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Talking English

Even though my dad was once a teacher, I never had much interest in the profession. When I was asked to start a conversational English class with Chinese employees, I was only mildly excited but decided to give it a try just for the experience (and the cash…).

I have to say, I’m glad I did. It has been very interesting to learn about the things the Chinese struggle with when it comes to the English language and some of it relates to my own Chinese learning experience. I can recognise some of their difficulties because I understand where they come from. For example, Chinese people often get he and she (or his and her) mixed up since in pinyin they are the same. They each have their own character but in speech you would not hear the difference.

The more advanced of the two groups asked me to go through the phonetic symbols with them. Never having been taught these in English class myself, I had to resort to Google. The students were very confused when I told them I had never learned phonetic symbols. Their natural response was ‘but how did you know how to pronounce the words?’
Good question. Maybe it was from listening to a lot of George Michael or watching too many episodes of the Dukes of Hazzard, although they were hillbillies so I probably did not learn pronunciation from them…

Some sounds are particularly difficult for the Chinese to pronounce, just as I find some of their ones impossible. Apparently when we are born we have the ability to make all the sounds in the world. But of course our parents start screwing that up very quickly by only speaking one language to us (two if you’re lucky) so we just park all the other sounds we don’t need and before you know it, they’re all rusty, or will be forgotten about completely.

It has something to do with phones (speech sounds) and phonemes. The first are the complete set of sounds that our vocal apparatus can make, the latter being phones (or a set of) you recognize as distinct sounds in a given language. The problem is that different phones can be the same phoneme in one language and not in another and of course there are phones used in one language that are not used in another. You lack the practice to produce the exact sound and your brain just wants to shove it into the box of an already existing sound.

Or something like that…

Language, it keeps me fascinated if nothing else. Probably a good thing since I started university in Suzhou this week and there’s going to be a lot of it!

Chinese class

The classroom is not very big and they still have a school bell!


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