Une Tomate Rouge and How Languages Work










1. Une Tomate Rouge

Less than a month ago I decided to take up French and I am already being faced with big challenges: I had assumed that languages close to your own in the language tree should not be too hard to learn, so I picked French since  both languages evolved from spoken Latin. However, less than a month into it and I have already changed my mind completely. Its phonological system is a nightmare; the /s/ at the end of words never made it into the spoken language, and to make matters worse, no matter how many times I practice saying simple words such as  ‘fille‘ (girl) and ‘raisin” (grape), they will never come out right, and I cannot even blame it on the deceased /s/ sound.

However, despite all my  difficulties, I am enjoying learning a language from scratch because  I am always thrilled by what is to come next: I am learning French with an app that I can easily access on my phone, so I will have to rely on the anonymous voice that guides me in a language that I can barely pronounce or understand. Actually, I don’t mind exploring things on my own at all, on the contrary, I quite enjoy it. I really like to get to the core of language systems and learn how language works according to speakers’ personal accounts and I envisage the day when I will be able to actually moan about it with a  speaker other than the cold voice on my phone.

2. How Languages Work

Jeff lives in California and he is my student of Portuguese. In turn he talks to me in English. We ‘hop on’ Skype twice a week, an arrangement we have had for a couple of years now.  The good thing is that we both share the need to get to the core of language to make sense out of its apparently chaotic nature.

The most important thing that I have learned through our discussions about language — with someone who isn’t a trained EFL teacher, is that there is not a right way or a wrong way of teaching and learning; there are simply different ways. Random though our discussions may sound, it is through them that we both gain insight into how English and Portuguese work without the need for grammar labels. Jeff has no idea of what the -ing form is called because this is not how he learned grammar in school; on the other hand, he is an amazing learner and teacher: He pushes me beyond my formal knowledge of grammar  and makes me think about the ‘why‘ of things . For this reason,  I had to flip my teaching so as not to let grammar words get in the way of Jeff’s learning.

Secondly, I have learned a great deal about similarities and differences between both languages, which surely have helped me explain grammar and vocabulary to my students more clearly and more intuitively thanks to Jeff’s non-grammatical approach to language.

So, here are a few suggestions if you are looking to understand how languages work:

1) Learn a new language.  Not only will you put yourself in your students’ shoes, but you will also have a better understanding of language patterns, which you will be able to draw from when comparing different languages and systems;

2) Use social networks to discuss language with other people be them teachers, friends, native speakers or students. I have had amazing discussions with native speaking teachers  on a number of language-related topics such as some stative verbs being used in the continuous form;

3) Ask yourself questions such as ‘why does English have such a rigidly fixed word order compared to Portuguese,’ for example? Ask your students this question. Let them come up with their own answers. You’ll be surprised at the amount of thinking they will have to do and insight they will gain — and so will you.

That said, stay curious above all.  No matter how silly your questions  may be, just  venture into a quest for the answers and  enjoy your journey.


Further Reading:

Michael Lewis. (2002) The English Verb. An Exploration of Structure and Meaning. Thomson Heinle

David Crystal. (2007) How Language Works. Penguin Books

Teresa Carvalho

Teresa holds a B.A. in Linguistics from USP and Delta Modules 1 and 2 Certificates. She has been teaching for over 25 years and has presented at webinars and at both local and international Conferences, including ABCI, IATEFL, and the Image Conference. She also holds a Specialization degree in English Language from PUC-Rio. She is interested in visual literacy and in language development for teachers of English as a foreign language. She is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Language Studies and is conducting research in the role of images in the construction of identity.

  • Fabiana Casella
    Posted at 02:01h, 23 dezembro Responder

    You are absolutely right, Teresa! For some strange reason, native English speakers do not know much English Grammar but we, as Spanish speakers are taught a lot of it! I guess, one of the reasons might be because Latin or romance languages like Portuguese and Spanish are a more complex than English in this case.
    Great post, Teresa…it kept me thinking!

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 09:11h, 23 dezembro Responder

      Thanks for your reply and insight about Portuguese and Spanish grammars, Fabiana. I agree with you. Grammar is taught in a different way in schools and I might say that EFL grammar is taught in a much more explicit way to help learners sort out things. As teachers, we should explore the different ‘sides’ of grammar as well as the intuitive aspect of language.

  • Debbie Tebovich
    Posted at 10:25h, 23 dezembro Responder

    Hi Teresa,
    Very interesting post. It really keeps me thinking and asking questions. Why is English so rigid about word order? And I think it is just fabulous, somehow your post reminds me Sugata Mitra asking teachers to challenge learners with questions like Why do we have 5 fingers and not any other number?
    The power of being humble and dare ask questions, thanks a million

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 15:07h, 23 dezembro Responder

      Thanks (again) for reading it, Debora. As you put it so well, “the power of being humble and dare ask questions.” As teachers, we should never stop asking questions. Language is one of the greatest mysteries of the world. When exactly was it created? There are lots of theories about its origins; languages themselves — their structures, phonological systems, verb systems, etc. pose intriguing questions. When we challenge our students, we actually challenge ourselves. This is the one thing we should never be afraid of doing.

  • Marjorie Rosenberg
    Posted at 10:48h, 23 dezembro Responder

    Great post Teresa. I often compare learning German to experiences my students have with English. One thing I remember very clearly is that words I didn’t understand at all I actually never heard when people said them – the sounds were there but as I didn’t know what they meant they were just a series of consonants and vowels. However, as soon as I learned the expression it seemed to be that EVERYONE I met used exactly those words – it was fascinating to see how our brains filter information we haven’t yet processed and what happens after we do. This was a great lesson for me and I often tell this to my students and ask them to report back when they have the same experience.

    • Teresa Carvalho
      Teresa Carvalho
      Posted at 14:59h, 23 dezembro Responder

      Thanks, Marjorie. I love it when you compare the before and after of learning a language. “…they were just a series of consonants and vowels.” It reminds me of a very memorable linguistics class in college when my processor described what Dutch sounded like when she was visiting a friend in Holland. She said something along those lines, “it sounded like a continuum and I didn’t know where one word ended and another word started.” It’s great that you can share your own experiences with your students.

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