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In this episode, Jill and Steve discuss English grammar and usage.
Steve: Hi Jill.
Jill: Hi Steve. How are you today?
Steve: Oh I’m good. I’m good thank you. Now do you know what, that just reminds me of something.
I said I’m good. That’s incorrect but do you hear that a lot?
Jill: All the time. We say that all the time. A lot of people say I’m good. Some people say I’m fine, I’m fine thank you, I’m well, but I think most commonly here in North America people say I’m good.
Steve: I’m not entirely sure why that’s wrong but I know it’s wrong.
Jill: I don’t know either.
Steve: Let me just think. Now, if I start to think, like good is an adjective. Fine is an adjective. Well is an adverb. I’m well. I don’t know why you have to use an adverb instead of an adjective, do you?
Jill: Ah, you know, I don’t know even if well is correct, more correct than fine or good. I’m not sure that it is. I think to me well almost implies more that I’m feeling well. I’m well, I’m healthy, I’m doing well.
Steve: Which makes me think in fact that well is an adjective even though it’s very often an adverb. I guess, there are several things that come to my mind as we talk here. One is that grammar is confusing.
Steve: And, the second is that usage is constantly changing and that there is quite a range of acceptable uses so that grammar is not this precise definition of what you are allowed and not allowed to say. Rather there is a sort of usage pattern which we have to learn and it’s a bit of a moving target. Maybe, I don’t know if that’s more true of English than of other languages but it’s certainly true of English. Do you find, for example if you’re asked to explain why this sentence is correct and this other sentence is not correct, it’s very difficult to do it very often.
Jill: Very difficult. I, I have a very hard time giving a rule or an explanation of why it’s right or why it’s wrong. It’s just, it doesn’t sound right, it’s not natural, it’s not how we would say it.
Steve: And, of course I suspect that even if you were a grammatician and gave me a complicated explanation I’m not sure it would help me. It may help. I think it may help. If I think of my Russian learning. If I’ve had enough experience that I’ve heard these kinds of structures so often and then I finally get an explanation and then maybe as we say, the penny drops. Then after the fact the explanation can be useful but …
Jill: Just a beginner, first learning, first hearing these phrases, words, sentences, I think very often, just the explanation is too difficult to understand.
Steve: I agree. And, you know because I speak a variety of languages I’ve often been in a situation where I have to interpret for someone. This person could be, in my career it was either a diplomat or it could have been a business man or something and you would be surprised at how poorly people speak English. Even senior people in government or even worse in the business field because the senior government officials generally speak better but these business people, I mean I had to guess at what they were saying very often and then turn it into hopefully understandable Chinese or Japanese or whatever language I was translating into. Not everyone, not every native speaker uses the language even correctly.
Jill: Great. There’s a lot of people who write and speak poorly in English.
Steve: That’s again, one of the reasons why at the Linguist and now at LingQ we think it’s very important that people write and of course, we tell them write the way you speak, speak the way you write. Most people who teach language will say you know the written language is very different from the spoken language, which is true for the native speaker but the non native speaker, learning the language has a much more limited control of the language. It is very much in their interest to treat the two as the same so if they come to our system and they write something as if they were speaking, then we are able to pick up. It gives us like a footprint of that person’s use of language. Then we can say, alright, there’s a certain latitude in terms of usage but you have now, you’re outside normal usage so this is not correct. So, that’s why, and you have of course corrected people’s writing and it is a good way, don’t you think, of finding out what people’s problems are?
Jill: Oh yeah, of course. When we correct writing and people have a lot of problems with verb tenses or with prepositions, everybody has problems with prepositions and they have just as many problems with those things when they’re speaking as they do when they’re writing. But, it’s very difficult if you never speak with somebody which sometimes we don’t on our site. We don’t speak with everybody or maybe you speak with somebody for 15 minutes once a month or whatever it may be and then they want us to tell them what their biggest problems are. That’s very difficult to do so it is must better if they submit writing, write how they speak and then we give them concrete examples or different phrases they can use and replace things for them so that they can then incorporate that into their vocabulary so they can speak better.
Steve: Well, that’s right. My experience with Russian, I was on Skype the other night in fact, speaking with a person in Russian. I spoke for 30 minutes in Russian. It’s the longest I’ve spoken in Russian ever and I kept on getting the same word wrong. I said how do you say this again and he’d give me but I couldn’t remember it because you know, the sweat was kind of forming on my forehead struggling to speak in Russian. There’s just too much pressure and you’re thinking of other things and you don’t hear it that clearly so that’s no time to correct people whereas if you write something and of course, now in the new LingQ the corrector will also record the corrected version in, therefore a native speaker will be recording, will be reading out the student tried to write which has now been corrected. Then the learner can listen to it over and over again and really pick up on how those things should be expressed so the two should, the writing and the speaking I think are, it’s the instant diagnosis, the writing is, of where the problems are, the weaknesses are in the person’s language. So, I think it’s very good that way but let’s just continue on the subject of speaking. You know, another thing that comes up all the time is how important is an accent and I mean, I think we all have tried to imitate the native speaker. I mean in your French, for example you would like to speak as close to a French accent as possible, correct?
Jill: Of course, yes. One thing with accent though I should mention as was pointed out to me the other day too, that there are often a variety of accents in different languages and I think most people are more concerned with proper pronunciation within a certain accent. You know, I mean there’s a Quebecois French accent or a French Parisian French accent and so I think depending on which accent you prefer you want proper pronunciation in that accent.
Steve: Right. But, and that is the goal so that’s the sort of the ideal that you’re working towards and I think everyone does that. Now, whether they’re as you say, whether you choose to imitate, whether your ideal pronunciation is the Quebec French or a French French or the Spanish in Spain or the Spanish in Mexico, I mean that’s your choice but yeah, you’re trying to imitate that. However, you may not achieve that. That’s your model, that’s your goal; that’s fine but you may not achieve it. As long as you are understood then that’s really good enough. I mentioned to you the example of, we have a Swiss banker friend who has the big pronounced Swiss accent but he speaks phenomenally and he has an assistant who is from England who does not express himself as well in English as my Swiss banker does, so, and my Swiss banker has lived in Canada for 20 years and he has no complexes about his English and nor should he because he speaks extremely well so I say yes. If you want to work to get your pronunciation closer to that of the native speaker, to whatever native speaker you are trying to imitate, fine but you may not make it 100% and don’t worry about it. You had a discussion the other day with some of our learners and there was some difference of opinion on that.
Jill: Yeah. I mean, most of them, they were all fairly advanced speakers whose pronunciation is quite good already and they, to them I was trying to sort of tell them the same thing, you know. I understand you very well. It’s really not that important if you don’t’ sound exactly like me or Steve or whoever but they were pretty, a couple of them at least were fairly adamant about wanting to sound as much like a native speaker as possible. And, I think these are people, they’re keen Linguist members, they work very hard on Linguist and I think they sort of have a passion for English learning so maybe they’re perfectionists to a certain degree and so for them it’s maybe more important than the average person.
Steve: Well and I think maybe we can end on the note that we want people to do what they want to do so people can pursue whatever interests them. It’s just that we don’t want people to feel pressure or to feel unhappy. I’ve heard people say I don’t like listening to myself speak English because I don’t like my accent. What they are really saying is they feel that other people don’t like their accent so they feel badly about their accent and that we don’t want. But, if a person wants to pursue the ultimate in getting to sound like a native speaker, well there’s nothing wrong with that either. Okay Jill, thank you very much.
Jill: Thank you.