To language teachers, linguists’ careers and day-to-day work lives may be interesting. But their thoughts on teaching and learning a language may also be informative and enlightening as well.
What would a professional language expert say about language pedagogy? What advice or cautions would they offer to language teachers?
I had a chance to ask two linguists these very questions when I sat down with Vanessa Quasnik and Alexandra Taranu.
They’re linguists at the technology text-to-speech company ReadSpeaker, which boasts an audio library of more than 245 authentic and accurate voices for nearly 70 languages. Getting those languages right, teaching computers to get the words and pronunciations right, is what Quasnik and Taranu do every day.
But, I asked, what about teaching language to students? What would linguists say language teachers know or think about when teaching a new language?
“One of the things I’d say,” Quasnik says, “is that there is not a lot of focus on pronunciation and learning the sounds of the language properly. Everybody who’s not a native speaker of English knows that the accent of their native language is maybe the worst or not very pleasant. I’m a native German speaker,, and it really bothers me when I hear English spoken with entirely German sounds.”
And you do that, Quasnik said, “by listening to the language.” In some available text-to-speech platforms, she says, learners can not only hear the language spoken by a native speaker but also highlight words and even individual letters to hear them sounded out specifically. “It’s difficult to teach those sounds,” she says, “because often, non-native speakers teach language, but that can be important.” She says watching TV, listening to the radio, and using audiobooks can be very helpful when it comes to pronunciation.
Taranu, who grew up in Spain, agreed. “One of the things teachers could focus on more is the inability of students to pronounce sounds in another language if that sound does not exist in your native language,” she said. Focusing on new sounds, she said, is “a very big deal when trying to learn a new language. For example, the sh- sound, as in she – is a sound that does not exist in Spanish, so most students don’t know how to pronounce it. Teachers teach grammar and reading and just some listening, but itself speaking isn’t taught much because there’s no time for that. So, teaching students specific sounds would be helpful in teaching someone a language fluently.”
Other language learning experts have also suggested that to help with pronunciation; students can use accurate text-to-speech tools to hear what they’ve personally written. Hearing their own words in the language of study can be a powerful tool in comprehension, writing accuracy and pronunciation. Hearing the same text in the same language but with different accurate accents can be helpful, too.
Taranu also suggested that outside audio supplements such as audiobooks could be helpful when acquiring a new language. “That’s why,” she said, “watching a series or watching movies with subtitles in that certain language normally helps.” Though she did caution about the difference between subtitles and dubbed audio. She said Spanish is usually dubbed, so there are no subtitles, but with sources like Netflix, subtitles can sometimes be added anyway. She also cautioned that different languages have different subtitle rules, often depending on space. So, subtitle translations may not always be accurate.
“Another option for teachers,” Quasnik said, “is language exchange students, if you can go somewhere to practice speaking, not just for a week or two, but longer. But that’s a very luxurious option not everybody can afford. Maybe something like a modern pan-pal version where you do online meetings, face-to-face, from your desk at home. That would be good.”
Quasnik also shared a common fear or stumbling block of language learning, especially early or introductory efforts. “One thing I always hated in school was having to talk to my classmates in a foreign language, and it was the worst. Not everyone is comfortable speaking a language right from the get-go,” she said. “We’re all differently brave in new things, and there should be acceptance may be that not everyone wants to do this and not discriminate against students who rather prefer listening and reading first, then talking.”
“When I was a student,” Taranu said, “I was dreading having to speak.” She said, “Having no option than to speak that language is what really helps.”
Here, once again, language experts highlight the importance of hearing the language spoken correctly, but probably not by a student. They point out that not hearing the correct pronunciation can lead to a lack of comprehension, even in reading. If you cannot practice hearing a different sound in a new language, you may not be able to see it or hear it correctly when it’s presented.
After asking about classroom tactics and practices, I asked the pair about languages in general – what language, for example, they’d advise an American English speaker to attempt first.
“It’s always good when going from English to pick something easy to learn, something that’s Germanic in nature, that has the same rules,” Taranu said. “If it’s easier, it’s going to give you more confidence afterwards to go for other languages.” She added, “If you’re an English speaker and then you try to go for a language totally unrelated, like you try to go for Chinese or Mandarin, for example, you’re going to struggle a lot because you have no basis, you do not know, you have zero to go on,” And that struggle, she said, may impact the way you feel about learning a language in general.
When I pinned her down, Taranu said she’d advise an English speaker to try French or German. Or Dutch. Because of vocabulary overlap and similar grammar rules. Admittedly, it was not a very good pindown.
Interestingly, Quasnik essentially disagreed with the “easiest to learn” approach as the new language being learned by an American English speaker.
“I would never recommend any language based on what’s easier to learn,” she said. “I would say, learn the language you’re interested in. If you like anime and you know a lot of anime is Japanese, learn Japanese. It’s hard. They have three different alphabets and a huge subset of Chinese characters they use. It takes a long time, but it’s even more rewarding to have accomplished that.” She added, “Whatever culture you’re interested in, you should learn that language to get more access to that culture.”
Though both more or less agreed that Latin, as well, was a good place to start. And that, as an alternative to Dutch, learning Swedish may be a good first step for English speakers.
I also asked the language experts to share their thoughts on endangered or threatened languages.
“Any language that has, I think, fewer than five million speakers is considered an exotic language,” Taranu said. She added that efforts by governments and others to promote and invest in smaller, secondary or regional languages make a big difference in keeping those languages alive and growing. “Having the option to learn or buy things in an endangered or exotic language is a good way to do it,” she said. But forcing it, requiring the learning of these languages in schools, she offered, is probably less successful.
“Many people have the notion that one country only has one language and there can only be one major language per country, and that’s just not true – and that only helps to lose these languages,” Quasnik said.
In other words, simply teaching students that textbook Spanish is not all that’s spoken in Spain can be very helpful.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly on language learning, Quasnik said, “If you learn a language, it needs to be fun. I learned Spanish for seven years, and it was never fun, so I cannot speak it. I learned Swedish fluently in three years because it was fun. The circumstances were also very different – I went to my colleagues and said, ‘From now, speak only Swedish with me.’ It was very hard. I was exhausted after ten minutes, so it’s not something to underestimate. Immersion is not easier than going to school. But it was way more fun to learn Swedish that way than it was to learn Spanish in school.”
To a single-language speaker who has studied three other languages, none of them successfully, that feels right.
And, Taranu said students should “be aware that someone’s brain will be a mish-mosh for a while. And that’s OK. With time, you’ll get fluency. It’s OK, people will understand if you get it wrong,” she said.
That feels right too. After all, understanding is supposed to be the point of teaching, learning or using a new language. And though it may help, you probably don’t need to be a professional language expert to get that.