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Audrey McKie

Languages optional at KS4

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Audrey writes:

I have to drive through parts of Wales every day to go to work and I don't quite get the translations either.

Such as:

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch?

My father, a native Welsh speaker, taught me how to pronounce this place name at at early age - even though I was born and grew up in Kent. Kent has some weird names too, e.g. Trottiscliffe, pronounced "Trosley", and "Wrotham", pronounced "Rootam".

Actually, the Welsh place name is a bit of a fake. The original name was supposedly lengthened by a local cobbler to attract commerce and tourism, but the village does exist. I've been there several times on the way to catch the ferry from Holyhead (Caergybi) to Dun Laoghaire. It's always full of tourists. So what's in a name?

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Graham writes

Kent has some weird names too, e.g. Trottiscliffe, pronounced "Trosley", and "Wrotham", pronounced "Rootam".

Fair enough, I lived near Wolverhampton for 4 years and there is a small village nearby called Brewood, pronounced Brood. It's one of those names for which if you don't know about it, you won't guess how to say it. My explanation is that some names have some wierd spellings due to their origins (some sort of early Saxon or late Celt, if they ever existed), or at least that's what I like to think... As a non-English native speaker (is it the other way round?) I looked on the map of Britain and never found a place called Solsbry where a friend used to live. One day he sent me a poscard from Salisbury and, honest, it took me a couple of days to work it out... I wasn't being dumb (well I hope not), just foreign. The sound system in the English language still has great mysteries to me and there are still so many words that I cannot pronounce properly, some because I am foreign and the letter combinations are simply weird, and some because I am French and I can't physically form the sounds.

English speakers tend to find the relation pronunciation-spelling difficult in French and German (one of the demotivating factors) but there are rules that apply 95% of the time in those languages. In English, well, it's not as simple. For example, how come the sound [i:] as in tree, can be spelt i, ie, ei, ea, ee, e or eo? In French is i and that's that (as you know we don't have [i:]).

Conclusion: English may not be as easy to learn and speak as some maight think.

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Audrey writes:

English speakers tend to find the relation pronunciation-spelling difficult in French and German.

No, German definitely does not pose a major problem, as it's virtually phonetic. If you hear a new word you can write it once you know the basic rules - most of the time. Similarly, if you see a new word in print, you can usually pronounce it, although you may have a problem in knowing where to put the primary and secondary stresses in longer words.

But French is considered by English native speakers - and most others - to have a difficult spelling system. Reading French, once you understand the basic rules, is not too bad, but writing down new words that you hear for the first time is not easy. This is because of the numerous silent letters in French, elisions, and different ways of spelling the same sound. When I was at school we had a weekly dictation in French. This was considered a demanding but useful exercise. In many cases you can only spell the words correctly if you understand the context and the grammar - i.e. a dictation is calling upon your knowledge of vocab and grammar. We also had a weekly dictation in German, but this was not nearly as difficult a task as in French. In fact, I can remember writing down and spelling correctly whole chunks of German that I didn't understand.

The question of spelling difficulties in different languages has been extensively researched. English and French always come high on the list as being languages that are "difficult to spell". See, for example, this page on dyslexia and learning foreign languages:

http://www.hull.ac.uk/langinst/olc/DYSFAQ.htm

Very many people find French difficult, not just learners with dyslexia. Even the French themselves find the spelling difficult! All French children have dictation exercises at school to help them to master the spelling.
German is less problematic as regards spelling. It is not difficult to recognise basic words but there are vowel changes between the singular and plural, there is a case system which is different from English and the word order is often different from that of English. Long compound words can also cause problems, especially when listening.

Of the languages commonly studied in the UK, Spanish probably presents the fewest problems with regard to spelling.

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Graham writes:

No, German definitely does not pose a major problem, as it's virtually phonetic. If you hear a new word you can write it once you know the basic rules - most of the time. Similarly, if you see a new word in print, you can usually pronounce it, although you may have a problem in knowing where to put the primary and secondary stresses in longer words.

Fair point, it just means that rules have to be taught and understood. I only teach lower ability German groups, you wouldn't believe how often we talk about veal in class (weil), I do remind them that e+i=ai and i+e=ee but it doesn't seem to sink in.

Graham writes:

When I was at school we had a weekly dictation in French. This was considered a demanding but useful exercise.

I remember those very well as a native. Unlike most of my peers I really like them but they can be so demotivating!!!

Of the languages commonly studied in the UK, Spanish probably presents the fewest problems with regard to spelling.

Isn't that because the vowel system in Spanish is much simpler? They have rare diphthongs which are easily audible anyway.

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Audrey writes:

Fair point, it just means that rules have to be taught and understood. I only teach lower ability German groups, you wouldn't believe how often we talk about veal in class (weil)

Some people are just completely blind to spelling systems that are different from their own. Rules simply have to be learned. I know the ie/ei problem only too well! B)

Spanish is easier to spell, largely because of its simple vowel system, and every vowel is pronounced. Italian is only slightly less difficult - with consonant clusters being more of a problem than in Spanish, e.g. the necessity for an "h" after a "g" before a front vowel to signal that it's a hard "g", giving rise to words such as "ghiaccio" ("ice") - pronounced "gyacho".

Welsh, by the way, is virtually phonetic, the main problem being the vowel "y", which can have two different values. Show me a written word in Welsh and I'll pronounce it more or less accurately - but I probably won't know what it means. Irish and Scottish Gaelic (closely related) have an impenetrable spelling system. Hungarian is almost phonetic, with a regular stress on the first syllable and secondary stresses falling like peas on a drum. Finnish is similar to Hungarian in this respect.

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… but regularity doesn't necessarily mean that a language is easy! Turkish is a transparent language (i.e. one phoneme - one letter/one letter - one phoneme), so outside the airport you take the Taksi. It's got a letter for schwa (i without a dot on it) which also has a capital (I with a dot is the equivalent of the English i).

All the verbs are regular except for the verb 'to be' and all the nouns are regular, except for the noun for water … and Turkish is another of those really difficult languages to learn, if you come from a North-West European background!

I tell my Swedish students who roll their eyes at English spelling that we human beings find irregularities easier to remember!

Edited by David Richardson

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I recently found myself a Quebec pen-pal, with the hope that corresponding in French might boost my confidence so that I might feel more confortable speaking it. Also just to keep using French which I am ashamed that I rarely do despite living in a predominantly Francophone area.

I find that I really am struggling through and taking ridiculously long periods of time writing simple sentences that I know how to say but I just can't spell. Even with all the effort I put in my letter was returned with corrections to nearly every other (silent) word ending. His letter on the other hand was almost perfect with the only errors being silly glitches with plurals and grammer. He is clearly the better linguist of the two of us, but I'm wondering is French has more words that are difficult (due to silent letters) to spell whilst English has more bizarre spellings - which can be looked out for and therefore avoided.

Certainly my reading of French is infinitely better than my writing because of the issue of spelling.

Bantu languages (from East and Central Africa) are increadbly easy to read and write once you accept that r and l are totally interchangeable (!). The only really difficult sound is

Mw - pronounced Mga (with a kind of pop at the start).

A little traumatic when nearly all the greetings being with the Mw sound!

and c if often promounced 'ch'.

other than that words are read as they are written with the emphasis often being placed on the penultimate syllable.

Virtually all nouns end in a vowel, which is always pronounced, meaning that my name, Rowena, poses no major pronounciation issues, but nearly all other european names gain and 'i' 'a' or 'o' at the end ot make them easier to say e.g. Ryani, charlotti, louisa, davidi......

the phrase

Ndashaka kugura icarotti icumi - I want to buy ten carrots

illustrates this rather well.

Rowena

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In reference to the BBC article about language learning, I was under the impression that both Chomsky and Pinkers line on it was that it is easier for very young children to learn languages than older people because, as children all languages are processed in the language part of the brain, whereas for older learners languages are treated the same way as other information and stored in the part of the brain used for birthdates, recipes and members of Manchester United i.e the already overflowing bit! This also means that we do not apply grammer as naturally and logically to languages acquired later in life whereas younger children will add appropriate grammer even to languages that lack it (such as Pidgin English).

The BBC article was simply cut and pasted so I do not necessarily agree with every part of it.

Rowena

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David writes:

… but regularity doesn't necessarily mean that a language is easy!

No, of course not. Spelling Hungarian is easy, but everything else is hard going! B)

Turkish spelling is straightforward because it's a recent spelling system, introduced in the 1920s when the Arabic script was replaced by Roman - which led to a huge leap in literacy.

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Rowena writes:

i.e the already overflowing bit!

Don't tell me about it! B)

I am suffering more and more from data cluttering up my brain. I have become particularly bad at remembering names these days. Often when I meet someone at a conference I recognise their face, recall where they are from, what subject they teach and what to order for them when it's my round at the bar - but I can't remember their name.

See yesterday's Independent (14 Oct) p. 6:

Linguists have better brains

Learning a second language boosts your intellectual powers by physically increasing the number of nerve cells in the language centres of the brain. A study at University College London shows that the brains of bilingual people are structurally enhanced compared to the brains of people who can only speak one language. The effect is even more marked in people who learnt a second language before they were five.

My elder daughter is a left-hander. She is now a professional graphic designer. She was never a great linguist at school and not a brilliant speller, but she copes quite well in spoken French. Generally speaking, the left hemisphere of the brain deals with language and language-related functions whereas the right hemisphere deals with non-lingual skills such as spatial recognition. The right hemisphere tends to dominate in left-handers, which may explain why there is a high proportion of left-handers in professions such as graphic design and architecture and why left-handers are often poor at languages. This is, of course, an over-simplification - the brain is a lot more complex than that.

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Yes, and Ataturk also compelled everyone to adopt Western-style first names and surnames to replace their old Arabic-style name, father's name and grandfather's name. However, people were allowed to pick their own. Kahveci who plays for the Turkey football team means 'coffee-maker', whilst a poor teacher I knew in Istanbul had obviously had a great-grandfather with a sense of humour. He was called Aslan Geceksever (Lion Great-Lover!).

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>I am suffering more and more from data cluttering up my brain. I have become particularly bad at remembering names these days. Often when I meet someone at a conference I recognise their face, recall where they are from, what subject they teach and what to order for them when it's my round at the bar - but I can't remember their name.<

You're not alone, Graham! This happens to me all the time. I can guarantee that when somebody I haven't met in a while approaches me, their name will be instantly erased from my mind and all desperate attempts to recall it will only make matters worse. Like you, I can recall everything else about the person, but tantalisingly their name eludes me. The name usually pops back into my head half an hour after I have said goodbye.

Apparently, there's a name for it: dysnomia. I found out that bit of information when I Googled up a reference to a Finnish book on modern foreign languages and learning difficulties mentioned by an English-speaking expatriate writing on Finland Forum. I joined the forum to make contact as I had no Finnish references in my online bibliography of MFL and SEN. It turned out that the teacher who posted the original message had a son with dysnomia. She asked me to help her find out more about the condition. There's quite a lot on the Web about it, but it doesn't appear to be a full-blown syndrome with its own support group - yet!

David Wilson

http://www.specialeducationalneeds.com/

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Dysnomia, eh? It's comforting to know that it's not uncommon. I just looked it up on the Web and it appears to extend to difficulty in remembering not just names but words in general. I don't have a problem remembering words, but names of old friends, film stars, pop musicians of my youth often escape me. Perhaps it's a case of the brain putting information that it doesn't regard as important on the back boiler. I usually recall a name eventually - often hours later when I am not consciously trying to recall it. What a person has done in life, what kind of person they are, etc is more important than their name - and perhaps the brain has sorted this out in its own hierarchy of things. Anyway, you can check a name on a person's conference badge - if your sight is still OK B)

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so, is the Tomlinson report going to help bring languages back to the educational scene?

Every where I turn it is obvious how important it is to know a foreign language. How come then the governement doesn't realise what a terrible mistake they've made by withdrawing langauges from the core curriculum? And worse, why isn't anyone making themselves heard to those who count?

We all agree here that what is happening to the teaching and learning of languages is appalling yet nothing is being done about it? or is it?

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Audrey asks:

so, is the Tomlinson report going to help bring languages back to the educational scene?

As far as I'm aware, languages remain an "entitlement" - a dreadful word that means you don't have to do something if you don't want to - or if the senior management team don't want you to.

See the CILT report:

http://www.cilt.org.uk/key/tomlinson.rtf

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