People Who “Hate” Their Native Languages: My Perspective

Beware the Ides of March!

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Today’s topic is an interesting one that I’m surprised hasn’t been touched on in almost any language-learning blog I’ve encountered.

For many years I’ve heard comments like these:

 

“(Speaker’s native language) is the most useless language in existence”

“(Speaker’s native language) is only useful 0.1% of the time.”

“I suppose there are a lot better things to do with your time (rather than study my native language)”

“Why the fuck do you want to learn (speaker’s native language)?”

“I think my native language is boring”

“I would trade my native language for…”

 

I should mention two things:

  • I’ve been guilty of this myself. Part of me wishes that English wasn’t my native language. That was literally the second blog post I ever wrote about on this blog, actually!
  • Almost all of the people who made comments like these were westerners (although I’ve heard some people from Asia or the Americas do the same, too—but not as frequently. From Africa and the Pacific, not to date).

 

Before I continue I’m going to say that I do NOT include people who actively dislike their language due to trauma. (e.g. “my grandmother was a native German speaker from Nazi Germany and after she left she refused to speak German ever again”. Disclaimer: this describes neither of my grandmothers). That’s beyond the scope of what I feel qualified to talk about, and in the event you DO encounter someone like that, avoid that language altogether without questions. End of story.

 

But as far as ordinary people who somehow feel that they could trade their native language (or one of their native languages) for another one, there are some things that I’ve noticed.

 

  • Sometimes they just say that in order to get you to validate their native language.

 

YES. This has happened to me. Enough for me to write about it.

 

Only yesterday was I in a Talmud class and we had a discussion about the fact that, according to Jewish law, prospective converts have to be refused three times (in order to show that they are genuinely serious about becoming Jewish, regardless of what liabilities it may bring them in the future).

 

Sometimes someone who says “why bother learning (my language) if so few people speak it / everyone in my country speaks English anyhow / it’s ‘useless’” may actually want you to justify your decision passionately. Or they may actually want to hear your story in detail but don’t want to ask directly.

 

The more fluent you are in a language, the LESS this will happen, especially if your accent is good.

 

There’s a reason for that, actually. Because if you speak it well enough, it shows that you’ve had a good enough reason to invest a lot of time into it, so your reason will almost CERTAINLY not be within the realm of questioning (e.g. having done business there, married to or dating a native speaker, etc.)

 

  • If they use ANY amount of the language with you at all beyond basic greetings, they really DON’T hate their native language. Especially if they show telltale signs of enchantment.

 

If they did (and yes, I have encountered a handful of cases in which they did), they wouldn’t smile if you speak their language, they would instead appear disgusted and a tad confused. They wouldn’t be continuing the conversation in the “useless language” and playing along with you with smiles as they do it.

 

This is the case with me and English. I may have extremely conflicted opinions about American English, but if someone wants to learn it from me, I’ll usually play along rather than act frustrated (especially if someone really needs help with his or her English). Because whether I like it or not, American-ness is a part of who I am (in addition to my other identities).

 

  • Sometimes this attitude can reflect a certain sense of jealousy (that we ALL have) about speakers of certain languages.

 

I’m hugely jealous of Greenlandic native speakers. I make no secret of that fact. (It still remains the hardest language I’ve ever attempted to learn, bar none, to the degree that if someone lists a major language as the hardest to learn, I’m secretly scoffing on the inside.)

 

Throughout Europe I’ve met many people who view American English native speakers as lottery winners and view them with a certain sort of jealousy that they can’t hide. And yes, you will make friends JUST by virtue of that fact alone, especially with people who feel that they need the conversational practice or even knowledge about American culture (this is true no matter WHAT your native language is, actually! Someone out there is looking for you! This can also be the case if you’re a fluent speaker of a language, even non-natively).

 

My knowledge of whatever native languages I can’t have and I can’t catch up with will almost certainly never be on the level of a native speaker. But I can try and keep learning. And if it is of any comfort to you, my knowledge of other English-speaking cultures and their idioms are also going to be out of reach in terms of “perfection” as well.

 

But you don’t need to be a native speaker to be good. Far from it, in fact.

 

  • Unless someone brings up a traumatic incident or shows signs of vexation, do NOT take “I hate my native language / I think it’s useless” comments seriously.

 

And there also is a chance that you just MIGHT need to get better at their language in order to get them to warm up to you!

 

One last thing: you can actually use this to your advantage to keep conversations in your target language (which I’ve noticed is becoming less and less of an issue the more experienced I get. It was a noteworthy issue back in 2014 and is almost NOTHING now, but we’ll see how Austria and Slovakia fare later this year on that front). Benny Lewis famously would bring up his English-language Catholic school experiences in order to guilt people away from using English with him in places like Spain. I’ve never had to go to that length but I’m certainly willing to describe the darker sides of my American experience (which I won’t go into right now).

 

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

How to Perfect your Accent in English

It isn’t often that I find myself writing about my native language! Actually, I think this is literally the FIRST time I’ve ever done that!

I’ve been an English-language tutor for nearly two years now, and one thing I’ve really noticed is that, thanks to my time in Poland at a reception desk (among many other jobs that included “Yiddish translator” and “guy who sings children’s songs for…well…children”), I’ve gained the uncanny ability to actually zone in on people’s English-language errors and peculiarities.

This article isn’t about grammar in the slightest (but if you’re curious I would think that the biggest mistakes made by far would actually be related to sentence structure and article usage [when do I use “a”? when do I use “the”?]).

Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to knowing how to perfect your accent. And English is tricky!

grand central

You, one day, knowing that your English skills are in the top 0.01% of all non-native speakers! 

Some languages, like Finnish or Hebrew, are pronounced the way they are written with mathematical precision!

English, especially the trickier American variety, is anything but that.

Without having to read any of my extended memoirs any more, let’s get into the details.

The most common pronunciation errors made by my students would include:

  • Not using the Schwa sound

American English has a very lazy sound indeed that a lot of languages don’t have. If you are a native speaker of American English, say the word “the” …note that it is a low sound that almost comes from your chin!

Instead, they will pronounce the words “the” and “thee” indentically. You don’t want to do that.

Unfortunately, the rules as to when to use the schwa sound are…well, there are no rules.

Because the schwa can literally be represented by a, e, i, o, u OR y!

Wikipedia, as of the time of writing, gives the following examples: about (first syllable), taken (last syllable), pencil (last syllable), memory (second syllable), supply (first syllable), sibyl (last syllable).

So what you need to do is two things:

  • Master the sound (the wikipedia article on Schwa that I just mentioned has a recording you can use!)
  • Find patterns in the way that it is used by English speakers and imitate them. If you find this hard to do, go to tatoeba.org and find English sentences read out loud by native speakers. In this way, you can learn to imitate a sentence exactly as a native speaker would! (Thanks to Ari in Beijing for this tip!)

 

  • English vowels, especially in “American”, are “Lazy”.

 

When I hear heavily accented English a lot of the time, and this is true for people from all continents, I usually hear a precision in the vowels.

In many types of accented English, the vowels are pronounced with emphasis and are strongly highlighted. You can do this and sound like a native speaker of American English…from the 1940’s, that is.

But contemporary English has a gliding quality to its vowels that almost none of the other languages that I have studied have.

American English uses a “legato” (and for those of you who speak Italian, note how differently an American would say the word versus the way an Italian would say it and you’ll illustrate my point exactly!). The vowels slither from one end of the mouth to the other. The primary focus of that back-and-forth swaying should be the back half of your tongue!

Instead, what many speakers do is that they pronounce the vowels statically. What this means is that the vowels, instead of moving throughout your mouth the way they do in “American”, stay put.

I don’t blame a lot of non-native speakers. Most languages in the world do this.

Those of you who know me in person know that my accent is a mixture of those from the many countries I’ve lived in. I have no problem putting on a flawless American accent, but it takes effort for me, because the lazy sounding of the vowel is something that, looking at it honestly, actually requires effort to execute.

Again, imitation of native speakers will assist you in learning how to do this. Pay attention to the small details of people’s speech (by the way, that’s what I did in my Learn Palauan Video Series that’s still ongoing). That way, you can pick up an accent.

What’s different from the way the native speaker is saying it in comparison to the way you would say it? Pay attention to EVERY. SMALL. DETAIL.

  • Not Pronouncing the R correctly

 

And this is especially  a problem from places like Thailand in which the L and the R sound are almost mixed (I bet you’re probably thinking about politically incorrect accent imitations from cartoons, aren’t you?)

One of my students practiced this sound by imitating my pronunciation of the phrase “rare occurrences”, which many non-native English speakers struggle with.

Your tongue should be curved upwards slightly, or flat, and then retreated. It should sound almost like a lazy dog’s growl (and I think it was a comment on Fluent in 3 Months or something like that that I took it from).

For those of you who speak the Beijing dialect of Mandarin, the phrase 好好 (or “very good” = Hǎohǎo) is actually pronounced something closer to having an “r” sound in the middle of it. That’s how I got native Mandarin speakers from Beijing to pronounce the R sound flawlessly. Surprisingly that r actually resembles the American R to an astonishing degree.

  • Having various pronunciation “ticks” from their native language seep in.

Now this is one that I considered omitting by virtue of the fact that there are some native speakers of English that do this (e.g. some Irish people don’t pronounce the “th” sound, Trinidadian native speakers of Standard English may pronounce the word “ask” as “aks”, etc. And no, this isn’t the time for me to get into a debate about whether or not the English Creoles of the Caribbean are separate languages or not. Post for another time!)

This can take extraordinary training and most people are satisfied with their English accent enough to the degree that they don’t deem it necessary.

Take Sweden, for example, a place with a very high rate of English proficiency. Despite that, you’ll hear people pronounce the “ch” sound like a “sh” sound, or the “j” sound like a “y” sound at times. (“A box of shocolates” … “you yust need to understand…”)

Thanks to my experience with Scandinavian tongues, I speak like that too, at times. (Keep in mind that many Swedish young people will throw in English phrases and sentences even when speaking Swedish among themselves).

You don’t understand the degree to which the things you expose yourself to can affect you. It’s very, very powerful.

These things can be trained away with effort, but given that a lot of people want a “good accent” and not a “they can’t tell the difference between me and an American” accent, a lot of people don’t go this far. But I think that the various English pronunciation ticks of many nationalities are well-documented and you just need to be aware enough to avoid them.

And sometimes speaking exercises and tongue twisters may train things away.

Again, maybe these ticks are actually something that you like (as conversation starters, for example). But I got news for you: you can easily turn such things like that “on” and “off”.

Some examples of these ticks:

  • Swedes, Norwegians, French people pronouncing “ch” as “sh”.
  • Polish and Portuguese speakers overusing nasal vowels in English.
  • Hungarians speaking English with the first-syllable-is-always-stressed rule (English does, as a general rule, do this, but not with the consistency of the Finno-Ugric Languages).
  • Greenlanders pronouncing the “ti” combination as “tsi” rather than “tea” (e.g. “Arctsic Winter Games”)

This is very much a perfectionist point. Which brings me to the one thing that almost ALL English learners struggle with.

  • Keeping the Inventory of Vowels from your Native Language

The most common roadblock for developing a good accent in English!

Your native language may have a set amount of vowels. English is almost certainly very likely to have more.

Often some speakers will just read and speak English using the vowels of their native language, rather than learning in detail the way that the English language uses vowels.

As an English native speaker, I have to be careful about my accent. If I don’t do a good job, I may get answered in English, especially if my accent impedes my understanding.

You, as an English learner, don’t really need to get worried about being answered in your native tongue when you try to speak English, and NOWHERE NEAR with as much consistency. This is especially true in English-speaking countries.

As a result, I’m not surprised by the fact that most people don’t want to hone their accent and only want to make it “borderline understandable”. And this is true even in places that score “very high” on English proficiency tests.

To some degree, I understand this because humans are, generally speaking, lazy creatures.

So what you’ll need to do is learn how to pronounce the vowels in English while successfully shutting out the sounds of your native tongue.

Imagine that you had no knowledge of your other languages in the slightest, and just needed to imitate the sounds based on what you heard, without overlaying the vowel sounds of your native language on it. That’s what you need to be doing.

Simply put: don’t read English vowels the way as if they were the same exact vowels in your native tongue. Use a new system.

 

BONUS: Another thing you could do to help you in English is…learn a little bit of another language!

 

I know, counter-intuitive, right? Especially in places where it is commonly believed “don’t learn too many languages because you can’t master them all. Focus on a handful of them!” (just wait till I and the rest of the polyglots get validated by furthered informational and memory technology! Hoo hah!)

But if you choose to do this, you’ll actually acquire skills from your other language to help you with English and everything that it entails.

You’ll also learn about how to approach learning from a different angle, and what makes English (and the process of learning English) different from whatever other languages you may be learning.

As a hyperpolyglot myself, I’ve honed the many processes of learning and maintaining my many other languages by means of collecting experiences on each journey and sharing them with each other.

This is one well-known fix that very, VERY few people try, but I highly recommend it if you haven’t done it already.

Granted, English may actually be your third, fourth, fifth, etc. language, in which case you just may need a little bit of thought, investigation and a few diary entries in order to see what you could do to fix it.

 

Yes, I have, on a handful of occasions, met non-bilingual folks whom I mistook for Americans because they spoke English so well (and my accent radar is EXTREMELY well-honed).

It. Is. Possible!

That. Person. Could. Be. YOU!

Have fun on the journey!

Cracking Tough Phonemes

Depending on your choice of language(s), there comes a time in which there is a certain sound that your mouth simply cannot manage…or so it seems.

Perhaps you may have heard of science (however questionable) that says that your mouth is fully formed by a certain age, and if you don’t collect a sound before then, then your chances of learning it are hopeless…

Well, here’s the thing: hopeless barely ever exists in any case, and if you have been struggling with a certain phoneme, this post will save you!

Here are some of the more troubling phonemes, in no particular order of difficulty (even if I were to rank them, it would be very meaningless indeed):

(1)    Swedish “sj-“ sound (discovery of the week: the Flemish “g” sound resembles this sound closely, although the same cannot be said of the “g” sound in Dutch which is spoken in the Netherlands)

(2)    Portuguese nasal vowels (ã, õ) and “m” at the end of words, which functions as “ng” in English, only pronounced nasally.

(3)    A host of other Portuguese vowels (áâàéêíóôúü)

(4)    Polish nasal vowels (ą, ę)

(5)    German “ch” sound, typified by the word “Ich”

(6)    Russian “ы” sound

(7)    Learning the distinction between hard and soft consonants in Russian

(8)    Dutch “ui” sound

(9)    The “th” sound for many non-native English speakers (sound also appears in Greek)

(10) Welsh “ll” sound

(11) Greenlandic (oh boy…), “q”, “rl” and “ll”.

(12) The swallowing of consonants at the end of words in Greenlandic. Danish carries a similar system in its phonology.

(13)Some may have trouble with any variety of guttural “kh” sound. Interestingly Hebrew is the one language best known for this, but similar founds appear in Dutch, German, Yiddish, and Russian. Swedish, Polish, and Greenlandic roughly qualify for things that sound similarly. (This is an abbreviated list, so feel free to add more in the comments…)

(14) On top of that, there are the various ways in which the letter “r” is pronounced and rolled in languages around the world. I’ve heard that there is even a training course at the University of Heidelberg that teaches you how to roll r’s properly in various languages, which, I gather, are the more commonly studied European ones.

You think that it might be too late to change your accent, yet alone learn a new sound…but thankfully I had a music teacher in high school who told the following story:

At one point he invited Buddhist monks to perform their chants for the school audience. Afterwards, he asked them if they could teach him, but they said that they could only do so if he were to initiate into their order.

Now, my teacher was dead-set on learning how to replicate this sound, and so he practiced it endlessly in the car, and on stairwells, the same way that I practiced the Danish stød during my adventure over the course of the past year. At one point, it just…stuck…he found himself able to replicate this chanting voice and became well-known throughout the school for using this Buddhist monk chant to imitate a Martian voice—one highly reminiscent of a cartoon character.

This brings me to one of four possibly ways I found to get over a sound I was struggling with..

(1)    Shower technique

 

This is exactly what my teacher did. This is what I did with two sounds in particular: the Swedish “sj” sound, which I sometimes still botch (although rarely) and at other times it comes out almost perfectly (and a handful of times flawlessly), and…well, the stød…that glottal stop you might have heard about…the Danish’s language’s signature move, as it were…

 

Just try and try and try it, and then it may stick. Not guaranteed to work every time, but sometimes if you feel that little else may work, sheer repetition will do you wonders, and the more often you do it the more likely you’ll be able to do it.

 

(2)    Singing technique

 

I mastered the pronunciation of two languages with singing. One of these was Russian, which I learned as a college student but then forgot after years of relative/complete disuse. The massive amount of mp3’s I gathered enabled me to learn songs, and when I sung along with them, it worked wonders for my accent reduction.

 

Last year the Ramat Gan chamber choir (from Israel) visited Heidelberg. Many of the members spoke with Israeli accents when I spoke to them, but when they were singing American gospel songs, the accents completely disappeared…as if by magic!

 

I similarly adjusted to Greenlandic pronunciation with songs as well. Only a few days ago was I teaching somebody some Greenlandic love lingo and he was struggling with the “rl” sound (as I remember doing). I could have tried to learn it by repeating it over and over again, but I did feel that singing Greenlandic songs made it that much easier for me to learn this sound—and trust me, I’ve seen people burst into laughter upon hearing these sounds only once—just to give you an idea of how foreign they may be for some Westerners.

 

(3)    Immersion technique

 

Familiarizing yourself with the rhythms of a language may extend to some sounds as well. Thanks largely to having Duolingo repeat Portuguese words to me very often, the nasal vowels were not particularly strange (neither were the rest of the members of the Portuguese “vowel zoo”, for that matter). Living in Poland and being surrounded by the language meant that the nasal vowels in that language just grew on me, and I have since noticed them in English spoken with a Polish accent (very easy to notice if you listen for it).

 

This shouldn’t encourage you to learn by osmosis. That won’t do you any good.

 

The truth of the matter is this: surrounding yourself with the language will only do you good if that is your target language.

 

(4)    Get help from a friend

 

My list above was largely geared towards sounds that would be hard for English speakers. There are some sounds that may be awkward for native speakers of other languages (Norwegian “å” comes to mind). The “repeat after me” technique is used as a standard among language teachers and may be just the thing you need. Just don’t feel too discouraged if you don’t get it on your first try. Your friend may very well tell you after a few tries that you said it just like a native!

 

That, and you may get an interesting trick about how to “unlock” a certain sound that you may have been struggling with a lot. (Elsewhere on this blog I detailed my rather naïve anatomy of the “stød” but also of the Greenlandic “q” sound).

 

There may also be other sounds that may exist in your native language, but you are unaware of it. For example, one of my professors, himself from Russia, told me that the “ы” sound exists in some English dialects in the word “milk”. I have also heard that the Dutch “ui” sound also exists in some English dialects as well.

 

 

In any case, a final sentence before I dismiss this class: never, ever, ever give up. And don’t let “science” about language learning tell you what you can or can’t do.

 

Just do it.