Chip's English Help
Helping you learn English
I added a couple new lessons, one helps you to decide if you should use "which" or "that" which can be confusing. The other new lesson is about rhetorical questions. What's a rhetorical question? It's a question that does not require, or even want, a reply.
We are well aware that English words come mainly from old German and Norman French (and Latin, Saxon, and others), and that its alphabet of 26 letters makes it impossible to represent its 43/44 speech sounds with just one symbol per sound. But that is not why many English spellings, such as 'daughter', 'brought' and 'people', are now irregular.
The pronunciations used in all three languages have changed since 1066. But English spellings have become unreliable guides to pronunciation (sound, southern, soup [those 3 words have 3 different pronunciations for the ou]; enough, cough, drought, though, thought, through, hiccough [those 7 words have 7 different pronunciations for the letters ough]), and spellings for identical sounds have ended up exceptionally varied (blue, shoe, flew, through, you, to, two, too, gnu [those 9 words rhyme]).
The consistency of English spelling was first seriously corrupted during the reinstatement of English as the official language of England in the 15th century. It suffered even more at the hands of foreign printers during the bible wars of the 16th century because the early printing presses (printing machines) were limited in the variety of letters they could print. Unfortunately, there has never been a serious effort to remedy the various accidental and deliberate corruptions of the alphabetic principle (of representing speech sounds in a regular manner) in English. Thus, we have the mess we have.
I showed you the some words that represent the most common pronunciations of the ough letter combination, but here is another I want to point out: slough. "Slough" has three pronunciations depending on its meaning:
I should point out that a few of those words have changed, or are in the process of changing, in today’s English. Hiccough is acceptable as hiccup; plough is acceptable as plow; slough is acceptable as slew or sluff; doughnut can be written as donut. I would advise against using these “new” spellings in formal writing, though.
Enough about ough, what about ow?
Here’s another to look at: omb. Most words with this combination do not pronounce the b, it is silent, but of course there are exceptions. With the following words you pronounce the b:
But with these words the b is silent, and the om in each has a different pronunciation:
If English had a completely regular spelling system, as Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Korean, and others do, it would have no more than 44 spellings, and learning to read and write English would be as easy as those two languages. Most alphabetic writing systems, however, do not have a completely one to one relationship between their sounds and spellings, with a few more spellings than sounds.
The European average is around 50. Learning to read and write English is exceptionally difficult because it has 185 spellings for 44 sounds.
Unfortunately, good old English, for all its many pluses (one gender, simple plurals, few inflexions etc) suffers from a "double whammy" when it comes to spelling — not only can't you predict spelling from pronunciation but you can't always predict pronunciation from spelling. This is because English has many different ways of representing the same sound AND has some letter combinations that can represent more than one sound (as shown above). Understanding this fundamental problem will help you to understand the difficulties you may be facing as you continue your journey of learning English.
Most children in English speaking countries do eventually learn to master spelling more or less satisfactorily. But they tend to take up to three years longer to complete this process than those speaking other languages, and an unacceptably high proportion (about 23%) never master the process at all causing all kind of social problems.
This is partly because children have to learn to pronounce 185 spellings, instead of just around 50. The greatest English reading difficulties, however, are caused by 69 spellings which have more than one pronunciation. They make at least 2000 English words not completely decodable.
A study was done Professor Philip Seymour from Dundee University in 2003 and published by the British Journal of Psychology. The study investigated literacy acquisition rates in 13 European languages. It has this to say on the subject: “Children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year. ....The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow."
When all spellings have reliable sounds and the total number of spellings used is only 50 or fewer, as in all European languages other than English, teaching children to read requires very little training. Almost any literate adult or child can do it. Because English uses 185 spellings, 69 of which have variable sounds, English literacy has to be taught by well-trained professionals.
Even children of average ability take longer (2 – 3 years longer) to learn to read and write English than their contemporaries in other languages, but the weakest native-English-speaking pupils need an extremely long time to achieve even moderate literacy. Until they do so, they cannot learn much else. Other spelling systems give all pupils easier access to wider learning.
Author George Orwell said, "... our existing spelling system is preposterous and must be a torment to foreign students. This is a pity, because English is well fitted to be the universal second language, if there ever is such a thing."
Another well known author, I’m sure you’ve heard of him, MarkTwain, said this, “… I disrespect our orthography most heartily, and as heartily disrespect everything that has been said by anybody in defence of it. Nothing professing to be a defence of our ludicrous spellings has had any basis, so far as my observation goes, except sentimentality. In these "arguments" the term venerable is used instead of mouldy, and hallowed instead of devilish; whereas there is nothing properly venerable or antique about a language which is not yet four hundred years old, and about a jumble of imbecile spellings which were grotesque in the beginning, and which grow more and more grotesque with the flight of the years."
Below is a list of all the sounds of typical American English.
This list shows example words for pronouncing the letters as well as the many ways of spelling those sounds.
The Sounds Made by 21 Consonants (39 different sounds/spellings)
|c (2 sounds)||cat, city|
|ch (3 sounds)||choke, chemistry, chef|
|f||fog||g (2 sounds)||gold, gin|
|h (2 spellings)||hat, who|
|s (2 sounds)||slam, please|
|th (2 sounds)||thing, that|
|x (3 sounds)||execute, exactly, xylophone|
|y (4 sounds)||yak, fairy, why, dysfunction|
The Sounds Made by 5 Vowels (16 different sounds)
|A (long) (6 spellings)||basic, same, rain, say, eight, great|
|A (short)||ask, class|
|E (long) (5 spellings)||free, each, piece, happy, she|
|E (short) (2+ spellings)||bed, head (these words must be memorized: said, says, friend, guest, again)|
|I (long) (4+ spellings/3 sounds)||ice, light, sky, pie (“ie” can also be pronounced as 2 separate letters as in “science” and “quiet”, as well as the long e sound in the word “brief”)|
|I (short) (2 spellings)||it, system (these words must be memorized: give, busy, building)|
|O (long) (4 spellings)||joke, soap, own, most|
|O (short) (2 spellings)||sock, walk|
|U (long) (4 spellings)||cute, fuel, few, ukulele (but not umbrella)|
|schwa||All vowels can have the schwa sound which is similar to the short U, it sounds like the last letter “a” in the word camera, the “a” at the beginning of again, the second “e” in celebrate, the “I” in experiment, the first “o” in condition, the “u” in support, the “oo” in flood.|
English cums from at leest 4 difrent language roots – Latin, Nordic, Saxon, French. They all got mixd up together as English was sorting itself out & emerging as one language, from 800- 1400.
At that time riters wer spelling enny way they thaut best. Chaucer & Shakespeare wer both inconsistent spellers.
That period wud hav been the time to edit & regularize the spelling, to deci e.g. wether the word “pay” was going to be ritten pey [saxon], paiien [old french, the language of Wm. the Conquerer], or pacare [latin].
“Pay” was the new way, now cald The Great Shift, under wich the sound of the letter A wich had been “ah” changed for sum reeson & became “ay”, today’s name for the letter A.
Wich to use? Since nobody knew, paiien became pay wile saxon they stayd as they. Inconsistent? Yes. Dificult to lern? Yes.
Pay & they rime. They wud be eesier to read & rite if they wer speld alike. The other languages of Europe settled on consistent spelling patterns, so they ar eesy to spel. English is nothing of the sort. It stumps menny of its own peeple, as wel as outsiders lerning it.
The erly problem was worsend wen printing was invented in the 1300’s. The first printers of inglish wer germans. Thees, not being familiar with inglish, did not feel up to editing the MSS that wer handed to them.
The German printers took the words & printed them as they wer ritten – mistakes, inventiv spellings & all.
Once printed, the words took on a certan holiness. From then on they wer regarded as being corectly speld wether they wer or not.
Samuel Johnson about 1750 created one of the first English dictionarys. He made no effort to cleer up the contradictions, but left them all as they wer.
by Theo Halladay, 2008. The Spelling Society, London, UK.
In 1825 Noah Webster published his first dictionary of American English, called A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. He introduced some changes to spellings of some words (colour -> color, centre -> center, etc) and included many words that had never been in any dictionary previously (skunk, squash, etc).
As a student of English you will need to take English tests, as well as other tests. Of course, learners need to take English tests at school, but they are often required to take English tests such as the TOEFL, IELTS, TOEIC or FCE. Sometimes you get to decide which test you will take. This guide will help you begin to choose the best English test to take for your English learning needs and goals for both further education and furthering your career.
These English tests are created by two companies that dominate the English learning system word wide: ETS and the University of Cambridge. TOEFL and TOEIC are provided by ETS; IELTS, FCE, CAE, and BULATS are developed by the University of Cambridge.
ETS stands for Educational Testing Service. ETS provides the TOEFL and the TOEIC test of English. It is an American company with headquarters in Princeton, New Jersey. ETS tests focus on North American English and are computer based.
Questions are almost exclusively multiple choice and ask you to choose from four choices based on information you have read, heard or have to deal with in some manner. Writing is also tested on the computer, so if you have difficulties typing you may have difficulties with these questions. Expect North American accents on all listening selections.
The University of Cambridge based in Cambridge, England is responsible for a wide range of English exams. However, the main international tests that are discussed in this overview are the IELTS the FCE and the CAE. For business English, the BULATS is also an option. Currently, the BULATS is not as popular as the other tests, but that may change in the future. The University of Cambridge is a dominate force in the entire English learning world, producing many English learning titles, as well as administering tests. Cambridge exams have a wide variety of question types including multiple choice, gap‐fill, matching, etc. You will hear a wider variety of accents on University of Cambridge exams, but they tend towards British English.
The first and most important question to ask yourself when choosing your English test is:
Why do I need to take an English test?
Choose from the following for your answer:
If you need to take an English test for studying at a university or other academic setting you have a few choices.
To focus solely on academic English, take the TOEFL or the IELTS academic. Both are used as qualifications for entrance into universities. There are some important differences. Many universities around the world now accept either test, but they are more common in certain countries.
TOEFL ‐ Most common exam for study in North American (Canada, United States, also France and Germany)
GRE ‐ Highly popular university entry English exam from ETS
IELTS ‐ Most common exam for study in Australia or New Zealand
Keep this in mind: the TOEFL is specifically a test for academic purposes. This is a quote from there own website, "e;The TOEFL iBT® test measures your ability to use and understand English at the university level. And it evaluates how well you combine your reading, listening, speaking, and writing skills to perform academic tasks."e; It is not a test of conversational or business English. Do not use it for such a test.
The GRE is also a university English exam. From the ETS website: "e;The GRE General Test features question types that closely reflect the kind of thinking you'll do in graduate and professional school, including business and law."e; Also, "e;Who Takes It? Prospective graduate and business school applicants from all around the world who are interested in pursuing a master's, specialized master's in business, MBA, J.D. degree, or doctoral degree take the GRE General Test."e;
The IELTS has two exams, the IELTS Academic and the IELTS General Training.
From the IELTS site about the Academic exam: "e;The IELTS Academic test is for people applying for higher education or professional registration in an English speaking environment. It reflects some of the features of academic language and assesses whether you are ready to begin studying or training."e;
B2 First (FCE) and CAE are more general in nature but are often requested by universities throughout the European Union. For people who live in the European Union, the best choice is either the B2 First or the CAE.
About the B2 First, from their own website: "e;A B2 First qualification proves you have the language skills to live and work independently in an English‐speaking country or study on courses taught in English. This exam is the logical step in your language learning journey between B1 Preliminary and C1 Advanced."e;
About the CAE, again, from their website: "e;C1 Advanced helps learners develop the skills to make the most of studying, working and living in English‐speaking countries. This exam is the logical step in your language learning journey between B2 First and C2 Proficiency."e;
From the IELTS site about the General Training exam: "e;The IELTS General Training test is for those who are going to English speaking countries for secondary education, work experience or training programs. It is also a requirement for migration to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. The test focuses on basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts."e;
If career motivations are the most important reason in your choice of English test, there are several level tests available from Cambridge.
Many international employers want employees to have at least a high intermediate level of English. For intermediate level business English look at the B2 Advantage exam, and for the highest level exam look at the C1 Business Higher (BEC Higher) exam, both from Cambridge.
For a business English test from ETS look at the TOEIC test. The TOEIC test measures your ability to use English in daily business situations covering such topics as corporate development, finance and budgeting, corporate property, IT, manufacturing, purchasing, offices, personnel, technical matters, health and business travel.
Many people, who do not speak English or do not speak English well, desire to improve their English; All of my students have asked me, "how can I improve my English?"
There are many books written on the subject, but the vast majority of them are written for teachers of English as a second language. If your level of English is about intermediate or lower you would not understand these books, or not be able to read them at all.
So what do you do to improve your English? You have a few options, but one option you should always include is an English teacher. If possible your English teacher should be a native-English-speaker. Other options are watching TV and movies in English; Listening to radio in English; Reading books and news in English. But you have to actually use, speak, the English you are learning. You have to hear the new sounds and words come out of your mouth. Yes, you can learn to read English and never speak a word of it. Is that your goal? I hope not. Moreover, I know it is not for most learners of English as a second language.
First, let's look at aptitude. What is aptitude? Aptitude is a person's ability to learn something new.
For example, Joe is learning to play the guitar, and Pete has been learning for 6 months. In just 2 months Joe is playing better than Pete, even though Pete practices almost every day. Joe has a higher aptitude than Pete for learning to play the guitar. For Joe playing the guitar simply comes natural. Pete practices daily, and will continue to improve, but it will take him longer. Pete has to work harder, he does not have the natural feeling for playing the guitar.
Learning English, or any second language, is much the same. Every person has a different level of aptitude for learning a new language. If your learning experience seems to be going slow, don't worry about it, it might just be your language learning aptitude is lower, and you might have a higher learning aptitude for something else. Whether your language learning aptitude is high or low does not matter, you will learn, you will improve, if you try.
Why do you want to learn English? What is your motivation? Motivation is the force that makes us want to do something. In this case, it is the reason why we want to learn English. There are two general types of motivation, instrumental and integrative motivations. But that's getting to technical, so let's use the words "internal" and "external". External motivation is the learner's desire is to use the language to improve his/her job situation, such as a different position where they currently work; change to a different company; or to change careers.. In contrast, an internal motivation is when learners may choose to learn a second language because they are interested in the people and culture that uses that language, or they want to learn a new language because it is fun and it enriches their life. In various contexts, both motivations are important. Of course, students can have both types of motivation at the same time. But one will always be stronger than the other.
Learning a new language so you can pass an exam or get a better job, that is external motivation. If you are learning just for the enjoyment of learning a new language, or for talking with friends who also speak the language, that is internal motivation. Both are good.
A study of Chinese students, in China by FJ Noonen in 2005, showed that those who have a strong external motivation are more likely to be unsuccessful in learning the new language. Those who have a strong internal motivation are more likely to be successful at learning the new language. One of the Chinese students said (paraphrased) "If you learn English but cannot speak it fluently, you are like a blind person on the street, you miss many opportunities to experience the beauty of the world. It is like being kept in a dark box. If you speak English well you open up the world, culture, people and life. You feel you have added color and meaning to your life. You are not isolated."
So why are you learning English? Is it so you can pass a particular test? Learning a new language is much more than that. It opens opportunities. It is the key to new opportunities in jobs, travel, and new friends, and much more.
Everyone believes that one must be diligent to learn English well. But in the above mentioned study the author of the study found that diligence really didn't make much of a difference between successful learning and unsuccessful learning. But what is diligence? It is determination; it is effort; that you put into doing something. It cannot be measured. In the study 36 % of the non-successful learners felt they had studied extremely well or very diligently for two years or more but still spoke English poorly. In contrast, 57% of successful learners described themselves as only sometimes diligent or not diligent at all, yet they speak English very well. Why do some very diligent students speak English poorly, while other not-diligent students speak English well? Diligence is a feeling. The successful learners may have felt like they were not as diligent as they actually were, and in contrast, the unsuccessful learners may have over-estimated their level of diligence.
It is not good enough to just study a lot, you must study properly. I suggest that you will improve your new language best when you study in these 2 ways: 1) listen to large amounts of understandable English, 2) take all opportunities to use the new language to talk with others, and 3) support your learning with some grammar learning.
Most language experts have thought, for many years, that language was learned by simply imitating the sounds we hear as children. One researcher, Noam Chomsky, said that language is too complex to be learned simply by imitation. In addition, if children are learning by imitation how do the other researchers explain the mistakes the children make? It appeared that children were making mistakes because they were applying "rules" where they did not belong, producing speech like "you hurted me." A phrase they would never hear in their home and school. Apparently children did not simply imitate speech, but were actively making "rules" in their mind from the input they received to govern their speech. More importantly, they did not receive enough information about language in their home and school to give them all the knowledge they needed to know the things that they knew about language. How could children do this? Chomsky hypothesized that humans are born with a "language acquisition device." This device is a part of the brain designed specifically for language acquisition and is separate from its other parts. He believed all that was needed to get this device to start working, was input, exposure to language.
Later, researchers began noticing that second language learners also produced language that contained mistakes, yet these mistakes were not arbitrary but governed by "rules." However, these "rules" could neither simply be attributed to the influence of the native language nor the target language. Researchers refer to this system of rules as "interlanguage." This interlanguage is transitional, it changes over time. As learners grow in the language, their interlanguage system becomes more and more similar to the target language. In other words, as they make progress their language becomes more and more correct. This "series of interim systems that a learner constructs in the process of acquiring a second language" is called the "interlanguage continuum" (Rod Ellis 1997).
One theory of learning is called Input Hypothesis, which claims that new language learners make progress through exposure to understandable input. So, just what is understandable input? Understandable input is defined as "understanding input that contains structures at our next 'stage' - structures that are a bit beyond our current level of competence". What that refers to is the new language vocabulary and grammar that are just beyond what we currently know. Think about the equation x + 1, x is your current level of English and +1 is the new words or grammar that are just above your current level. Accordingly, input that is either too simple or complex will not help a learner make progress in spoken English.
In the previously mentioned Chinese study, they were asked the question "On an average day of study, how much time did you spend LISTENING to spoken English?" The non-successful learners (81%) were listening to less than 1 hour, while the successful learners (63%) were listening to 1 hour or more. Then they were asked the question: "How well did you understand MOST of the English you listened to while learning English?" The results for the category "I understood the main message but didn't understand some parts. [comprehensive i + 1 input]" were: successful learners, 85%, unsuccessful learners, 58%. While in the "I understood only some of it with great difficulty" category the successful learners were at 0% and the unsuccessful learners, 36%.
The results are clear. The great majority of successful English language learners in this study 1) listen to English for 1 hour or more and 2) listen to the right kind of input, input where they can understand the main idea but not some parts. Nevertheless, I believe it is safe to claim that exposure to comprehensible input greatly benefits the language learner. On the other hand, 57.58 % of non-successful learners are listening to this same type of input. Why are they still poor speakers? Most likely, the amount of time spent listening to this kind of input is insufficient to achieve a higher level of proficiency, as indicated by the previous question. Finally, 42.42% of non-successful students are not only spending too little time listening, the time they do spend is not of much use because the input is too difficult for them to comprehend.
So, now you understand the importance of understandable input. How, or where, do I get this kind of input? There are numerous websites that offer spoken news stories and fiction stories, some are free and some are subscription. Here are a few:
The bottom line is that if you are not comprehending the main idea of your input, you either need to use more strategies (i.e. dictionary, repetition, shorten length, etc.) to make it comprehensible or find different, simpler sources of input.
Strategies are helpful for comprehending a listening passage. When you are listening, try the following:
Listening to English will help everything. Listening will build your vocabulary, improve your grammar, and even help your speaking. In fact, there are some who believe that listening to comprehensible input alone is sufficient to develop complete oral proficiency, as mentioned before. However, though that may be possible, I do not think it is likely. On the contrary, I believe that using the target language (English) to communicate with another person greatly helps students acquire the English language.
Once again, referring to the above mentioned Chinese study of English language learners, they were asked "In an average WEEK of study, how much time did you spend using English to communicate with a NATIVE SPEAKER OF ENGLISH (For example: A foreign teacher or friend)". And the results are not surprising: those who spent 1 hour or less per week, 85% of the unsuccessful learners. Those who spent more than 1 hour per week, 61% of the successful learners. So, no surprises there.
My students already know this though, as I have mentioned to them the importance of actually practicing speaking English during the days they are not with me in lessons. The problem with most students is that they either
I will address these issues later.
First, here are a couple points about speaking practice: First point - with comprehensible input, meaning can often be understood without paying attention to the grammar. In other words, speaking can help students notice a gap between what they say and what they hear; therefore they recognize that some of their grammar is not correct. And the second point - speaking practice provides learners with an incentive to formulate their thoughts into words and opportunities to test what they have learned. They can use what they have learned to see if it leads to successful communication or if it brings a negative response. And finally, learners often think about their own output, giving them something to discuss which can lead to potential solutions.
Who will I speak with?
My students are fortunate to have a native English speaking teacher, yet how many of them take advantage of this opportunity? Very few. Some have English-speaking family members, relatives or friends, yet they default back to their native language because it is more comfortable. Reading out loud also helps. Yes, we all have a busy schedule, but if we take just a few minutes away from the tv a few times a week to practice speaking the students level of proficiency will increase dramatically. This can be done by phone, or skype, or in person. The real question is: how important is it to you?
Notice the first item above? Often we are afraid to use our new language because we are afraid we will make a mistake and look like a fool. In English we call this "losing face". This is a very big and real problem for new language learners.
Once again referring to the Chinese study, we find that 52% of the students who were non-successful learners were afraid of losing face, they were afraid they would look foolish. Compare that to 88% of the successful students who used English no matter if they looked foolish or not. The results strongly suggest that if you want to speak English well, you must overcome your fear of losing face and begin speaking English with others.
For many years, decades in fact, grammar has been the focus of learning English. Many students can quote just about every grammar rule without error, but ask them a simple question and they are dumbfounded for a simple answer. Schools that teach grammar fail to teach conversation skills. Often even the teachers cannot converse in the language they are teaching. Thus it is all the more important to study with a native speaker.
Grammar learning should focus on two points: 1) making input understandable and 2) developing awareness so that the learner can notice the grammar.
First, a little knowledge of grammar can make input a lot more understandable. Second, when learners are concerned only with communicating their meaning, they often do not need to be grammatically accurate in order to accomplish their goals. For example, in English, subject-verb agreement is unnecessary to understand the meaning of the sentence. Thus, because a student can subconsciously ignore the grammar, he may not learn to speak accurately. This means that a student, though he may speak fluently, continues to make the same mistakes over and over again even though he has heard the correct way to say them a thousand times.
Some scholars believe that when students learn about grammar, this knowledge can help them "notice" (pay attention to) not only the meaning of the words/sentences/phrases, but also its grammatical form. Even though they might not yet speak the form correctly; if they are aware of the correct form, they can then "notice" it in the input. Eventually, after "noticing" a grammatical feature enough, they will use it correctly.
If your goal is to improve your spoken English, you can spend less time memorizing grammar rules, and should spend more time practicing speaking. Make listening and using English the focus of your study.
I recommend studying grammar for the following reasons: 1) to make input understandable and 2) to help the learner understand what they hear and read, as well as their own speaking. This may help them to eventually internalize these grammatical rules rather than storing them up in their short-term memory where they will be quickly forgotten after the test; 3) to learn how to write properly in English.
There is no magic formula for learning a new language, no shortcuts or tricks. Some websites claim you can learn to be fluent in 2 weeks, or 4 weeks, etc, but don't believe them. All they do is list all the cognate forms between the two languages. And what I have written is certainly not the be-all and end-all, but what I have learned in my own experiences. So, here are a few suggestions summarized from this paper:
Do not fear losing face. Fear poor English skills! Do not complain about your environment! Do the best you can in the environment you are in! Stand up and study English with the right attitude in the right way!Reference for Chinese study information:
This poem is for intermediate and advanced readers.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, laugh and through?
Well done! And now you wish perhaps
To learn of these familiar traps?
Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird,
And dead: it’s said like bed, not bead,
For Goodness’ sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.
A moth is not a moth in mother
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s does and rose and lose -
Just look them up: and goose and choose.
And cork and front and word and ward
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language! Man Alive,
I’d mastered it when I was five.
(Anonymous, 1965, London Times Newspaper)
Jan Smuts described the term holism as follows:
"The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution."
In other words, some things cannot be fully understood from their parts alone. “to form wholes” means to form full, complete things from many parts. “the sum of the parts” means adding all the parts together.
Whole entities have unique behaviors of their own and can often be unexpected or unpredictable. Think of an ecosystem for example. Everything naturally within the ecosystem is connected to everything else in that ecosystem. If you remove a part of the ecosystem the ecosystem will not function as it should, and may eventually die.
A language is a good example of this.
A language has its own ecosystem made up of language (spoken and written), culture, society and so on. It can’t be understood from its parts alone. To understand a language you need to understand the culture, society, and everything that effects that language and makes it what it is. This is different from simply learning to speak and write in that language.
When native speakers communicate with each other, the words they use have “meanings” much more advanced than simply their dictionary definitions.
Words and phrases are tightly linked to the culture and society that they are used in, and in order to truly communicate effectively with another person you need to have experience of a shared cultural background. Notice that I wrote “communicate effectively”, not simply “communicate”. You can communicate in your new language by simply learning it but you will be missing many nuances of the words you use, therefore you communication will be a little less than truly effective.
Only after learning the cultural background of the language will the words and phrases used have their true meaning.
For example, have you ever:
This is the result of ignoring the whole (the written/spoken language, the culture, etc), and of not taking a sufficiently holistic approach to language learning.
What does holistic language learning look like?
If holistic learning involves using your new language for real purposes, real conversation, rather than breaking it into its many grammar rules, what would it actually involve?
This is what it involves:
Think of it as using the language for the same reasons as you would use your native language. This, after all, is the ultimate goal in the language you’re learning.
This is powerful, because you are using the target language to perform real tasks while also taking care of your other “human” needs at the same time.
By speaking, you’re developing an awareness of your social self in the target language. By reading for a real purpose, you’re addressing your cognitive needs to find information or for pleasure.
In essence, you’re developing your own mental awareness in your new language.
It’s not necessarily easy… your textbook will feel much more comfortable by comparison. But the right mindset can get you started much quicker than you thought. In other words, learning from a textbook is easier than trying to learn through real-life experience.
In the words of Leo van Lier:
“A [holistic] approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit. It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning.”
So take a step back.
Don’t throw out your textbooks (you’ll be needing them).
But consider how you’re spending your time. Are you focusing on the part (grammar) or on the whole (experience)?
And do you need to readjust the balance on your path to fluency?
The words we speak and write are part of how we are evaluated in terms of professionalism. Sometimes it is a simple mispronunciation, sometimes it might be mixing different tenses, or perhaps an incorrect subject-verb agreement (so they disagree). Here are a few phrases you don't want to use as shown, whether online or off:
Do you try to learn new words by reading lists of words? Do you try to memorize those lists of words? It’s not easy, and it’s a waste of time. You shouldn’t be trying to memorize lists of words, you should be learning words in sentences, in context. Many words have 2 or more meanings, and many of those have quite a few meanings, especially when connected with other words, such as in phrasal verbs.
Here are some examples using the word “table”:
(There are more possibilities but these are the most common.)
Do you understand all of those sentences?
Do you understand the word “table” in each sentence?
Learning new vocabulary is not necessarily a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a drag. By learning in sentences you are learning more than just the one word, you are learning sentence structure and correct usage of many words.
You can see that simply remembering the word “table” is not enough to learn new words. You have to learn them in context. And, the best way to learn new words in context is by doing what? Oh, yeah, reading. Read anything you can get your hands on – newspapers, comic books, novels, magazines, even brochures. It doesn’t matter. They’re all good for learning words in context.
You can read online of course, but I personally recommend you read something tangible – real, that you can write on with a real pen. That way you can make notes to help you remember what you have read. You can re-read your notes at any time, in any place.
You can cut the articles out of a newspaper or magazine and keep them in your English-learning notebook. You do you have an English-learning notebook, right? If not, start one.
You can use the website merriam-webster.com to get all the definitions and sentences examples of any words you are learning. They also have a thesaurus so you can learn synonyms, antonyms, and more which all help you to understand the uses of the word. They also include definitions written for children, for new learners of English, for medical or other industry definitions, and much more. I highly recommend the Merriam-webster.com website for all new learners of English.
Another example is the word “get”. It’s a small word, only 3 letters, but it has many definitions and uses and many phrasal verb forms. Below are a few examples, each one uses “get” with a different meaning:
On the Merriam-webster.com website, you will find these and many more uses of “get”. As you can see, learning “get” from a wordlist would be pointless.
Contact me: Chip Wiegand
I teach english as a foreign language in Barranquilla, Colombia. I'm from Kennewick, Washington, USA. In my previous life, as I call it, I was an IT guy, systems administrator, computer tech, as well as a shipping/receiving guy and also worked as a merchandising guy for a year for a camping/RV accessories store.
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