chip wiegand

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The faces of the past are like leaves that settle to the ground . . . They make the earth rich and thick, so that new fruit will come forth every summer.


Teaching English and El Día de Amor y Amistad

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Have you ever stopped and given thought to the letter 'u'? Probably not. Why would you? It's just a vowel. Nothing special. But I discovered that the letter 'u' has many sounds, not just what we think of as the traditional "long" and "short" shounds.

Some words to consider:

  • but
  • butte
  • buy (the "long" 'i' sound)
  • buoy (the "long" 'oo' sound)
  • bush (the "short" 'oo' sound)
  • busy (the "short" 'i' sound)
  • bury (the "long" 'a' sound)
  • bull (the "long" 'o' sound)
  • burrow (the "short" 'e' sound)
  • guard/antique (silent)

These sounds are made by a combination of two letters, a phoneme, except, of course, for the "long" and "short" 'u' sounds. That is 10 possible sounds for the letter 'u'. Compare this to Spanish, the word "uso" (in English translates to "use, using, usage") for example: 1 sound, like the English "long" 'oo' sound found in the words "buoy", "boom".

And that is just one letter. The 5 vowels have 12 pure vowel sounds of their own, and all the 26 letters of the alphabet have a generally accepted number of 46 sounds (phonemes). Spanish, for example, has the same 5 vowels, and they have only 5 sounds. Though in typical daily speaking one will hear 7, possibly 8, sounds. When mentioning this to a Spanish speaking person they will argue "No, I didn't pronounce it that way. There is only one sound for each vowel." Their ears are not trained, tuned in, to listen to the very fine differences between the English vowels. The Spanish vowel 'e' (pronounced as the 'ay' in the English word "day") can have what to us North Americans sounds like the "ay" sound and also a "short" English 'e' sound as in the English word "get". For example: when a Latin American says the word "ejercicio", the first letter 'e' has the English "short" 'e' sound, and the second 'e' has the "long" English 'e' sound. The letter 'a' in Spanish is pronounced like the 'a' in the English word "father", so they have to learn these new sounds, in the English words: 'bag, beg, bat' or 'soot, suit' or 'look, Luke'.

I've had some arguments with people here about pronunciation of the vowels, and they just don't hear the differences. They are not trained, as children learning to speak, to hear such fine differences.

I'm working with some of my students in this area, helping them learn to tell the difference between the many sounds of the English alphabet. It takes time. Some just want to dive right in and start talking. I try to explain to them, first you need to build the base, the foundation, of the language, and that is the sounds of the letters. As chidren what do we learn first? Words? Phrases? No, sounds. Then we start to put them together and we form words. And then we learn to associate those words with some action. And eventually we put them together to form sentences. The foundation is the sounds, not the words, not vocabulary lists, not common phrases.

I have an e-book called A Course in English Phonetics for Spanish Speakers (1982 Heinemann Educational Books). It is crazy difficult to read. And it's supposed to be a text book for EFL teachers and Spanish speakers learning English. It's much too scientific for my simple brain to understand. Maybe some day I will actually try to read the whole book. Or maybe not. It's just too difficult to wrap my head around a lot of the stuff they write about. But it does have some very good exercise work at the back. Exercises for listening to the different sounds, reading practice, and for written work/transcription. So, even if I don't manage to read the book, I have been through much of it, skimmed the topics and main paragraphs, and gotten the gist of the concepts presented. So I have some idea of how to work with new learners and their struggle with the many sounds of the English language.

I think the biggest problem facing new English learners here in Colombia is this: a lack of native English speaking teachers. Most of the English teachers here are Colombian, or Latin American, who have learned some English, and have been put into a position of having to teach it. In Colombia there is the Ministry of Education. Back in 2004 they started a program to push English in the schools of Colombia. It is a big program. They want as many as possible learning English from grade school on up. But the lack of English teachers is doing more harm than good. I see it almost every day. I am out walking, and some kids see me, recognize me as a North American, and say "Hi, how are you?". So I then stop to chat with them a little. But, they can't say anything else. A few can say "My name is...." and nothing more. It's a shame. In the schools the English teachers don't know English well enough to Teach conversational English, so they teach grammar, and nothing more. Nobody learns a new language by learning grammar. The statistics from the MIN (Ministry of Education) show that only 25% of the 13,324 (as of 2011) English teachers in Colombian schools have a intermediate level (level B2 of the CEFL) of English. Only 6% have a level higher than that. Those numbers are terrible! What is the results of this? According to the same report - only 8% of 11th graders in Colombia scored at the intermediate level of English. (This information was published in the national newspaper El Tiempo in April 2011.)

Oh, on a completely different note: Valentines Day, Feb 14 in many countries. El Día de Amor y Amistad is the name in Colombia, it is celebrated on the 3rd saturday of September. But here in Colombia the "American" Valentines Day is becoming commonly celebrated, it is not an official holiday here. The first question one should ask is Why February 14? What happened on that date? In case you do not know, here it is - Saint Valentine was decapitated on that day in the year 496. Actually there were at least two men known as Saint Valentine. As for real facts known about either of them, there are very few. Most are just folk tales and legends. But the skull of Saint Valentine, whichever one, was preserved and is located in Rome. So here in Colombia we celebrate El Día de Amor y Amistad (The Day of Love and Friendship) in September so the day is remembered for what it is meant - love and friendship. Not a remembrance of the death of a saint. The holiday here celebrates not just romantic love, but also platonic love.

So what do we do on this day? Is it the same as the "American" holiday? No. While the act of sending a romantic card, or flowers does occur, there is something more happening here. What happens is similar to the "secret santa" game at Christmas which many reading this are familiar with. It's called "Amigo Dulce" (sweet friend) or "Amigo Secreto" (secret friend). This can be done with a group of co-workers, classmates, friends, etc. So typically names of the people involved are written on pieces of paper, then drawn by those participating. Each person has to buy a small gift for their secret friend. During the week leading up to the holidy they will "sweeten" the offers by sending their secret friend candies or treats or messages. I am not entirely clear on the entire proceedings but it seems that some of the sweets given during the week include, or are, a clue to who the sweets came from. I have to find out more info. Then at the end, on the holiday, according to one source, there is a dinner party and the gifts are exchanged. I think. I'm really not too sure. I was getting confused by this point.

As for me, I started two new students this week, 3 days a week, 4 hours. And next week I have 2 more new students starting, I know right now that one of them is 3 2-hour lessons a week. I don't have the schedule from the other yet, hopefully today or tomorrow I will recieve that. And there is another new student, one who was dragging me along for several months, always cancelling lessons, he finally started lessons. So far it has been 2 2-hour lessons per week, but he too does not have a schedule set, and needs to get that done very soon. I got a phone call from a woman the other day, asking about lessons. She was recommended by a former student. Pray that she will contact me again, she seemed to be very much interested, but has not called back regarding lessons. And I still have another student. So as of next week I will be working with 6 students. Yay!

That's about it for now. Please consider helping me if you can, click on the Western Union logo for information, or donate via the CrowdRise link. If you already have, thank you, again. Much appreciated!


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