Last month I learned to say happy birthday in Arabic, so when one of my students mentioned that it was her birthday, I jumped at the opportunity of using my new phrase. I looked at her and said, “eyd mawlid saeid.” My pronunciation was awful but her reaction was beautiful. Her eyes filled with excitement and she said, “Thank you. You speak so well.” I do not. However, her encouragement made me want to try harder.
Her kindness made me think how helpful it would be if that were the reaction every person received when they tried learning a foreign language.
Sadly, that is not the case.
I understand the need of correcting someone to help them improve; however, corrections are not always done gently. Many times learners get sneers, aggressive corrections or the typical, “I have no idea what you are saying.” Those reactions are severe obstacles in their learning process.
I would love language learners to feel encouraged, and that does not mean that we have to pretend to understand something when we don’t, but we can applaud every little triumph and let the little things go.
Learning a foreign language is a challenging task and we should show more kindness to those who are trying, especially to our new community members who are just trying to survive here.
Moreover, we should not forget that English is a hard language.
English is full of confusing pronunciation rules. There are words like dough, tough and bought — they all have the same spelling, but are pronounced differently. There are words that are very low on vowels, such as the word strength or twelfth. There are also many silent letters at the start of words such as knife or gnome. English is full of homophones as well, words like to/too/two or buy/by. There are also hundreds of phrasal verbs like “get up” or “move on,” and idioms like “hang in there” or it’s a “piece of cake.” Additionally, one must memorize around 200 irregular verbs and the 15 different sounds that the vowels make.
Just the vowel “a” may be pronounced: short a as in apple, long a as in father, ay as in mate, e as in many , aw as in mall, o as in alter or eh as in Mary.
Surviving in a foreign country is a trial unto itself. Leaving your home and culture behind is heartbreaking, no matter what you gained by leaving.
People always ask me how they can make the lives of immigrants easier. One thing that everyone can do that is totally cost-free is to simply make people feel encouraged.
So please, whenever we are speaking to someone who is actively trying to learn a foreign language, remember that they have fought hard to arrive where they are, so if a person says, “I put on my jacket and went to the store by bus to buy ingredients for a pizza. Making the dough was tough but eating the pizza was a piece of cake,” let’s forgive them if they mispronounce the word “ingredients.”