Spelling Words with Words

Here is a linguistic exercise for you. Try to spell the name of a famous person using English words, rather than letters.

For example Michael Huntington would be “my call hunt in ton”.

Now spell the name of under-appreciated author, Antonio Graceffo.

You will probably find that this is a cumbersome if not impossible task.

Here is a second, more difficult challenge. Translate an entire page of today’s newspaper, using words to spell words.

Impossible! But this is very similar to what we are doing when we learn a foreign language and try to pronounce it before we have had ample listening. But more on this later.

At the time of this writing, I am in Saigon, Vietnam, attending an intensive course in Vietnamese language. My classmates consist of two Americans, an Anglo-Canadian, a Cantonese-speaking Canadian, four Koreans and one Chinese. Over the next several months, my goal is to observe the differences in each of my classmates’ approach to learning this difficult language. My goal is first, to find out if and how their approaches differ. My other goal is to take lessons from my classmates’ learning difficulties and strengths and use them to better understand how English native speakers learn languages, and how we can improve.

When we learn a foreign language, obviously we will be faced with sounds and pronunciations which may or may not exist in our own language. If you are learning Chinese, Thai, or some language that uses an alphabet other than English, most students will use the Latin alphabet to approximate the sounds of the foreign language. So, when they learn the Chinese word (房子) house, they might write ‘fang ze’ to help them remember how to pronounce it. But the problem with this method is that while the Chinese words for house sounds similar to the English, ‘fang ze’, it’s not identical. And, by ascribing this faulty English pronunciation to the words, at the beginning of your study, you will fossilize the mistake. For the rest of the time that you speak Chinese you will mispronounce the word for house, as ‘fang ze’. Similar words or compound words, using the same character will be equally mispronounced.

When you spell a foreign word using your own alphabet, you have to find the closest sound in your language and replicate the foreign sound. Obviously, since there will never be an exact match, you will always be off. When you learn speaking, independent of writing, you go through exactly the same exercise in your brain, matching the foreign sound to sounds that you already possess in your native tongue. Once again, you will not have an exact match. And you will mispronounce the words.

Many people believe that polyglots, people who speak more than one language, can learn to pronounce successive languages faster. They also believe that children raised bilingually, will find it easier to learn a foreign language, because they possess more sounds. Actually, neither of these beliefs is true. Polyglots and bilinguals contain more sounds in their brains, so they will have a higher probability of finding a closer match to a foreign word. But they are employing the same, faulty method of trying to match a new sound to one they already have.

Back to my Vietnamese class.

Vietnamese is a Mon-Khmer language, which has many sounds which we do not have in English. It is written with a Latin-based alphabet, called Quốc Ngữ (script of the national language).

As my class is taught using traditional teaching techniques, our first several lessons were spent learning to pronounce the alphabet. We were handed an alphabet chart with the Vietnamese letters on it, and we listened as the teacher went through, pronouncing them. She did this several times, and then asked us to do the same. When we mispronounced, which was often, the teacher corrected us. That night, our homework was to go home and practice saying the alphabet. But once I got home, the characters written on the paper meant nothing to me. I couldn’t remember how they were pronounced. So, there was no way to practice.

Both Korean and English are written with phonetic alphabets. (Side note: I am not suggesting that English is 100% phonetic, like Korean, but that English is written with letters, which have sound values and are used to spell words.) The Korean and western students used their own alphabet to approximate the sounds of the Vietnamese letters. Of course, as I said earlier, this method is flawed.

The Chinese student, let’s call him Pen Yo, didn’t have this option.

Chinese characters have ascribed meanings but no ascribed pronunciation. In theory, all languages could be written with Chinese characters. If you are having trouble envisioning what this means, think about the Phoenician numerals (Arabic numerals): 1, 2, 3, 4… They look identical, and have the same ascribed meanings everywhere in the world. No matter what language you speak, the numeral 1 means a single unit, 2 means a pair. Only the pronunciation of the numerals varies from language to language. A German says “ein” and a Spaniard says “uno” but the meaning is the same. And, the writing is the same, 1.

A Chinese character that represents a house (房子)always has the meaning of a house, but it has a different pronunciation in Korean, Japanese, or Vietnamese. A friend of mine who did a PHD in Eastern philosophy told me that he had been taught to read ancient Chinese texts using Chinese characters but pronouncing the words in English. Arguably, Chinese could be used as a universal writing system.

The downside of the Chinese writing system, however, is that you can’t write foreign words, or even names, in Chinese. For example, on movie posters, actress Nicole Kidman is called (尼科爾 雞  慢), Chinese characters with the rough pronunciation of “ni ko gi man’. The pronunciation is pretty far off. The meanings of the words are actually laughable, as some of the individual characters mean, “nun … chicken slow.”

In class, Pen Yo was unable to use the Chinese writing system to approximate the sounds of the Vietnamese alphabet or the sounds of the Vietnamese words. To do so, he would have to spell words with words. And that would be even further off than the spelling method employed by the other students.

Normally, I study language using a mostly-listening method. In that method, you listen for 800 hours, to learn all of the sounds of the language before you begin speaking. Writing comes much later. My current class uses traditional methods, however. So, here, we learn the alphabet, by looking at the letters while the teacher pronounces them. Next, we pronounce the letters. After that, we begin to read words, and then sentences. Hopefully, if we have mastered the alphabet, we will be able to pronounce Vietnamese correctly.

I am torn between the two methods. The listening-only method takes ages and ages but produces an excellent pronunciation. With traditional methods, we are already speaking, albeit badly, after only a week of classes. So far, the Koreans and the Westerners seem to be learning at about the same rate. The Chinese student is lagging behind. His inability to manipulate his own writing system to help him pronounce Vietnamese is holding him back. Also, I have to believe that the Koreans and westerners find the concept of spelling words and pronouncing words according to spelling is easier to grasp than it is for Chinese native speakers.

There are many aspects to a language and all of them have to be mastered to achieve fluency. People say Chinese is hard because of tones. But Chinese grammar is really easy. Korean is easy because of the writing system and the pronunciation, but Korean grammar is extremely difficult. English is difficult because many words aren’t pronounced exactly the way they are spelled. English has difficult grammar. And English has more words than any other language.

There are so many factors that make a language difficult or easy, it is hard to really say if one language is any more difficult than another. At the same time, we talk about advantages that certain native speakers have when learning certain languages. 60-80% of Vietnamese vocabulary is derived from old Chinese dialect. So, will the language be easier for Koreans and Chinese? Vietnamese grammar is not terribly difficult for the westerners in my class, all of whom have been exposed to French or Spanish where adjectives may come after nouns. But Pen Yo told me this was difficult for him because it differed from Chinese grammar.

When I was studying Thai in Bangkok, the program kept very accurate statistics on students’ learning performance, based on mother tongue. The data showed on average Koreans, Japanese and Chinese learned Thai slower than some other mother nationalities/tongues, but they would catch up in the end. In the ends, all of the Asians, regardless of mother tongue, had greater success than did westerners.

It will be interesting to see if Pen Yo suddenly passes us all, several weeks from now. The early stage of learning the sounds and writing the alphabet may be the biggest difficulty he faces. After that, he may find it easier.

For all students, regardless of their native tongue, it is clear to me is that it is impossible to use words to write other words. So, we need to find some other method of learning pronunciation.

Forget what you think you know about the Israel-Palestine conflict

Antonio Graceffo

Antonio Graceffo is the author of the Monk from Brooklyn, Warrior Odyssey, and several other books about Asia. He lives in China, where he is a PhD candidate at Shanghai University of Sport. 

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  • nice article, good luck on your observation of the differences in each of your classmates’ approach to learning a difficult language. This should be a interesting experience for you.

  • capanda4nk

    I’m sorry to disagree with what you wrote, that Nicole Kidman is called (尼科爾 雞 慢). That’s hilarious!

    In Mainland China, Nicole Kidman is called 妮可-基德曼.
    In Hong Kong, she is called 妮歌潔曼 – pronounced Nico Kidman in Cantonese. That’s a very close phonetic translation.

    I also disagree with several points you made, for example:

    “Chinese characters have ascribed meanings but no ascribed pronunciation.” That’s misleading, if not outright incorrect.
    A Chinese character can have different meanings depending on what other characters it’s used with. As to the pronunciation, it’s very precise based on the specific language/dialect, e.g. Mandarin, Shanghainese, etc.

    As to your comment that “People say Chinese is hard because of tones. But Chinese grammar is really easy. ” That’s partially true. What makes Chinese hard to learn is not just the tones, but also the nuances of the language. The language is very much shaped by its long history and culture. While basic conversational Chinese can be quite easy to learn, it’s not as easy for a foreigner to learn to speak it the way native Chinese speakers do.

    Reading what you wrote, it seems to me that your Chinese students have not learned, or simply not using “Pinyin” to help them with the phonetic translation of other languages.

  • “There are so many factors that make a language difficult or easy, it is hard to really say if one language is any more difficult than another.”
    Yes and no. Having learnt 7 languages (Lithuanian, Russian, German, English, Italian, French, Spanish) and still being fairly fluent in 5 of them, I found English comparatively easy to learn as a language, because it has so little grammar, although some of its idioms can be a bit tricky.
    But its spelling inconsistencies (blue shoe flew through too.- see http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2010/11/english-spelling-rules.html) make learning to write English very difficult. And uniquely among European languages, learning to read English is exceptionally difficult too because it abuses the alphabetic principle by allowing identical letters to have different sounds as well (and ask any April) – in addition to different spellings for identical sounds – http://www.englishspellingproblems.co.uk/html/sight_words.html .