Thoughts on Linguistics

Hey, it’s words!  Yay, words! ^_^  And lately, “Yay, English words!”  Even if they are strange, and amusingly wrong...

Hey, it’s words! Yay, words! ^_^ And lately, “Yay, English words!” Even if they are strange, and amusingly wrong…

So I’m sure some linguist at the dawn of linguistics (Babylon?) already long since figured this out, but I’ve determined that understanding spoken language has two very distinct, yet important parts.  The first part is what the person speaking says, which is comprised of knowing the language and how words sound and what words are appropriate to use in which contexts, etc…  The second part is the listener hearing a sound made and attaching that to a meaning/context/sound that they understand.  It’s a guessing game, really.  Or perhaps more accurately, “real-life” Telephone.  I refer here, of course to the game played where someone whispers a word or phrase into someone’s ear, say, “Flies can ruin your soup,” and each person passes it around to the end, where it comes out something like, “Care bears are totally freaking awesome.”  That’s how communication works!  Isn’t it great?!?  This is why the Japanese phrase “dou-itashimashite” is (much to my chagrin) often referred to by English speakers as “Don’t touch my mustache,” due to similar sounds in a coherent sentence.

Has anyone ever experienced this?  You say something, the listener says, “What?” and then proceeds with answering or responding correctly to your question/statement.  That’s the search time.  You have a wide set of things you know and understand and have experienced.  You use that to choose the words which make the most sense to you regarding what you’re trying to say.  Then whoever is listening has to take the sounds you make and look for any matches in what they know and have experienced.  This can often be assisted by things such as context clues, or the current topic, or things you know about the speaker.  But if your mind doesn’t find a connection, various things can happen… though that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

The problem is that when you learn a new language, you don’t have any kind of background at all for how the words are used, and which forms of speech are appropriate.  You don’t even REALLY know how the words are supposed to sound, so when you HEAR them, you probably won’t even recognize them for what they are.  I can’t count how many times I’ve had this happen since I’ve been in this country!  (I’d probably run out of fingers and toes if I tried…!)  Why just the other day, we were talking about games (Go versus Shogi) in Japanese culture, and my host mom says that she’s always preferred “O-sero”.  (Putting the emphasis on the’o’, so OH-se-ro.)  And I was like, “Well, gee, what’s that game like?” And they both (my host parents) turn at me surprised, saying, “You don’t know it?  I thought it was an American game!”  At which point my mind had wandered into the realm of American games, and happened upon one called “Othello”, played with black and white pieces.  I’m sure you know the game.  But we pronounce it “o-THEH-low”.  The th/s sound isn’t a problem, but it was the emphasis that confused me!

So now I’m convinced of the necessity for listening to native speech when learning a foreign language, but at the same time it should be an exercise in learning how the language sounds, not in “let’s see if you can hear what they’re saying”.  I think that listening should be taught rather than practiced.  You see, we have the ability to be told things that would make learning easier.  It’s taken me now 24 years to get where I am in English, and while there’s been a severe flattening off these past several years, you just can’t get good at things like language without being taught or spending a dozen or more years practicing in a native environment.  But if you could TEACH it, say “This is how the word sounds in Japanese; now lets hear it in context.”  And practice picking out the sounds, and how sounds get squished together, then maybe you’d have something useful.

Until then, please cease all “listening” skills-based tests.  Kthxby.

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