Wadjasay? American English Pronunciation Practice

Thoughts on language learning

September 09, 2022 Follow on Telegram: https://t.me/NativeEnglishLessons Season 3 Episode 27
Thoughts on language learning
Wadjasay? American English Pronunciation Practice
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Wadjasay? American English Pronunciation Practice
Thoughts on language learning
Sep 09, 2022 Season 3 Episode 27
Follow on Telegram: https://t.me/NativeEnglishLessons

Send me a text message. Suggestions? Subjects for future podcasts? Let me know--thanks!

Updated May 2024: This is a long podcast and there is now a transcript. Click the "transcript" link to read along. I tried to share my thoughts and feelings about how children learn language and what we adults can learn from them. Hope you find it interesting.

Follow on Telegram for more info and my Tandem class and discussion schedule. 

Intro & Outro Music: La Pompe Du Trompe by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com

Support the Show.

You can now support my podcasts and classes:
Help Barry pay for podcast expenses--thank you!

Wadjasay? Practice American English Pronunciation
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Show Notes Transcript

Send me a text message. Suggestions? Subjects for future podcasts? Let me know--thanks!

Updated May 2024: This is a long podcast and there is now a transcript. Click the "transcript" link to read along. I tried to share my thoughts and feelings about how children learn language and what we adults can learn from them. Hope you find it interesting.

Follow on Telegram for more info and my Tandem class and discussion schedule. 

Intro & Outro Music: La Pompe Du Trompe by Shane Ivers - https://www.silvermansound.com

Support the Show.

You can now support my podcasts and classes:
Help Barry pay for podcast expenses--thank you!

It occurred to me a few months ago that one of the first things we do as newborn babies is begin to learn a foreign language.

Usually we don't think of our first language as being a foreign language.

It's the one that we will call our native language or our mother tongue.

But if you're a baby, it's a foreign language.

It's a language you don't know.

And it happens to be the one that your family, your parents, mommy and daddy are speaking.

And in the course of the first five or six or seven years of life, it will go from being a foreign language to the first language that you speak fluently and proficiently.

And as you get older, if someone says, "What's your mother tongue?

What's your native language?"

You will say English or French or German or Mandarin or Spanish or some other language.

And it will become your native language.

Let's think for a while about the environment in which babies acquire their first language, or in some cases their first languages.

First, babies do not begin speaking for quite a while.

They do, however, begin listening.

How much do they listen?

It will vary from family to family.

But let's assume, let's pretend that it ranges from at least five hours a day to perhaps 10 hours a day.

It could be less.

It could be more.

But that seems like a reasonable range to me.

So if a baby listens to their mother tongue for five hours a day, that's about 1800 hours, 1800 hours in the first year of life.

If they listen to their mother tongue for 10 hours a day on average, that's 3650 hours in the first year of life.

Is that a lot of listening?

Well, let's compare it to a teenager, a high school student who's studying Spanish in the United States.

And let's assume that he has class every day, that his teacher is a native speaker of Spanish, and that the class is conducted only in Spanish.

And that each class is one hour long, and that almost all of that time the students are listening to the teacher speaking.

This is not really what will happen, but let's pretend for the sake of calculations.

And let's pretend that the student has class for 40 weeks during the school year.

Let's also assume that the student is interested but not wildly interested in learning Spanish.

And so all of the Spanish practice, all of the Spanish listening that he does is in class.

So five hours a week times 40 weeks during the school year would be 200 hours of exposure to spoken Spanish during the course of the year.

The baby has been exposed to at least 1800 hours, perhaps as much as over 3600 hours, and this imaginary student has been exposed to 200 hours of Spanish.

That means the baby has listened at least nine times more than the student, and perhaps as much as 18 times more during that first year of life.

So keep that fact in mind that the baby learner during its first year of studying, we'll say English, during its first year of studying English, it doesn't speak at all.

It's a listener.

It's an observer.

The baby is watching.

The baby is listening, but the baby is not speaking other than making baby noises.

And at the end of the first year of life, if you check, you will discover that a typical baby has a vocabulary of perhaps 50 words, maybe more.

If you ask a baby, "Where's the dog?

" a one-year-old baby will turn its head and look at the dog.

If you say, "Baby, where's the cat?" the baby will turn its head and look at the cat.

If you say, "Where's the lamp?" it'll look at the lamp.

"Where's mama? Where's daddy?" the baby will turn its head towards the person or the object that you've asked about.

It is very obvious, I've done this with my own children and grandchildren, it's very obvious that the child by the age of one has a vocabulary.

I've read that it's typically around 50 words.

I haven't verified that myself, so I don't know for sure.

Probably it's more in the case of some babies and fewer words in the case of other babies.

But very clearly they are acquiring language.

They have words in their head and they associate those words with objects in their house, probably objects outside like trees and sky.

"Oh, look up at the sky!"

The baby probably understands the word "sky.

As time passes and the baby acquires more control over its mouth and tongue, it begins to speak.

Normally these are one-word sentences, I'll call them one-word utterances.

"Mama," "dada," "dog," "cat," the same objects that it already knows the words for, it will begin trying to say.

Names of people.

Pronunciation might not be very good yet, but once a baby begins to say words, it's very clear that they have gone from just listening to speech to beginning to use it.

Which brings up the interesting question of why.

What motivates a child to begin speaking?

What is the purpose of language?

We all talk to each other.

Grownups, grownups to children, children to grownups.

We talk on the phone, we listen to people talking in movies.


Why do children bother to learn to talk?

My own feeling, based only on observation, is that it's so obviously useful.

When you're a little baby, all you can do is cry.

And your parents, try to guess why you're crying.

Are you crying because your diaper is wet?

Are you crying because you're hungry?

Are you crying because you want to be held?

Are you crying because you don't feel well?

The list is not very long, and sometimes the parents don't figure out and just live with it, walk around with the baby until the crying stops or the baby goes to sleep.

And often it's as simple as changing a diaper or feeding the baby.

But from the baby's point of view, as a little listener and observer of people, it must become clear before too long that if you can talk, you can begin not just to communicate.

Although that's the purpose of language, is to communicate.

But you can also start to give people orders.

You can become the boss, in other words.

Not right away, but the possibility is there.

For example, when my grandson was younger, he would say "read," which was his one-word sentence for "please read me a book."

When he got older, he would say "read book" to make sure that I understood.

And now he's a little over three years old, and he says things like "please read me a book but not the scary one with the wolf," which is a pretty sophisticated sentence.

But think of how handy that is.

Think of how useful it is to be able to communicate with that degree of specificity.

He lets me know that he wants a book.

He tells me that he doesn't want a scary book with a story about a big bad wolf.

He wants a not scary book.

When you're a little baby, you might be able to indicate hunger, but again, how much nicer it is to be able to say "I want a cracker.

"I'd like some milk. May I have some grapes?" Or whatever it is.

And of course, the most important word to a growing child is "NO!"

"I don't want to eat broccoli."

"I don't want grapes."

"I don't want to go outside."

"I don't want to go to bed."

"I don't want to take a bath."

"No, no, no, no, no!"

So in my mind, as a parent and grandparent, and observer of little children, not professionally, just as an amateur, it seems to me that there's a huge motivation for children to get better at using language, to understand it and to speak it.

And it's so that they can get more control over their own lives, which to me is a very fundamental part of being a person.

Even if it's an illusion, we like to think we're in control.

And being able to speak and being able to communicate what we want, what we think, is hugely helpful and also very empowering.

A little earlier I used the word "communicate," and I'd like to return to it.

To me, the entire purpose of language is communication.

To a child, I think that's the only purpose of learning language.

Little children do not learn language so that they can show off for their friends.

They don't learn language in order to speak without mistakes.

They do not, in fact, even know the word "mistake" in the sense of learning a language.

It's all about communication.

I want something.

I need to tell Mommy or Daddy that I want it, that I need it.

I have a desire, and my desire is not to go to bed yet.

If I can tell Mommy and Daddy that I don't want to go to bed, maybe they'll listen to me.

Probably not.

But if I can't say it, they're just going to do whatever they want.

So, communication is the beginning, the middle, and the end point of why little children learn language and care about learning language.

It makes their life easier.

Compare that to adults.

Little children, I said, do not care about mistakes.

I don't think the word "mistake" even exists in the vocabulary or the mind or the imagination of a two- or three-year-old child.

They don't care about what we would call mistakes.

A two-word sentence like "read book" if it gets the response the baby wants or the little child wants, which is somebody says, "Oh, okay, let's pick out a book and I'll read to you.

" That is successful communication.

The child has a desire, the adult understands, or the older brother or sister understands, and pretty soon you're sitting on somebody's lap listening to a story.

The fact that you only said "read book," which is not a complete correct sentence in English, does not matter.

The communication was successful.


Drink is… could be a command if I tell you to drink, but if you're requesting a drink, it's not a correct sentence in English either.

Please, may I have a drink?

I'm thirsty.

But if you're a baby, probably you're going to say "drink."

If that results in you getting a drink, again, the communication was successful.

You are speaking English.

Will your parents say, "Oh, you'd like a drink? Can you say please?"

And you say, "Please drink," or probably you say "please" or "please" or "preise" or some other version of "please," just to get the result you want.

Now, imagine a situation, which I have also seen and continue to see, because my grandson is three, where you, the child, say something, and the adults or your older siblings, your older brother or brothers and sister or sisters, don't understand you.

What goes through the mind of the child?

You say, "Blah, blah, blah," and everybody just looks at you, and maybe they say, "We don't understand."

What do you want?

Say it again.

So you repeat yourself, "Blah, blah, blah," and they still don't understand.

What goes through the mind of that child?

Do they think, "Oh, my pronunciation is terrible. I'm a failure." ?


Do they think, "I'm not saying the words right."


What I imagine goes through the mind of that child is, these older people around me are not paying attention, they're not listening very well, maybe even they're not very smart, because I am speaking perfectly good English, I know what I'm saying, and the problem is in the other people.

It's not my problem.

That they don't understand merely indicates that they're not trying hard, they're not listening carefully.

For some reason, this communication is breaking down.

I'm not succeeding.

But I don't think little children blame themselves at all.

I think they look at the grown-ups, they look at mommy and daddy, and they must feel frustrated because we, the older people, are not understanding perfectly clear English.

And as a side note, depending on how many children are in the family, often older brothers and sisters, in the case of my grandchildren, they are seven, five, and three, two girls and a boy.

The older siblings, in our case, the two older sisters, often can translate for us, so we, the grown-ups, don't understand what George is saying, but his older sisters do, which is a fascinating thing because they don't speak baby talk at all.

They haven't for years, but they, in some magical and wonderful way, can understand what George is saying and then tell us.

So, interesting, funny, and it proves my point.

The problem is not George because his sisters understand him.

The problem is us.

His parents or grandparents.

We don't understand him.

It's nothing wrong with his speech from his point of view.

So let's stop and recap for a minute.

First, I said that babies learn a foreign language.

It becomes their mother tongue, but when they're born, it's a foreign language.

And babies, I didn't mention, but should.

A newborn baby can learn any human language.

Take a baby born in New York City, the family moves to Paris, and that baby is going to grow up speaking, if the parents are American, speaking English at home and fluent French every time it goes out, and it will grow up bilingual.

The fact that it changed from an English-speaking environment to a French-speaking environment does not slow that baby down at all.

It's just another language, and you listen, and you copy, and you learn to speak.

So that's the first thing.

We all learn a foreign language when we're babies.

Second, we don't worry about mistakes.

Little children do not worry about speaking perfectly.

The whole point is to communicate.

Let's talk for a minute about another aspect of babies learning their first language.

And that is, they do it without formal instruction.

Mommy does not take the baby for an hour or two hours every day and ask the baby to practice pronunciation or to work on grammar exercises or to do anything else that in any way resembles school instruction.

The baby is in an environment where people talk around it, people talk to the baby, they interact with the baby.

"Oh, look, here comes the kitty."

"Oh, come here, dog."

They call the dog, the dog's name.

In our family, the dog's name is Ollie or Freddie or Sammy.

There's three dogs.

And the children learn those doggy names as part of being alive.

Can you eat with your spoon?

Try to keep your cereal in your dish.

Let's put a bib on so you don't spill food all over your pajamas.

There's dozens, hundreds of repeated conversations that happen in the life of a little baby.

And parents, in my experience, are very good teachers of language without trying.

When the baby, for example, says "read," the adult will probably say, "Oh, you want to read a book?

So the adult models correct English.

One-word sentences are repeated back to the baby as complete sentences.

And if you listen to parents or older siblings interacting and speaking to a baby, you will hear this sort of interchange all the time.

When the baby begins to speak and ask questions or say things without even thinking about it, the family will not so much correct the speech.

They're not saying, "Oh, no, that's a mistake."

They're merely modeling more complete sentences, more complete speech.

And the baby hears that.

And over time, along with learning to pronounce more accurately through repetition and listening for years, they also, the babies, they also figure out grammar, which is an amazing thing when you think about it.

Let me give you a famous example, which I believe I learned in linguistics class, one of my linguistics classes, about 50 years ago.

And that is the taking of a rule, a syntactical grammatical pattern in English, and generalizing it.

In English, the past tense of regular verbs in writing is formed by adding -ed.

So you have a verb like "walk" and the past tense you add -ed, it becomes "walked."

Notice that it's not pronounced with a D sound, but written -ed.

The verb "to beg," past tense is "begged."

There you can hear the D sound.

Little children figure out that the past tense of regular verbs has this -ed on it.

But they generalize this, while they're learning to pronounce it correctly in its various forms, they generalize it to all verbs.

And the result is that you take a verb like "go," the present tense, "I go to the park every day.

Past tense, "I went to the park yesterday."

" So present, "I go to the park every day.

" Past tense, "I went to the park yesterday.

" But the child, having figured out on her own that this -ed sound is the way you make the past tense, applies it to all verbs.

So you'll hear the child say, "I goed to the park this morning."

" Where did you go this morning?"

"We goed to the park."

"We goed shopping."

"We goed to the store."

"We goed to see grandma."

"We goed to a movie."

Now remember, nobody has taken this child aside and said, "Okay, it's time to learn the past tense of regular verbs." Nobody does that.

What happens is the child listens and listens and listens and listens and listens all those thousands of hours that I mentioned earlier.

And after a while, their very, very smart brains detect grammatical patterns.

They detect, for example, that you put an "s" on the end of things.

So I have one toy, but I have two toys.

I have one stuffed animal, one teddy bear, but I have two teddy bears.

And for the past tense, -ed is how you make the past tense.

They take that rule and they apply it to all verbs.

Very smart.

And in other languages, they do the equivalent thing in many interesting ways.

So this child says, "I go to the park.

" "I go to the store.

" This is a totally logical thing for the child to do.

It makes absolute sense.

What they're doing is taking the rule that they have figured out for past tense, and they're applying it to all the verbs.

What could be more logical?

And in fact, if we all did this, English would be easier to learn.

Because then we would just say, "Okay, past tense of a verb is going to be the verb plus some version of -ed.

" Like I said, the pronunciation changes according to other pronunciation rules, but in writing it just becomes -ed.

"I went.



" No.

Forget it.

No irregular verbs.

"I singed the song.

" Present tense "sing.

" The baby or the child says, "I singed the song.

" And all the irregular verbs would become the same.

They would all be like regular verbs.

This would be very nice for English in terms of teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, that's not the way it is.

But to the child learner, as they are acquiring grammar, this is a logical thing to do.

I should mention that by the time children are saying things like, "I go to the park," that's an obvious enough error, mistake, if you want to call it.

Although I hate the word "mistake" with language learning.

The parents or older children might correct the child who makes that mistake.

In my experience, the corrections make no difference.



The child will continue to say, "I go to the park.

" "I singed the song.

" "I goed shopping.

" Until, on their own, they say, their brain detects that, "Oh, what I'm saying is not the same as what all the older people are saying.

" And again, unconsciously, they begin to correct and they change their speech.

In a way, I think of this as being like learning archery.

Archery is when you take a bow and an arrow and you shoot the arrow at a target.

And the target has a bull's-eye, which is a series of concentric circles.

And if you shoot very accurately, then your arrow will land right in the center of the circle.

If you've ever watched archery at the Olympics with fancy high-tech bows and long distances, that's what the archers are trying to do.

They're trying to land the arrow in the center of the target.

And learning a language is sort of like archery.

In the beginning, you're just sort of watching, which would be the equivalent of listening.

And over time, you get your little bow and arrow and you start trying to hit the target.

And probably you're not very good at it, but if you even manage to shoot your arrow somewhere near the target, then mommy and daddy will be very pleased and you're proud of yourself.

With time and with more practice, you begin to hit the target.

And that's the equivalent, more or less, of speaking well enough so that you can communicate.

So maybe hitting anywhere on the target is like saying "read".

And when you can hit the target a little more consistently, that's like being able to say "read book".

So you move up to a two-word sentence.

And over time, you start to hit the target more and more frequently, and gradually you move closer and closer to the center of the target.

And that's like becoming a more fluent, more proficient speaker.

By the time you're six or seven years old, you're basically completely fluent.

You can talk about anything that's in your knowledge, in the range of your knowledge and your understanding.

Your pronunciation is basically perfect for most people.

And you're hitting that target in the center without even trying.

You do it automatically.


Because you've listened to that language for thousands and thousands and thousands of hours.

You've been talking, if you're a typical child, you've been talking nonstop since you started to talk.

So you now have thousands of hours of speaking practice.

And hopefully your parents have been reading books to you and you've been learning to copy your name.

And if you start school, then you begin to read yourself and you are on your way to being a well-educated, fluent native speaker of your language.

And if it was archery, you could pick up the bow and fire arrows into the center of that target over and over again without even trying.

It becomes totally automatic.

A few more observations about how children learn language.

One is that they do so in a very supportive, uncritical environment.

I've joked for many years that if parents who are very excited when their first child begins to speak, if parents realized that the beginning of speech speaking means your child is never going to shut up again, you're never going to get a thought finished in your life, at least not for many years, because you're going to be interrupted by this child saying, "I'm hungry and read me a book and let's go outside and play," and a million other things.

And you've added a curious, talkative little person to your household.

But my point is that the child grows up being very supported in their language learning efforts.

Parents, I've never heard a parent say, "Oh my God, my child just made a mistake in their speech.

" I've never heard a parent say that.

It's much more, "First efforts are applauded.

" He can say, "Dog!

Oh, Johnny, you're a genius!

" So there's tons of reinforcement for the child who's learning to speak.

No criticism.

Whatever they can say is accepted and applauded and celebrated.

And so they have every reason to continue learning to speak.

And no negative reason to stop.

Is it possible that once in a while parents are not such good parents?

Yes, of course.

But as a general rule, since everybody learns to speak, I think most children grow up without any kind of fear associated with it.

It's just a positive experience.


Now let's talk about adults learning a language.

In what ways is the adult experience different from the child's experience?

First, and very obvious, is that children have an awful lot of free time.

They can listen for five or six or eight or ten hours a day, and they do, to their first foreign language.

And nobody worries about it.

Nobody says, "You're late for work.

It's time for school.

You need to do your chores.

" Little babies in particular are just there listening and observing.

It's really hard for an adult if you're, let's say, 15 years old and you're starting a language in high school.

You have a bunch of other classes.

Maybe you play sports.

Maybe you have a part-time job.

Maybe you don't even care about learning French, but it's required.

There are all sorts of things that get in the way of you doing what the baby did.

And the first, simplest, most obvious thing is you do not have that much time.

And that's a problem, because the more you listen, the quicker you'll learn.

We are not that different from babies in terms of the benefits of language exposure.

I guarantee you that if you can listen to English for six hours a day, you're going to learn English much more rapidly than if you can only listen for one hour a day.

It makes a big difference.

So that's the first difference.

Second, I talked earlier about the word "mistake" and how babies, it's not in their vocabulary.

The idea of making a mistake, the idea that they can do something wrong while they're learning a language, just isn't there.

That is not true for the 15-year-old starting high school or the 10-year-old.

You make a mistake in class and maybe people laugh at you.

Your teacher corrects you.

And depending on the teacher, depending on the class and the other students, depending on you and your personality, what you may learn from your mistakes is "Don't talk.

" "I'm better off if I keep my mouth shut.

" Or you may be in a class where the teacher doesn't want you to talk.

You may be in a class where you're supposed to read and translate.

A lot of language instruction, unfortunately, is terrible, especially in terms of teaching people to speak.

So it can be a traumatic experience rather than a fun, useful experience.

It can be a situation in which, where the child only cares about successful communication, the older language learner is in a situation where spoken communication in particular could be nonexistent.

And I have heard many, many people talk about how they studied English, for example, for many, many years, but they can't speak at all, or they don't believe they can speak because they didn't practice it.

And let me point out here, it's as good a place as any, that in the history of human languages, and I've read that the scholars think that language may go back between 100 and 300 thousand years.

In almost all of that time, there was only spoken language.

Writing is a relatively recent invention in the history of language.

And before that, there was only spoken language.

So the only real language is the spoken version.

That's the one that counts.

I'm not against reading and writing.

I love to read.

But in terms of language and its place in human history, the reading and writing are new.

The speaking is ancient.

And it's important to keep that in mind.

And that's why when, for example, children learn English, they learn to listen, and then they learn to speak.

And typically, they start learning to read and write a little bit around the age of five, six.

Typically, by seven years old, they're starting to read.

That's average.

That's common.

But they've had thousands and thousands of hours of exposure to the language, years of practice with the language.

And so when they start to read and write, it's not coming from nowhere.

They're learning to read a language that they already know.

And that makes a big difference.

Think about the adult learner.

This person might be you, has been through school, might be in school right now.

And one of the things that you learn in school is to try and do things correctly.

You take exams, and it's not much fun to fail an exam.

You don't feel good about it.

That's supposed to encourage you to study more.

But when you're learning a language, it's not just hard to never make mistakes.

It's impossible.

It's impossible to learn a language without making mistakes.

Languages are huge.

They're complicated.

And it takes time to learn one.

And in the process of learning, you're going to do things wrong a near infinite number of times.

Take pronunciation, for example.

Every speaker of a language, by the time they're 15 or 20, has locked in a group of sounds which are the correct sounds for their native language.

If they've learned two languages, in their minds, they now have two sets of sounds which are correct.

Let's say one is correct for English and the other is correct for French.

And then they start learning Russian.

And the sounds are different.

Some of them might be close.

Some of them might be close enough that you can just take the Russian sound and use the English sound that is really similar.

But there will be other sounds missing or sounds that are modified in ways that seem definitely strange to you.

And when you start trying to speak, let's say Russian, which I don't speak, by the way.

When you try to speak Russian and you're a native speaker of English, you're going to find sounds that are really difficult, unless you're exceptionally talented and have an amazing year or you're a little kid.

But if you're an adult, you're going to run into these sounds that are very difficult to pronounce.

And even after you've studied Russian for a year or two, native speakers, when they hear you speak, will probably be able to identify you, not just as a foreigner, someone who doesn't speak Russian as a native, but they will probably, in many cases, be able to say, "Oh, you're an American," because they've heard other Americans speak and they're used to that accent.

I, for example, can usually detect people who are native speakers of Spanish after listening to them speak for 30 seconds to a minute, sometimes even less, because there are typical pronunciation errors that Spanish speakers make when they're trying to speak English.

As long as I understand, it doesn't matter.

And in fact, let me make a digression here, although this podcast is one long digression, and say something about pronunciation.

If you learn another language, and when you speak, people understand you, then you're able to communicate, and your pronunciation is good enough.

You might like it to be better.

You might like to sound more like an American or a speaker of British English, and there's nothing wrong with wanting to sound that way.

But the most important goal as a learner of another language is to pronounce well enough, not perfectly, well enough, so that when you speak, a native speaker can understand you without struggling or without being confused, because you're substituting sounds in ways that make a difference.

Let me give you an example.

In Spanish, there's an "e" sound, like "see", but there's no "i" sound, the sound that we have in "big".

So, for example, in English, we have two words, "seat" and "sit".

"Seat" and "sit".

A Spanish speaker can copy the "seat" pretty easily, because the "e" in English is not that different from the "e" in Spanish, but the "i" sound does not exist in Spanish.

So, a native speaker of Spanish might pronounce the word "big" like "beeg", "beeg".

"He has a big seat.

" "He has a big seat.

" instead of saying, "He has a big seat.

" Or if they pronounce "seat" and "sit", it might come out "seat" and "seat" again.

It all depends on ear training and practice and understanding of these pronunciation problems.

But if you can't pronounce, or if you substitute sounds where you shouldn't, it will cause confusion, because the native American speaker is going to be expecting certain sounds to go with the correct pronunciation of certain words.

If you don't make those sounds right, you might in fact be saying something different than what you wanted to do.

So, pronunciation certainly matters, but it matters when it interferes with comprehension.

It interferes with understanding, then it's a problem.

The same is true of grammar.

If a child says, "I go to the park this morning", every native speaker will understand that they meant they should have said, "I went to the park".

But because they also know the rules of English, and they know that we add the -ed for the past tense, hearing somebody say, "I go to the park", a native speaker will instantly understand that the child is generalizing the rule for the past tense to the verb "to go", maybe to all irregular verbs.

And they understand.

So there's no breakdown in communication, and it's good enough.

It's what you would probably expect from a four or five year old.

Nobody worries about it.

If you're an adult and you say, "I go to the park", because you forgot or you haven't learned that "go" is an irregular verb, and somebody corrects you, you're likely to think, "Ah, damn, I made a mistake."

Whereas the child does not say, "Ah, damn, I made a mistake."

The child says, "Yeah, I go to the park and I saw grandpa."

And the communication is fine, and nobody stops to worry about perfection or mistakes.

And unfortunately, if you're an adult learner and you spend too much time worrying about mistakes, again, the instinct is, "Well, how can I avoid these mistakes when I'm talking?"

Don't talk.

But if you don't talk, you don't practice.

And if you don't practice, you don't get better at speaking.

So things that are not problems for little children are definitely problems for adults.

In a school setting, it's even worse because, yes, other students are going to hear your mistakes.

And unless the teacher has created an environment where everybody understands, "Hey, mistakes are going to happen when you learn a foreign language, and it's okay.
We're not going to worry about it. We practice things so that we can practice saying things correctly. But if you're practicing just having a conversation, we do not stop to correct mistakes.

A good teacher will make notes and say, "Okay, I need to practice the past tense of the verb 'to go' with this class some more, because some people have it and some people don't."

But if you stop to correct when people are having a conversation, you destroy the conversation.

And you may also destroy people's confidence, and they won't want to speak.

And that's not a good way to try to learn something.

So children are different, and the environment in which they learn language is different.

They have more time, they don't worry about mistakes, they're not afraid to talk, and they're totally focused on communication.

What can we do as adults to take the best of the children's method of learning language and fit it into our overly busy, distracting lives that we lead?

Number one, listen.

Listen as much as you can.

People, I mentioned the thousands of hours that babies are listening to the language that they're learning, their native language, their first foreign language.

Thousands of hours.

To the extent that you can increase your listening when you're beginning another language and throughout the process of learning that language, the more you listen, the better your progress will be, the faster you will learn.

Essentially, you want to try to do immersion.

And let me talk here about one of the languages I've studied in my life.

In 1970, I graduated from college.

I went to UCLA, the University of California in Los Angeles.

I majored in linguistics, and I joined the Peace Corps and went to Senegal in West Africa.

And during that summer, after I had joined, I had two kinds of instruction going on.

One was learning to teach because I was going to be a high school English teacher, and the other was learning to speak Wolof, because that's the most common language people speak in Senegal along with French.

And the Wolof instruction was taught by Senegalese teachers, and it consisted of about three hours of very intensive memorization of dialogues, conversations.

In a classroom, we literally would memorize moderately long conversations in about three hours.

And it was hard work.

We repeated and we repeated and we repeated and we repeated.

And for example, one of the first conversations we learned was what to say and what people would say to us if we took a car rapide, that's what they were called, car rapide, public transportation, from the collège where we were living and studying.

And it was on the outskirts of Dakar into the downtown.

So we learned what to do when you're standing by the road, you wave at the car rapide, it stops and people begin to ask you questions.

And you need to know the answer.

And you also need to know how to say, okay, stop, let me off here.

And how much does it cost to go from here to Dakar and so forth?

And I still, 50 years later, could probably recite most or all of this conversation.

I will not do that to you right now, but I could because it was drilled into my brain and then I used it.

And that was the important part.

First, we were being taught by native speakers, Senegalese language teachers teaching us Wolof.

And then we would eat lunch after our morning classes, and then we would go use, use this dialogue in real life.

So we would go and stand by the road and flag down a carapide and get on and ask the price, "Fi ba Dakar Nyatala?"

Which means from here to Dakar, how much does it cost?

And then we would hear the answer, which would make sense to us and we would pay and sit down and then we would ride into Dakar.

And wherever we want to get off, we would say "fi lai watch", which means this is where I want to get off.

And the apprentice who was basically collecting money and running things in the back would give a signal to the driver to stop.

And we would get down and it worked.

And then we would learn other dialogues about how to shop, how to buy things, how to bargain, how to say, "Hey, that price is too high. Can you lower it a little bit?"

So it was, for me at least, an ideal language learning situation.

We were getting intensive instruction in correct Wolof, grammatically correct.

And what we were learning was instantly useful.


It was not theoretical at all.

We were learning Wolof in Wolof.

There was no time wasted with translations.

And after we learned it, we would go out every afternoon and practice it.

We would use this language.

Obviously, there is no better way to get better at a language than to learn something and then put it into use in the community where the language is spoken by natives.

It was a fantastic language learning situation.

And in the process, we, I don't think we ever talked about grammar.

At least I have no memories of any discussions of grammar.

But when you learn to say things in a language, you're learning grammar.

If you're learning to repeat correctly, the grammar is part, you know.

And if you're like me and you had studied linguistics, you start to notice certain structures.

The verb is conjugated this way, the pronouns are used like this.

Even if you're not a linguistics major, you still are learning those things.

It sounds right when you say it this way.

It doesn't sound right when you say it that way.

People are very good at detecting and following patterns.

That's part of being human.

And languages are filled with patterns.

And any language you study, you're going to very quickly, unless you're asleep, you're going to notice patterns.

That's what children do when they extract the grammar and learn to speak correctly without instruction.

They are listening and watching and thinking unconsciously.

And over time, they pick up things like, oh, add "s" to get the plural.

I have one dog, but my neighbor has two dogs.

And everybody says dogs when they talk about two dogs.

And they say houses when they want to talk about lots of houses.

And, oh, look at the flowers.

That's not one flower.

It's many flowers.

So they pick up the pattern and they begin to apply it.

So for adults, a really good language learning situation includes as much exposure as possible, which is why I keep talking about listening.

And as soon as you're ready to start speaking, you should start speaking.

If you can find a situation where you're comfortable, where you feel like people are supportive of your efforts, then there's no reason not to begin speaking early on in the process.

I would urge people to listen, not just listen to lots of language, but to listen with repetition as an adult.

If you think again about little children, they're in a relatively limited setting much of the time.

And so they're hearing the same words over and over again.

As an adult, hearing the same things repeatedly is really helpful.

It will help your pronunciation.

It'll help your vocabulary.

It'll help your grammar.

In other words, it'll help with everything.

So for example, let's say you're listening to podcasts.

Find one that's not too long and listen to it two or three or four or five or ten times.

If there's a movie you really like on Netflix or somewhere on the internet or a documentary or anything in your target language, let's pretend English, find something that you find entertaining or interesting or educational and watch it more than once.

Five or ten times is not too many times when you're learning a language.

Fifty times is not too many times to listen to or watch the same thing.

Every time you go through it, you're going to understand more.

Every time you hear the same words, they're more likely to stick in your brain.

Every time you hear the same words, you're more likely to hear them correctly, and that's the first step towards being able to pronounce them correctly.

So repetition is like a magic trick for learning a language.

I have told people you're much better off listening to one podcast ten times than listening to ten different podcasts.

If you find a show or a series on television that you like, watch it in English, if you're learning English, and then watch it again.

Find one episode, watch it again, then watch it again.

Some people will take notes on the vocabulary they don't know.

There's nothing wrong with that.

Different people have different learning styles.

You need to find the one that works best for you.

But repetition and exposure to the language is crucial.

If you're learning English, change the language of your phone to English.

Change the language of your computer to English.

When you're brushing your teeth, listen to something in English.

When you read the news, read it in English.

It can be hard to read in the beginning and later because the vocabulary of written English is much more difficult, usually, than the vocabulary of spoken English, depending on what you're reading or what you're speaking.

You can deliberately choose things to read that are easy.

Read children's books if you have access to them.

There are tons of children's books on the internet being read by people who like to read children's books.

So if you listen to some of those books, it could be fairy tales, stories like Little Red Riding Hood that you know in your own language.

Repetition and listening is crucial.

The more you do it, the faster you will learn.

Finally, because I think this podcast is long enough now and I'm losing my voice, finally, be patient with yourself.

Remember what I said.

You cannot learn another language without making mistakes.

The mistakes do not matter.

The word "mistakes," as far as I'm concerned, shouldn't even be used in relation to learning a language.

They're not mistakes.

They're firing at the target, shooting at that target a million times so that you will become more accurate.

And that just takes time and listening and repetition.

It's a slow process.

Nobody learns to be fluent in a new language in a day or two.

Oh, I almost forgot.


I am not a fan of translating when you're learning a language.

I think you should do it as rarely as possible.

When I taught English in Senegal, in the Peace Corps, I taught English in English.

There may be a point when students are more advanced, where translating things is useful or necessary.

But in the beginning of learning or teaching a language, there's no need to translate.

And you, as the learner, want or should want to learn to think in the new language from the very beginning.

When I speak Spanish, I think in Spanish.

When I speak French, I think in French.

I may not be great in these languages, mostly from lack of use, but I don't translate.

If I want to say something, I say it as best I can, and there it is.

It is what it is.

When you learn English, you should be thinking in English, even if all you can say is, "Hello, my name is Jose.

I'm from Mexico.

" When you say that, you should be able to say it as best you can, and there should be no "hmm, how do I say my name is?

" You just have to learn it, and then it's automatic.

And as you learn more vocabulary and more sentence structures and more verb tenses and all the other things you will learn, you use them.

I've had people say, "I talk to the mirror a lot.

" There is nothing wrong with talking to your mirror.

When I'm in the mood, I will speak French to myself while I'm driving the car, or I'll try to speak Spanish to myself while I'm driving the car.

Why not?

It's more language practice.

And when I do that, I don't translate.

I just say what I'm able to say.

On the first day of learning a new language, maybe you learn to say, "My name is… Barry."

What's your name?

And then you listen and you hear, "My name is… Maria."

"How old are you, Maria?"

And Maria says, "I'm 23."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from Honduras."



Or Colombia.

Maybe that's the entire conversation.

That is okay.

If that's all you can say, then that's what you practice.

And as you learn new things, you practice those.

But don't translate.

Mostly people who have the habit of translation are people who've been forced to translate in school.

And I think it's a great tragedy and a huge waste of time.

It's not the way to learn a language.

It's too slow.

It's not practical.

And languages are different.

So something that is correct in Spanish will be wrong in English and vice versa.

Just learn to do it in the language you want to learn.


Oh, yes.

One last thing, and I promise this is the last.


Motivation makes a big difference in how quickly you learn a language and whether you succeed or not.

For example, somebody a little bit eccentric like me who fell in love with learning foreign languages, if I were younger, I would learn another language for the fun of it, quite honestly.

That's not the best motivation, or at least not the strongest motivation in the world.

People learning English often are learning English because they need it or they're already using it in their job and they want to be better.

They maybe want to go to graduate school in another country and English is required.

They have friends who speak English.

They're planning to travel as tourists to an English-speaking country and they'd like to be able to communicate when they get there.

These are all common reasons for studying English or another language.

My own feeling about traveling is it's so much more fun to be in a country where you speak the language, even if you don't speak it great.

It's just more fun.

You feel better about it, you can read things, you understand things.

And really, what's the point of traveling?

For me, it's to meet people.

It's not just to see Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower or whatever it might be.

It's to meet people and get to know them.

That's not necessarily the motivation for other people, but for me it's always been a strong one.

I just have more fun when I'm in a country where I can talk to people.

But whatever the motivation is, if you don't have an internal motivation or an important external one, your boss says, "I'll pay you $5,000 more a year as soon as you're able to run these meetings in English."

Well, that's nice to have more money, and it's nice to have another language.

Maybe after you learn it, you can make even more money by changing to a different company.

So knowing another language, I've often thought of it as being opening doors.

If you don't speak English, the doors where opening English gives you the key are closed to you.

If you speak other languages, then there are more possibilities in your life than if you don't speak another language or languages.

So being able to speak another language means having more opportunities.

If there's no motivation and you're just being told, especially in school, I think it's really hard.

I think it's really, really difficult to do the work to put in the time that you need to learn another language.

And I'll mention in passing, I've had the opportunity to listen to stories recently from a variety of people who have learned English and speak it very well.

And their paths into English have been through rock and roll music, wanting to understand the lyrics of music that they heard when they were children, comic books, watching movies when they were kids, and wanting to understand the movie.

What are the characters saying in English?

And so there are many reasons, especially for children or young adults, to become curious about English or to begin using it.

I think computer games are a very sneaky one.

Nowadays, most computer games are.

You can switch to your own language, but in the earlier days of computer games, they were all in English.

And it seems like many people playing these games, they didn't care about English, but they really cared about playing the game.

And so if they had to learn some English in order to enjoy the game and to do well, they learned English.

And of course, once you learn it, then you might as well keep going.

So the paths to learning language are varied.

People get into other languages by all sorts of different routes.

And it doesn't matter.

There is no single best way to learn a language.


I am done.

This is probably the longest podcast I've ever done.

And I hope you'll find it useful.

Thank you.