,因為語言也是靠人類的情感表達出來的。不過,若我們沒有一個活著人的英語環境,我們怎樣能夠憑感覺來推測一個英文字的意思呢?尤其是當一個英文字不是常用的,或者比起一個較簡單易用的同義字只是差很少的區別?

或許,我們可以換另一個角度來看我們的語言運用,就像進餐時叫自己戴上“eating cap”。雖然英文還未有這個詞彙,但是我對“put on your eating cap”的定義解作為懂得欣賞不同類型的菜式。例如,當我們習慣了每餐都吃同樣的菜式時,我們或許有時候都想轉吃另一種菜式,來增加我們對食物的體驗和知識。所以當我們把英文字當作為不同的菜式來看的時候,若我們能夠用不同的字詞來表達同一個意思,我們就可以滿足得到我們腦筋的“胃口”。例如,用kind、nice、 benevolent或generous來形容一個好的人。不過,若我們過於用進階的詞彙,我們也可能忘記懂得欣賞簡單的詞彙,甚至令我們說話的時候太過裝模作樣或顯得太高調。同樣地在食物的世界裡,若要保持一個良好的飲食態度和習慣,我們都需要懂得品嚐便宜的食物,否則就不能夠體驗到昂貴食物的價值。

當我們學習另一個語言的時候,雖然難度確實是存在的,但是我們究竟有沒有想過學習的過程還能夠享受嗎?在我們的教育制度之下,由於傳統的理念都是為了在考試取得高分數,我們或許從來都沒有聽過學習還能夠享受吧。就算我們拿到好的成績,我們的老師亦可能對我們說還有進步的空間。所以當活在一個許多人都對我們的期望很高的環境之下,我們怎樣能夠領悟得到學習的真正樂趣呢?因此,當我們讀書遇到沉重的壓力時,我們就想拿起我們的eating cap、playing cap、doodling cap等等,來逃避現實世界一會兒。但當我們回到現實世界讀書時,我們不應該忘記把所有跟讀書無關的cap收拾好。

Why is English pronunciation important for ESL learners?

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Why is English pronunciation important for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? For ESL learners, there seems to be many words that are very difficult to pronounce, and even when we pronounce them correctly, we may not get the word stress on the right syllable in an English word. Eg. Hamburger is a word that Hong Kong children like to pronounce with a stress on the second syllable, instead of the first syllable. However, when I was studying for a bachelor’s degree in Language and Translation in Hong Kong, a linguistics professor once said that certain Chinese style of English are beginning to be accepted due to popular use, such as omitting the ‘s’ in verbs that follow a third person pronoun, and that eventually, ‘Chinese English’ (note: don’t confuse this with Chinglish) will become nativized and have its own set of grammar rules and vocabulary, just like Singaporean English. So the question is, what is the correct model for learning English pronunciation?


To answer this question, I would like to share an experience from my childhood with everyone because surprisingly, I can still recall vividly an English conversation that I had with a Canadian flight attendant on the airplane when I first flew to Canada from Hong Kong at the age of 7. As a child, I was often quite lazy to get things for myself, but I remember there was one time my mom said to me on the airplane that I should order the apple juice by myself. So after she taught me how to order it in English, I said to the flight attendant, “Apple juice with no eyes”, which I mispronounced ‘ice’ as ‘eyes’. Then the flight attendant giggled and said ‘No eyes?’ I didn’t know how to respond to her question and looked absolutely innocent, but then she smiled in a friendly way and passed me the cup of apple juice.


So as you can see, before I even attended school in Canada, I already had the privilege of being corrected in English. Even though the flight attendant corrected my English in a friendly manner, I am pretty sure that pronunciation in this case seemed very important because it could affect the meaning of a word entirely. But what about cases where mispronunciation does not really affect the meaning of a word, such as omitting an ‘s’ at the end of a verb that follows a third person pronoun? This seems to be a mistake that only an English teacher would tell you, but not from someone who you talk to casually in daily life. After all, it’s not such a cute mistake like ‘no eyes’, is it? 🙂


So to what extent should we care about pronunciation in English? If it does not affect the meaning of what I am saying or as long as another person understands what I am saying, should I even care about proper pronunciation? But perhaps, we should think about how we look at foreigners when they speak our native language improperly, especially when they are also Asians, looking just like us, but from a nearby country. The reality is that we are also often quite harsh towards outsiders who speak our native language, as it is the other way around. Therefore, if our native language contains a sound that is also available in the English language, we should definitely make the effort to utter the sound when we pronounce an English word. Otherwise, we can probably pronounce ‘language’ as ‘langage’, which was actually consistently being heard throughout the lectures given by the linguistics professor I met at university…


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為什麼標準的英語發音是那麼重要的? 對於以英語為第二語言的學者,英語好像有非常多字詞是很難發音的。即使我們發音很標準,我們也未必能夠把每一個字的輕重音發得準確。例如,香港的小學生們很喜歡把“Hamburger”的重音放在第二個音節上,而不放在正確的第一個音節上。然而,我在香港就讀語言與翻譯學士學位的時候,有一位大學教授曾經在課堂上說過,由於現已較多人使用,某些中國式的英語,例如動詞之後不加‘s’,將會開始被接納,直至有一天“中國英語”(意思是‘Chinese English’,但不要誤解為貶義詞‘Chinglish’)的地位會成為新加坡英語一樣,有自己獨特的語法和詞彙。所以問題就是,對於以英語為第二語言的學者來說,要學會標準的英語發音應該跟蹤什麼模樣呢?

來回答這一個問題,我首先想跟大家分享一下我童年時的一個記憶。偶然,我還記得七歲時由香港乘坐飛機到加拿大的時候,與某位加拿大國籍的空姐的對話。雖然我小的時候有點懶惰和習慣了被家人服侍,但是我還記得有一次我媽媽叫我嘗試一下自己叫飲品,就是飛機上的蘋果汁。當她教完我怎樣用英語叫蘋果汁的時候,我就跟空姐說:「Apple juice with no eyes. 」(我把‘ice’讀成‘eyes’)。然後,那位空姐就笑著說:「No eyes?」。那時候,我當然不知道怎樣回答,然後她很友善地微笑著給了我叫的一杯蘋果汁。

從此可見,我還未在加拿大就讀小學的時候,我已經享有了被人們糾正英語的特權。雖然那位空姐很友善地更正了我的英語發音,但是在這個情況之下,由於發音不準確會導致英文字的意思改變,發音在這裡不能夠說是不重要的。那我們現在或許會想,如果在其他情況之下,猶如在第三人稱代名詞之後的動詞尾不發‘s’音的話,發音標準在這裡還算不算是很重要的呢?這個錯處或許只會是英文老師告訴你的,而不會從你日常和你傾談的人聽見的。畢竟,這不算是一個很有趣可愛的錯誤,猶如‘no eyes’這個例子,對不對呢?


Why do we easily get affected by our mother-tongue language as ESL learners?

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Why do we easily get affected by our mother-tongue language as ESL (English as a Second Language) learners? The short answer to this question is that if we are learning a language spoken by a different ethnic group, it is almost as if we are trying to speak a language of a different species if we were in the animal kingdom. ie. If I were a cat species, how can I get myself to talk like a pig species? However, whenever we come across people like ABC’s (American Born Chinese) who are able to speak English like a native speaker, we can feel like we are not competent enough, as if our own species can even be better than us. So the question is, is it actually a normal phenomenon when our English expressions are being affected by our mother-tongue language?

Throughout history, we have seen how countries have tried to preserve their own local culture by preventing the invasion of foreign values and culture. So if culture and language cannot be separated, what happens when English words try to enter the brain? Well, the brain reacts the same way a country does when it senses a security problem, then drives away all that is associated with foreign culture in it. In other words, if an English word were a foreign person entering the brain to find a place to settle down, the brain would yell out something like “Here comes an intruder!” or “Let’s put him in custody for 3 days!” Then maybe the person (English word) will be executed afterwards.

So from the perspective of culture, the brain may already have a defense mechanism that guards against foreign cultures by making sure that its local culture stays well-intact and remains predominant. So how can we speak English like a foreign person if we do not even have the culture and lifestyles of a foreign person? This is why experts say that the best way to learn a language is through immersing yourself in a real life language environment. Yet, most of us still hit a brick wall in our language learning process because we are so used to the lifestyles and culture from our mother tongue language. We may still continue to improve ourselves in vocabulary knowledge of a foreign language, but never be able to reach the fluency of a foreign language’s native speaker.

So how should we feel about ourselves whenever we leave a hint of our mother tongue language when we speak English? For one thing, our brain has a natural response to different cultures other than our own, and even if we try hard to memorise words, our utterances are nonetheless indicative of where we come from. Even though we still tend to admire native English speakers very much, we should never forget that we also have our own heritage to be proud of and to be admired by foreigners. We may try to sound like native English speakers through various methods such as learning IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), but have we completely forgotten what colour we are on the inside? 🙂


Posted on Categories 英語Tags , , , , , , Leave a comment on 為什麼我們的母語會影響英語學習?

為什麼我們的母語會影響英語學習?以一個簡單的比喻來說,當我們在學習說另一個種族的語言的時候,彷彿在動物世界的層面裡,在學習說另一個物種的語言。例如,如果我的物種是屬於貓,我說話的口吻怎能像物種屬於豬的生物呢?然而,當我們遇見一些外國出生的華人,猶如ABC( American Born Chinese),我們就很容易感到自己說英語的能力有些欠佳,彷彿連跟自己相同的物種也可以比我們更優秀。所以問題就是,當我們說英語時被自己的母語影響,這到底是否一個正常的現象呢?