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

(Stanley Yeung, March 15th, 2019)


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? :)


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

(Stanley Yeung, March 1st, 2019)


Why should we 'immerse' ourselves in learning English as ESL 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.


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

(Stanley Yeung, February 22th, 2019)


Why do we need to put on our thinking caps when we are learning English as ESL 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…


Why is English pronunciation important for ESL learners?

(Stanley Yeung, February 14th, 2019)


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…


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

(Stanley Yeung, January 31th, 2019)


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? :)



Updates


12/2/19

The Hong Kong Noodles Quiz for Foreigners! is now LIVE! Try this quiz to find out how Chinese characters are put together to form phrases!


5/2/19

The Chinese version for The Cantonese Vocabulary Origin Quiz for Foreigners! is now LIVE! The Cantonese Food Quiz for Foreigners! is now also refurbished with new photos and difficulty adjusted!


4/2/19

The Cantonese Vocabulary Origin Quiz for Foreigners! is now LIVE! Enjoy playing and have a great Chinese New Year, everyone!


29/12/18

The Cantonese Street Food Quiz for Foreigners! is now refurbished to fit the mobile platform.


28/12/18

Some language quizzes for foreigners are now translated into Chinese for the Chinese audience! Feel free to go to the Chinese version of this website!


17/12/18

你熟悉多少英文慣用語呢? is now LIVE! Have fun trying out this Chinese version of the English Idioms Quiz for ESL Learners!


17/12/18

The English Idioms Quiz for ESL Learners! is now LIVE! You may now enjoy becoming familiar with common English idioms!


9/12/18

This website has now transitioned into a blog! Stay tuned for English-learning blog entries!


16/6/18

The presentation slides for 'How to be a more appropriate fake ABC' - Part 4 is now LIVE! Check them out at the Utilities section!


9/6/18

All the presentation slides for The Fake ABC Book Club are now moved to the Utilities section!!! Descriptions are also added for those who missed any week's slides!!


8/6/18

The presentation slides for 'How to be a more appropriate fake ABC' - Part 3 is now LIVE! Check them out at the links section!


2/6/18

The presentation slides for 'How to be a more appropriate fake ABC' - Part 2 is now LIVE! Check them out at the links section!


28/5/18

The presentation slides for 'How to be a more appropriate fake ABC' is now LIVE! Check them out at the links section!


18/5/18

How different is Ready Player One in the novel? is now LIVE!!! People who haven't read the book but still want to read the book should do this quiz!


11/5/18

Mega Explorer is back!!! The Games page is now remade in image grid view with captions for people who are new to them! Also, the quiz How Hong Kong are you? is now LIVE!!! Image source links are now included not only due to copyright, but also for people who want to know where the images came from! Enjoy browsing those links where you can read many interesting news articles!


31/1/18

Newly added Videos Section!!! It is still under construction, but there should be many videos for people to watch soon.


16/1/18

How fast is your Cantonese? is now LIVE!!! Cantonese people are also welcome to look at this quiz!


15/1/18

The Face Matcher (beta) (15/1/18) is now LIVE!!! However, accounts and passwords are only given out in private.


9/1/18

你是什麼思想的人? is now LIVE!!! Check out the number of votes for each famous person at the end of the quiz!!!


14/12/17

你到底是個廣東人嗎? II is now LIVE!!! More challenge for native Cantonese speakers!!!


22/11/17

你到底是個廣東人嗎? is now LIVE!!! Native Cantonese speakers can now challenge themselves by playing this game!!!


22/11/17

Added Comments section for Mega Explorer. You may now go there to leave your comments on this website!!!


21/11/17

The Korean Hangman Game for FOB's!!! and The Cantonese Colloquial Quiz for Foreigners II !!! are now LIVE!!!


18/11/17

The Cantonese Numbers Quiz for FOB's!!! is now LIVE!!!


11/11/17

"The Cantonese Colloquial Quiz for Intermediate Foreigners" is now LIVE!!! Click here to check it out!


20/10/17

"The Multifaceted Jukebox (beta)" is now LIVE!!! Click here to check it out or find it in the tutorials section!!!


15/10/17

"The Ultimate Face Manipulator" is now LIVE!!! Click here to check it out!!!


11/10/17

"The Anonymous Freedom Chatroom" is now LIVE!! Click here to check them out!!!


8/10/17

"The Classic API Tester is now LIVE!! Click here to check it out now!


4/10/17

"The Golden Data Retriever is now LIVE!!! Click here to check it out now!


19/9/17

"The Ultimate Dragonball Text Battle: Goku vs Cell" and "The Unreal Monster Killing" are now LIVE! Head to the Games section here to check them out!


17/9/17

"The Ultimate Testing Machine for Javascript Methods" is now LIVE! Click here to check it!


6/9/17

"The Articles section is now updated with my work of art! Click here to play it or find it in the Games section right now!


5/8/17

"The Cantonese Colloquial Quiz for Foreigners!!!" is now LIVE! Click here to play it or find it in the Games section right now!


26/7/17

"How High Class Are You?" is now LIVE! Click here to play it or find it there in the Games section!


19/7/17

"The Asian Food Quiz for Experts!!!" is now LIVE! Click here to play it or head to the Games section to find it now!


10/7/17

My About Me page is now done! Click here or use the navigation above to check it out! It should now give people a better idea of what this website is about. Different levels are also added in the Games Section, but the content is still empty from Level 1 to 4.


26/3/17

"The Cantonese Street Food Quiz for Foreigners!" is now LIVE! Click here or find it in the Games section!


21/2/17

"你是否一位電車男?" is now LIVE! Click here or check it out in the Games section!


2/1/17

"The Cantonese Food Quiz for Foreigners!!!" is now LIVE! Click here or go to the Games section to play it.



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