Introduction to English language learning

A Happy Rice Day To You

A Happy Rice Day To You


So this one is about my job.

I’m a teacher, in case you couldn’t fathom this out from the long speech turns I afford myself.

I’m the guy sitting at the desk, explaining, and I teach a foreign language, which means I get to do most of the speaking, in class.

I use a word or two of the students’ language, but only to explain one particular difficult concept in English, like “fathom”. This would happen only after I finish explaining in proper English, in basic English.

What does it mean “to fathom”? To fathom the meanings expounded by the speaker. To go to the same depths of knowledge as this speaker. Of course the term comes from sailing: How many fathoms deep? How many meters deep? That’s the connection made; “fathoms” in this case being a noun, a unit of measure.

Now, “to fathom someone’s thinking” means to analyse, to go down a path into somebody’s mind, that would eventually lead you to the same depth of meaning, that this person has achieved by plunging I-don’t-know-what instrument to measure the depths of the reality out there.

These words describe some meanings that are somehow “echoed” (think sonar) in reality.

That’s what “fathom” means and I might then add, in Japanese, something like その考えを察すること and よく察している; somebody who is good at guessing, at seeing, at fathoming; of course 察する is a completely different concept and if you don’t know Japanese I’m not sure how much you can follow.

察する (sa-ssuru Observe) means that you are paying attention to the Other in order to be able to anticipate their needs, wants, desires, but it would also suggest “powers of observation”.

So, it’s not about probing depths, it’s more like observing the others; a good wife in Japan would be somebody who can sort of surmise, guess the wishes of the husband, of the guests and so on. A good boss is somebody who’d understand (察する), fathom his subordinates’ talents and weaknesses.

So that’s how I would explain “fathom” in my class, but notice that in this whole dialogue that I would have with my students, I’m the one doing most of the speaking, right?

It’s been already three minutes and I haven’t stopped.

At some point I would ask if there are any questions, but the accepted rule is that you have to speak in English, which creates a situation where I do most of the speaking. Now, of course, this is not good for communication.

I am a really bad English communication teacher in terms of giving enough chances for practice.

I’m a pretty good teacher in terms of giving enough food for thought, for the student to then engage in her/his own quest in English.

I’m good at teaching people how to learn English because there is so little confidence in setting out on your own when there is no teacher to goad you on.

So I teach how to learn. What does this mean? It means that I’m more like a coach, not just because “coaching” is now a really popular word, but because I think about language teaching in much the same terms as sports teaching.

I’m just somebody who happens to know enough about English (or Japanese, or Romanian) as to be able to explain it to somebody else who knows less than me.

Obviously, many people know less than me in terms of my native language or a language that I’ve spend a long time acquiring. So, how do I know this language? I know this from my own experience: How did I learn English? I was not born a native speaker of English.

It’s a sharing of my experience and it sounds one-sided, but it is always a dialogue because it aims to reveal the student’s potential to have the same kind of experience, to go on a similar (linguistic) adventure.

Now, whenever you teach a foreign language, you first have to tell your students,

This is your job. It’s not my job to make you learn. It’s your job to speak English.

Of course, I’ll do most of the speaking.

Why? Because I get paid to talk when you’re silent.

But it’s your job to learn English and it’s your job to make the effort to learn the language.

Why do we say this? Because it doesn’t work otherwise; learning another language is not an easy process. In case you feel that I’m going to serve you the secret of learning English or Japanese or Romanian in one month, or in forty days, then you’re mistaken, this is not going to happen.

What I’m here to tell you is that whenever you commit yourself to something as complicated as learning a foreign language or learning a sport, basically there is no end until a couple of years pass; you cannot master, you cannot become, let’s say, a good soccer player without practising for a couple of years, right?  Of course you could have talent and that would help, and it’s the same with languages, but you still need a couple of years.

First of all, you need the effort; if you want to be a good soccer player, you need to practise everyday. It’s the same with a language, practise everyday, a couple of hours. Not the one hour per week  at the English conversation school you’re attending.

You need more than one hour a week, obviously.

So what does this mean in terms of “where is the burden of responsibility?” It means that the burden of responsibility for making this time available lies with the student, because only the student has enough time to get sufficient practice.

Unless the student is really rich and can hire a private teacher for 10 hours a week, or something like that, obviously there would be a severe lack of both opportunities to practise and exposure time.

If you only get one hour per week, it’s not enough to get better at soccer or at learning a foreign language. One hour a week will not make you very good at playing soccer even if you practise for six months. Same with language, even more so, perhaps, since it does not involve so much the body.

How do we involve the body? We involve the body by dedicating our time to learning a couple of hours a day (at least one hour a day). Of course there will be breaks, there will be exceptions when you cannot, something comes up. But if you want to learn a foreign language, or if you want to learn soccer, or if you want to get a black belt in karate, you probably need to practise every day for a couple of years. Or aikido (Ki-Merging-Path): 

It is inconceivable that you would reach sho-dan (Start-Step 初段) or ni-dan (Second-Step 二段 ) without practising for at least a year, or two or three years; it could even take five years.

But you need to dedicate a lot of your time: you (=the learner), not the teacher. The teacher is there to assist you when you’re tripping, when you’re making a mistake; to give you hints, to present you with the rules, and it’s up to you to learn the many exceptions, to run into the many exceptions. The teacher can teach you about the big exceptions, but mostly the teacher is there to guide, to coach you, that’s why I call what I do coaching.

So how do I teach English? I said we have to teach the rules, so this means I’m using a textbook. We have to start with understanding the basic fact about language that we have (at least in the languages that I speak) 2 big categories of words:

  1. one is Function words
  2. the other is Content words.

In the Content category we have words like Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives or Adverbs (that makes four), and there is an infinite number for each, as more can be created easily.

(N—Adj—V—Adv = 4).

Let’s say I’m making a new noun, in order to just name some special chair: A “massage chair” did not exist a couple of years ago, right? A “smartphone” sounded very strange a couple of years ago. And so on. So we can add to the Content words, which means we can never learn all Content words.

Then we have Function Words. Function Words are quite limited in number and they are immediately graspable (even though their meaning is not fixed) because they work as bridges between Content words.

The most important task Function words fulfill in a language is connecting the other words and letting you know what is the relationship between the Content words.

In the Function words category we have Pronouns, Determiners, Prepositions and Conjunctions (that makes four, again).

(ProN—Det—Prep—Conj = 4)

“I punched George because he was bad.”

Here “I” is a Pronoun (a Function word): It replaces a Content word (i.e., the person who is writing this).

If you know me, you know who that person is, but if it’s somebody you don’t know, then that person is an anonymous person.

So “I” is just a replacement, a place-holder, it holds the place of whoever happens to be speaking.

Same with “you”, it replaces the person who’s supposed to be listening.

Or an animal. Maybe I’m talking to my dog. “Hey, you! Pheew-whee!”

“I punched George because he was bad”.

“punched” is a Verb (which is a Content word) and it gives us a specific meaning (tell a boxer that you’d like to sleep with his wife if you’re not sure about the precise meaning of “punching”).

“George”  gives us another meaning: This is the person called George, it’s a Noun and it’s much more specific (you know who it’s pointing at), unlike “I” which is more general and could replace anybody who happens to be speaking.

“because” is a Function word and we call it a Conjunction because it connects (con-joins) two sentences (“I punched George” & “he was bad”) and it makes it clear that the first sentence follows (and is somehow justified by) the second sentence.

“Because” tells me that the relationship is that of Cause and Effect.

“He”  is a Pronoun, it replaces “George” in this example sentence, but if I said “I punched Michael”, then “he” would be different. So “he” can be any man who is not here, which makes it a Function word since it only points to someone in general.

“be” (was) is a Verb, and it has a very general meaning, but let’s leave it at that for now.

“bad” is an Adjective which also has meaning and I trust you don’t need any explanations.

We haven’t had an Adverb, a Preposition or a Determiner yet.

“I punched George suddenly in the face because he was bad”. So I added “suddenly” and “in the face”.

“suddenly”, an Adverb, gives you another specific meaning, showing you the manner of the action, how the Verb-action is done.

Adverbs are connected to the Verbs (and less often to Adjectives).

Adjectives are connected to the Nouns (and less often to Pronouns).

“I punched George IN the face”, that gives you the relationship between the Verb [punch] and the Noun [face] and also gives you a pretty graphic idea about where that punch landed. 

The Preposition is Positioned Before something (a Noun) and links that something with something else (a Verb).

“in the face” tells you how that action was oriented and where it ended.

“I punched AT George’s face” tells you the direction, reveals the intended target, but also indicates that no contact was made. I don’t know, maybe George pulled away. So that would be a different relationship between “punching” and “face”.

“The” is a Determiner, which also belongs to Function words.

THE is a word which gives you a feeling that you know exactly which Noun we’re talking about. (a specific one)

“the face” tells you that we’re talking about a specific face. “I punched a face” means there are many faces and I punched one, in general. I don’t know why there would be many faces around me and I would be free to choose which I can punch, in general, but anyway, that would be the meaning.

“I punched MY face”

That creates a completely new relationship between the Verb (punch) and the Noun (face). “my” (sometimes called a possessive pronoun) acts as a Determiner, to help us determine which face is now smarting.

So we have Function words (Conj—Prep—ProN—Det) and we have Content words (N—V—Adj—Adv).

The lesson here is that you need to concentrate on the Function words when you learn a language because

  1. there is a limited number of Function words (as opposed to an infinite number of Content words)
  2. Function words constitute a closed category (as opposed to the open category of Content words)

If the distinction open-closed sounds confusing, let’s just say that we generally don’t add more Prepositions or Pronouns to a language (it has closed itself to new Function words), even though we continuously add new Nouns or Verbs (because a language is always open to new Content words).

So that’s where we need to start because we need to understand the connections.

We need to understand these pronouns and conjunctions and determiners and prepositions better.

We also need to learn the rules which govern the behaviour of the Content words:

  1. we need to know what we mean by singular / plural, countable / uncountable Noun
  2. we need to know how to compare Adjectives and Adverbs
  3. we need to know about Verb tenses, moods and aspects etc.

But for these Content words, we just need to learn some general rules.

With Function words there are some general rules, but they don’t seem to fit together in the sort of indiscriminately-applicable manner as is the case with (let’s say) the Past Tense: “just add -ED” to a Verb to show that the action has finished in the past.

How do you explain how to use the preposition “to”?

“I looked TO him for help”. Is it the direction?

Is it the same as “I go TO Disneyland”? Is it a place?

With Conj—Prep—ProN—Det things are more complicated and we need to spend more time on them.

Whenever you think you understand the meaning of a Function word, make sure you make a mental note indicating that’s probably not the only meaning.

There are many other possible ways of using Function words because they don’t have stable meanings, not as Content words do, at least.

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