Teach English in Chalin Zhen - Yongzhou Shi

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Every language is different. The question of what features and traits are natural and unnatural for any given language is one that has entertained, even if unconsciously, many throughout the years, whether they're language lovers, language learners, and even those who do not feel interested in the matter at all. As the scientific inquiry of human language, Linguistics' main objective is to accurately and extensively describe the features of language, in primarily four levels: the realm of sound (which concerns phonetics and phonology), the realm of form (which concerns morphology), the realm of organization (which concerns syntax) and the realm of meaning (which concerns semantics). All of these levels are fantastically rich on their own, but only one will concern us in this overview, and that is the realm of sound, whose linguistic parallels are phonetics and phonology. The realm of sound is so interesting primarily because, by and large, it is the most salient of the features any language has—when a non-French-speaking person listens to French, they do not really notice its distinction of grammatical gender, or the way the verbs are negated with a dual construction ne...pas. Mostly, French's most salient feature is its rich phonology: their non-standard front rounded vowels, their use of nasality, and their most fascinating uvular trill. The purpose of this essay is to explain the terminology used to describe the sounds of the world’s languages—this is important for many reasons, but primarily because a proper understanding of a language’s sound system is paramount to acquire a solid base on which to build for the rest of the learning process. Now, if you’re not particularly versed in linguistics, you may be wondering what “front rounded”, “uvular trill”, and such other terms, mean. Linguistics as a whole is very much interested in the idea of features—that is, specific binary terms used to categorize elements of meaning. Phonetics and Phonology study, primarily, two kinds of sounds: vowels, and consonants. Vowels are long stretches of sound, uninterrupted and largely unobstructed. Consonants are, well, kind of everything a vowel isn’t: sometimes interrupted, and always obstructed in some kind of way. “Front rounded” is vowel terminology, while “uvular trill” is consonant terminology. We’ll round up both below: Vowels are measured in three distinct features: height, frontness and roundness─yes, it’s a bit of a cop-out. Height is how close your tongue is to the roof of your mouth, or put another way, how open your entire oral tract is (“kit” is high, “caught” is low). Frontness is how close is your tongue is to the teeth (“kit” is front, “caught” is back). Roundness is, well, how rounded your lips are─not much else to it! Consonants, on the other hand, are… also described in three features: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing. The place is pretty straightforward: where in your mouth the sound is actually made. It starts all the way at the front, which is called bilabial, then goes back─dental, alveolar, palatal, etc.─all the way until the glottis, aptly labeled glottis; this is where the “h” in “house” is made! The manner of articulation is a bit less intuitive, but it’s the way in which air is pushed out of your mouth: there are plosives, which involve a full closure; fricatives, which require a small opening for turbulence (again, that’s house!), and many more. The last one is voicing, which is the more abstract of the two, and it refers to whether or not the vocal cords are vibrating when the sound is made─think of the last sound in “bus” and “buzz”: the first one is not voice, but the second one is! We’ve now given a pretty good summary of the features of the main sounds of speech, which is definitely nice. Now, knowing how sounds are studied and described, what’s next? How is it that we take this knowledge and use it in a way that will provide results? At the beginning, we referred to as French’s “non-standard” vowels, and “fascinating” consonant. This is no mistake: French has sounds that are, by and large, pretty rare in the world’s languages. Only about a 10% of languages on Earth have such vowels, and that that consonant is very weird in most of Europe. In turn, French still has the normal “ee” sound we have in English (think “beep”), as well as the nasal “m”, which are two of the most common sounds in all of the languages that have been attested. It is by gaining a sense of how sounds are made, how they exist, and how they related to the rest of sounds in a system, that we can truly make use of such descriptions to help people in language learning. English doesn’t have French’s front rounded vowels, but it’s pretty easy to wrap your head around them─commonly, they’re described as just “e” as in “Eric,” or “ee” as in “weed” but with your lips rounded. English, however, doesn’t have French’s uvular trill, nor does it have anywhere near it, so it’s a hard sound to translate into a learner with no background! A good understanding of phonology helps bridge this gap in knowledge: learn the metalanguage of sounds, start thinking outside of the box, and you, too, can learn the sound system of any language, which will help you drastically in general flow as well as boost your confidence!