Tongue tied

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: There’s Extra Time to Learn a Language / View Guide

Purpose: To understand how the similarities and differences between languages may influence language learning.

Procedural overview: Students can compare general features of the English language with features of other languages. Students can then think about how variations between the languages might influence language learning for native English speakers and speakers whose first language is not English. 

Approximate class time: One class period.

Supply item:

  • Student handout: Tongue tied

Directions for teachers: Students could complete this activity sheet in class if there is time, or as homework. Make sure students have enough class time to compare and discuss their answers.

Directions for students: There are certain ways in which languages can be similar or different, and those features can make it easier or harder to learn a particular language. In this activity, compare English with some other language that you know or are familiar with. For example, think about challenges faced by an English speaker learning Japanese, as well as challenges that a Japanese speaker learning English might encounter.

Note: Compared with many other languages, English is especially irregular because it has Germanic and French roots and also pulls from Latin, Celtic and Norse languages. Thus, English is a combination of many other languages. As you work through the questions, if you or your classmates know French, German or Spanish, consider and discuss the similarities between those languages and English. Also consider how French, German, Spanish and English have deviated from one another over time.

1. At what age did you start learning English? How many years have you been speaking English?

Student answers will vary. From birth and the student’s current age in years if the student is a native English speaker. If the student’s first language is not English, the age at which the student began and how long they have been speaking English.

2. Do you know or are you familiar with one or more second languages? Did you learn it from your family, from classes at school or both? (You can list several second languages if you know them, but you only have to analyze one for the following questions.)

Student answers will vary.

3. At what age did you start learning that second language? How many years have you been learning or speaking that second language?

Student answers will vary.

4. How well do you know that second language? Are you fluent? Or do you know the language well enough to manage daily life in a country that speaks that language? Or are you halfway there? Or less? Can you, for example, just introduce yourself and make small talk about the weather?

Student answers will vary.

5. Are words in English mostly monosyllabic (one syllable per word) or polysyllabic (two or more syllables per word)? How about words in a non-English language that you know? How might differences between languages that are mostly monosyllabic and languages that are mostly polysyllabic affect language learning?

English words are polysyllabic, although certainly some words are just one syllable. Student answers on the complexity of non-English language words will vary.

As an example, Chinese words tend to be monosyllabic. In order to distinguish among so many possible words with only a limited range of syllables sounds, Chinese languages also use tones. In Mandarin, the predominant Chinese language, for example, the same syllable can mean something completely different depending on whether it is said with a tone of voice that is high and constant; rising, falling and then rising; falling; or flat and brief. Tones can make mastering a language more difficult for people whose native language does not use tones, or easier for people whose native language does use tones. Some non-Chinese Asian languages, such as Thai and Vietnamese; some Indian languages, such as Punjab; some African languages, such as Xhosa; and some Native American languages, such as Navajo, also use tones.

6. Languages may be written with letters from an alphabet (consonants and vowels), syllabograms from a syllabary (various possible combinations of consonants and vowels), logograms (a different character for every word) or a combination of those. How are English and a non-English language that you know written? How do differences between writing systems affect language learning?

Student answers will vary.

English and most other European languages are written with an alphabet derived from Latin. Russian and some other eastern European languages are written with an alphabet derived from Greek. Other languages such as Hebrew and Korean have their own form of an alphabet.

Japanese is written with two syllabaries (sets of syllabograms), one (hiragana) for native Japanese words and another (katakana) for the same sounds in foreign words imported into Japanese. Most Indian languages use Devanagari, which is a sort of combination of an alphabet and syllabary.

Chinese is written with logograms (Hanzi), so Chinese language students must learn thousands of them for all the different words. The Japanese language uses many Chinese logograms (kanji) and mixes those logograms with Japanese syllabaries. Certainly knowing the logograms from one language would help in learning another language that uses the same or similar logograms.

It is easiest to learn a second language if that language uses the same alphabet, syllabary or logograms as a learner’s native language (possibly with a few additional accent marks or special characters). It is somewhat harder to learn a different alphabet, syllabary or system of logograms.

7. Cognates are words in different languages that have similar meanings and spellings. More closely related languages have more cognates, and less closely related languages have fewer cognates. What are a few examples of cognates between English and a non-English language that you know? How can the presence or absence of cognates affect language learning?

Most languages have cognates with different languages. For example, many European languages will have some cognates with English, depending on how closely related the languages are. Even very distantly related languages may have cognates for words that were deliberately borrowed from the other language in more recent times. For example, “Ma” is a cognate for mother in a wide range of languages, perhaps because it is one of the easiest sounds for babies to make.

Cognates can make it easier to learn a language. You have to watch out for false cognates, though. False cognates are words that look and sound similar but actually have very different meanings. For example, the German word gift means poison.

8. The most important parts of a sentence are the subject (who/what is doing an action), the verb (or action) and the object (what the subject is acting upon). What is the usual order of those parts in an English sentence? What is the usual word order in a non-English language that you know? How does word order affect language learning?

English is usually subject-verb-object: “I created a monster.”

English word order can be changed in questions: “Was a monster created?”

French is usually subject-verb-object, and that can also change for questions.

J’ai créé un monstre.

Un monstre a-t-il été créé?

In Spanish, like English, statements start with a subject and verb, but the majority of adjectives in Spanish come directly after the subject instead of before it. The question mark lets the reader know that the statement is a question.

Creé un monstruo.

Spanish word order doesn’t change in questions: ¿Creé un monstruo? (Did I create a monster?)

German speakers typically move parts of speech around for different purposes. Usually sentences are subject-verb-object. However, to emphasize a word or phrase (such as the object), German speakers will put that part first, then the verb, then everything else.

Almost half of the languages spoken today are subject-verb-object (SVO). Almost half are subject-object-verb (SOV), such as Japanese and many Indian languages. Most of the remaining languages, such as Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines) and Celtic languages (Irish, Gaelic and Welsh), are verb-subject-object (VSO). A very small number of languages use even more creative sentence orders.

If a second language uses a different sentence order than a learner’s native language, it can make learning that second language harder.

9. Some languages can change to express politeness or formality. How does English change to express politeness or formality? How does a non-English language that you know change to express politeness or formality? How does that affect language learning? Give at least one example for these cases.

English normal:                      “What do you want?”

English polite/formal:          “What would you like?”

An example of a verb modification to express politeness in English is changing “do/want” to “would/like” (apart from random please or thank you that might be added on).

French normal:                       “Qu’est-ce que tu veux?”

French polite/formal:          “Qu’est-ce que vous voudriez?”

In French, both the verb and the pronoun can change to express politeness.

German normal:                     “Was willst du?”

German polite/formal:         “Was möchten Sie?”

In German, both the verb and the pronoun can change to express politeness.

Spanish normal:                      “¿Qué te gustaría?”

Spanish polite/formal:         “¿Qué le gustaría a usted?”

In Spanish, there is a formal “you/usted” and an informal “you/tú.” The form of “you” changes the verb ending. To make a polite request, you add the conditional tense to many questions. Te gustaría ayudarme? “Would you like to help me”?

Some languages such as Japanese can dramatically change many parts of the sentence to express politeness. Japanese also has several possible levels of politeness, not just two as in English, French and German (polite/formal and informal). For language learners whose native language has different levels of politeness than a new language, learning may be slightly more difficult.

10. In some languages, verbs can vary a lot depending on the subject of the sentence, and will therefore be conjugated based on the subject. Some verbs vary in the same patterns (regular verbs) and some verbs stray from established patterns (irregular verbs). In some languages, verbs may not vary much at all.

Pick a few common verbs in English, give the infinitive form (to _____) and then conjugate the verbs in the present tense for various pronouns. How easy is verb conjugation to learn in English?

Pick a few common verbs in a non-English language that you know, give the infinitive form and then conjugate the verbs in the present tense for various pronouns. How does verb conjugation affect language learning?

See Page 19 of the full guide PDF for examples of two verbs, “to be” and “to have,” conjugated in English, French, German and Spanish.

English, French, Spanish and German each have a few hundred irregular verbs, which can make it challenging to learn those languages. Regular verbs follow certain patterns, but those patterns still have to be learned and followed.

In Japanese, verbs are the same for all subjects, which makes them much easier to learn.

11. In the English language, do nouns, the articles (a/the) and adjectives associated with the nouns have an assigned grammatical gender? What about nouns, articles and adjectives in a non-English language that you know? How could grammatical gender affect language learning?

English does not assign grammatical gender to nouns, apart from the nouns that specifically exist to express gender (like women and men, or actors and actresses). English articles do not have or reflect grammatical gender. Very few English adjectives change with gender. There are also a few cases where a different adjective is used depending on gender: “handsome” for men vs. “beautiful” for women.

French nouns belong to two possible grammatical genders, masculine or feminine. Articles change to reflect gender and number: un/une and la/le/les (plural). Adjectives also change to reflect grammatical gender and number.

German nouns belong to three possible grammatical genders, masculine, feminine or neuter. Articles change to reflect gender and number: ein/eine/ein and der/die/das/die (plural). Adjectives also change to reflect grammatical gender and number.

In Spanish, there is generally a rule that masculine nouns end in “o” and feminine nouns end in “a”. All nouns in Spanish that end in “ista” can be either feminine or masculine. Some Spanish adjectives (generally, adjectives that end in “o”) reflect gender and number, while others (generally those that do not end in “o”), reflect just number. Articles change to reflect gender and number: el/la and los/las (plural).

Having to remember the gender of lots of nouns, and use articles accordingly, can make a language harder to learn for speakers whose native languages do not use grammatical gender.

12. After you have finished answering the above questions on your own, compare answers with other students in the class who picked the same non-English language. How were your answers similar or different?

Student responses will vary.

13. Compare your answers for the non-English language you picked with the answers for a different non-English language that another student picked. In what general ways are those non-English languages similar or different?

Student answers will vary.