Learning a foreign language

Erika Warner

An immigrant teacher talks about how to show compassion to newcomers as they are learning a foreign language – English.

I have spent almost all of my life learning a foreign language. I always try to have at least a basic idea of how languages work, especially the languages that my students speak.

I have several students that speak Arabic and I realized that I knew nothing about this language, so I decided to start getting acquainted with it. Last week I learned to say Happy Birthday, so when one of my students mentioned that it was her birthday, I jumped at the opportunity of using my new phrase! I looked at her and said, “eyd mawlid saeid”. My pronunciation was awful but her reaction was beautiful. Her eyes filled with excitement and she said, “Thank you! You speak so well!”

I do not. However, her encouragement made me want to learn more, it made me want to try harder.

Her kindness made me think about what would happen if that were the reaction every person received when they tried learning a foreign language.

Can you imagine? Everyone would feel more empowered, therefore they would learn faster! Sadly, that is not the case.

I completely understand the need of correcting someone when they are learning a foreign language; however, corrections are not always done gently. My husband, for example, corrects me with kindness. But other times, I get laughs or the typical: “I have no idea what you are saying”.

I speak English very well now and even though the pronunciation is my weakest point, I am very confident in my skills; but when you are starting, those laughs and those comments are the stumbling blocks in your learning process.

I would love for all language learners to feel as I felt when I said my first sentence in Arabic.

That does not mean that I am going to pretend that I understand something when I don’t. What it means is that I am going to applaud every little triumph and mainly that I am going to let the little things go.

So when a person says, “Yesterday I went to supermarket and bought groceries” we shouldn’t reply right away, “you mean THE supermarket”. We should ask ourselves, “Did this person convey his message?”

In focusing on their minor error, we are also lowering their confidence. This person just used the past tense and added some great vocabulary so let’s allow the little mistake go and take an opportunity to encourage this person. Instead, we could reply, “I went to THE supermarket too”. This corrects the person while not making a point of their error.

Learning a foreign language is an incredibly difficult task and we should show more kindness to those who are trying, especially to our new community members who are trying to learn this language in order to have a life in their new home. Moreover, we shouldn’t forget that English is a hard language!

English is full of confusing spelling and pronunciation rules.

There are words like dough, tough and bought – they all have the same spelling, but are pronounced completely differently.

There are other words that are very low on vowels, such as the word strength or twelfth. There are also many silent letters at the start of words such as knife, know or gnome. Additionally, English if full of homophones (words that sound the same but have different meanings or spellings) words like to/too/two, here/hear, buy/by. There are also hundreds of phrasal verbs like get up, put on, move on and we just have to memorize them all.

Another complex phenomenon is idioms where we have to memorize the meaning of the whole unit in order to understand. For example, “hang in there”, “break a leg”, or “it’s a piece of cake. On top on that, there is also the need to memorize around two hundred irregular verbs in order to use the past tense correctly. Oh, and don’t forget also to memorize the fifteen different sounds that the English vowels (a, e, i, o,u ) can make. Just the vowel a may be pronounced: short a as in apple, long a as in father, ay as in mate, e as in many , aw as in mall, o as in alter or eh as in Mary.

Surviving in a foreign country is a trial unto itself. Leaving your home, culture and community behind is heartbreaking no matter what you gained by leaving.

People are always asking me how they can make the lives of immigrants easier. One thing that everyone can do that is totally cost-free is to simply make people feel understood and to congratulate their progress. So please, whenever we are speaking to someone who has actively had to learn a foreign language, remember that they have fought hard to arrive where they are.

So when a person says, I put on my jacket and went to the store by bus to buy ingredients for a pizza. Making the dough was tough but eating the pizza was a piece of cake! Forgive them if they mispronounce the word ‘ingredients’.

Opinions expressed and advice given in USAHello’s Voices and Hello blogs are the writers’ own. USAHello offers impartial information and online courses to help newcomers in the USA.