Lesson one – pronunciation does matter
People may try and convince you that pronunciation has a minor place in learning a language, but I can assure you that it’s not the case. I will never forget that hot summer day in the school canteen (in Australia it is canteen, not cafeteria) when a 17-year-old me relentlessly tried to order a Magnum – yes, the ice-cream, with no success.
I kept asking for a /mɑːgi’nun/ instead of a /ˈmægnəm/. A random kid from school – God bless her soul – intervened and helped me place my order. Needless to say I felt ashamed and grateful, and decided to really work towards making myself understood.
I also learnt that there are other – different from North American – ways to say the letters O, A, R in different words. Fast /fæst/ became /fɑːst/, last /læst/ became /lɑːst/, and past /pæst/ became /pɑːst/. A simple hello /həˈloʊ/ started to sound more like /həˈləʊ/. Oh, and, of course, all the Rs that came after vowels were not pronounced.
And one more thing: pronunciation does not mean accent. There are many different accents in English: Londoner, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, all variations within the USA, South African… and the list goes on. Everyone has an accent.
Lesson two – vocabulary is regional
By now we should know that languages are alive and, therefore, constantly changing and evolving. Words used in Australia are different from those used in the UK, which are different from those in Canada.
Jumper is a sweater in Australia and England. Not quite the same thing in Canada. Beanie describes a knitted hat in Australia and in England; however, in Canada, it’s called tuque (or toque).
Mobile phones – in Canada and England – are cell phones in the USA. The pronunciation of mobile, by the way, is different, too. And wireless, in Canada, refers to the mobile phone service, while in the UK it’s simply mobile.
Soda – you know, Coke, Sprite, Canada Dry – is pop in Canada and fizzy drink in the UK. Takeout food becomes takeaway in England. The question “for here or to go?”, so popular in Canada, is replaced with “dine in or takeaway?” in England. If memory serves me well, in Australia it is also called takeaway.
Lesson three – what’s standard?
Standard English, or the English we learn (or used to learn) at school, doesn’t really exist. Real people use language as their own and, therefore, change it to suit their personalities, moods, places of origin and so forth.
I had always been told that there is no plural word for you. You is you, be it singular or plural. Then, at school, in Australia, one of the kids asked me, “What did ‘yous’ do last night?” and I had the hardest time to understand it for two reasons: first, it sounded like “use” and made no sense. Second, I knew “yous” to be wrong and could not conceive of a native speaker making such a “beginner’s” mistake.
Turns out people actually say “yous” in some places to differentiate singular from plural. In some areas of the US, people say “y’all” instead. Of course both forms are informal and – what a surprise – not standard.
In much the same way, the quite famous BBC English – that is, received pronunciation (RP) – isn’t quite the norm in the streets of England.
Lesson four – everyone makes mistakes
As learners of a second language, we tend to think that native speakers never make any mistakes because they are fluent in their mother tongue. The truth is that we all make mistakes – even in our native language.
Just because someone was born speaking a language, it doesn’t mean they won’t make mistakes. And it doesn’t make them less fluent. So why should we believe that mistakes equal lack of fluency?
Some of the most common mistakes among speakers of English are:
- Using affect for effect and vice-versa.
- Confusing your and you’re.
- Confusing principle and principal.
- Saying (and writing) should of instead of should’ve.
- Using past simple after have instead of using past participle – should have went instead of should have gone.
In no way am I advocating for an end in seeking accuracy in English – or any other language. All I am saying is that we should expect natives to make mistakes. And we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process.
Lesson five – bottomless coffee
I’ve come to appreciate a good Sunday brunch – totally a Canadian thing – with bottomless coffee: who doesn’t love endless refills of the dark brew?
Unfortunately, here in London, Sunday brunch is not as popular as the Sunday roast – which I also love, don’t get me wrong. But I do miss a good brunch. If you happen to know any good place (and affordable) here in London, please let me know.
But the analogy I was hoping to make – before I got all carried away thinking about food (lol) – is that learning a language is like bottomless coffee: it has no end. There won’t be a point where you think to yourself, “Yep, I’m done. Learning is over”.
So keep a curious mind. Keep your eyes open. See the fun in discovering new things. Expand your horizon.
Lesson for life – stay humble
Finally, stay humble. It doesn’t matter how much English you know or how well you speak; just stay humble. Nobody knows everything. We are all learners.