I actually hated those “don’t-dos” when studying English at school. There is a theory called Ironic Process Theory, which suggests that when we intentionally try to avoid thinking a certain thought or feeling a certain emotion, a paradoxical effect is produced. It can be best illustrated by the famous elephant example. Don’t think about elephants. Just don’t. What are you picturing in your mind right now? A jolly elephant waving its trunk. So, when I am sitting in the high school classroom, and my English teacher, an elderly Chinese lady benevolently reminded us “Don’t say, I look forward to meet you. I repeat, don’t say, I look forward to meet you.”, I wanted to shut my ears. It is a well-intended but wrong pedagogical approach that all language teachers should avoid.
However, judging by the universality of some of the misconceptions when it comes to practicing speaking skills that I will mention in this article, I hope the intent of this article will be justified. Speaking skills, along with reading, listening, grammar constitute the four corners to conquer. In this article I will only cover the speaking rampart. The three don’t-dos come from my personal experience, as well as observation of other language learners. Often times, a shift of mindset is needed, as these bad habits impede us from making progress.
Sorry, I don’t speak very well.
A humble language learner can start a conversation by suggesting his lack of knowledge in the foreign language that will be used, although this is ill advised. According to the SLA theory by Stephen Krashen, a psychological filter is set up once we pronounce “Sorry, I don’t speak very well”, which he calls the “affective filter”. When the filter is at a high level, language development is deterred, almost as though a wall is built around the language learner. On the other hand, when the filter is decreased, language acquisition is facilitated.
Sorry, I don’t speak very well. We apologize because our interlocutor sitting across the table may not engage in the conversation in the manner that he or she is accustomed to. They might need to adjust the vocabulary and the depth of the conversation. At times, they might need to repeat what they are saying. If that doesn’t work, the dialogue might have to end abruptly, or shift to another language. We are apologizing for the possible discomfort that we may cause. It’s admirable. However, we are vocally, thus consciously telling ourselves that I am causing other people trouble by talking to them. I am torturing my interlocutor’s beloved mother language. Confidence is shattered. Fear takes over. It might appear cliché, but fear does hinder us from achieving our potential.
I know a Chinese friend in Paris in his early 30s, who has been living in France for more than half his life. Humble and modest as he is, he stutters whenever he speaks French. That also happens when he speaks Chinese, but on much rarer occasions. I attribute this observation to the “affect filter”. His filter is high for French. It is a foreign language. It’s intimidating. As for Chinese, the filter is low, even though the last time he actively studied the language was in middle school back in China, more than a decade ago. Yet the filter is low because his brain tells him that forgetting his mother tongue is a ridiculous idea. Nobody does that. His brain tells him that he is fluent in Chinese, because that is his native language. However long he might have stayed in France, French is a fearful and difficult language. That also explains the fact that he hangs around a lot with Chinese people than French peers. That might have also hindered him from making progress in his French. It is a chicken or egg question.
Embarrassed by mistakes.
In some ways, it is the byproduct of the first mindset. We are afraid that our ignorance be manifested and exposed in front of others. Our avoidance of making mistakes might take form in various ways, the most prevalent being pretending to understand the interlocutor whilst we don’t. We don’t ask the interlocutor to explain himself or herself again, for fear that it will be a stupid request to make.
On the contrary, those words that I never forget are those on which I have stumbled, because of which I have been a public spectacle. I remember once interpreting for a small occasion, from Chinese to French. I forgot the gender of the word “bread”: pain, the simplest word that all learners study on day 1. In a fraction of a second, my brain calculated the possible two trajectories of “la pain” or “le pein”. I chose the former, and immediately polite chuckle could be heard from the audience, who luckily, were friends. I laughed about it afterwards with them, saying that I love rabbits (which is “lapin” in French and sound exactly like “la pain”) so much that when I was interpreting, I couldn’t think of anything other than rabbits. Consequently, thanks to this laughable anecdote I will never make the same mistake again in my whole life.
I shall indulge myself to share another anecdote from a Chinese girl whom I know from university. She told us that once after trying on a pair of jeans in the fitting room of an apparel store, she tried to explain that the pair of jeans was too small for her. Instead of saying, it’s too small for my “jambes” (legs), she said “jambons” (ham, baked pork). Although the two words share the same etymology in French, her misuse of the vocabulary brought much joy to people who worked there and a memorable French lesson for her.
There have been proven memory techniques that we memorize words, numbers and names much better when we associate them with an image or a story. The weirder the story is, the more ridiculous it gets, the better we remember. We can indeed fabricate funny, ridiculous stories in our brain, and that’s recommended. But hey, life also is a good source for providing stories, so don’t miss out on them.
Use of filler words and vulgar words.
Vulgar words are more common for beginners and the uninitiated. The interest arises in unformal situations, and the sole instrumental utility is merely to appear “cool”. The use of filler words is a more subtle one and spread across language learners of all levels.
Just to be clear, filler words, or discourse markers are words, phrases or sounds that fill up space in writing or conversation without adding substance. In English, “so… like … you know…”, in Japanese “えーと”, in Chinese “那个…”.
The reason I list the reliance on filler words with vulgar words is the similitude of their mentalities. They take the least effort to learn but make us sound much more like a native. Putting these words in our speech might give us and others the delusion that we are rather comfortable in the language.
There is an unspecified difference between speaking a language and knowing a language. The distinction is mentioned for instance, in the opening chapters of “Babel No More” by Michael Erard. To speak a language, according to his interview with a linguist, means to know the words and how the words are put together, the codes so to speak. To know a language, on the other hand, means that you know the culture of its native speakers. You carry the language’s “cultural baggage”. To speak a language is merely to know all the notes in a Mozart piece, but it’s far from understanding Mozart. You have to be culturally involved to say you know a language well.
Native speakers know their language well. Except for universal filler words like “Ah”, “Emm”, others filler words with more syllables are adopted from childhood because a child saw other people do it. Curse words may be the same. In any way they are discouraged even amongst native speakers. They leave bad impressions on listeners. To adopt these bad habits that seemingly only native speakers have in order to appear fluent is a cheap trick, despite being a very popular strategy across different language learnings communities. I have seen people do this when I was majoring Japanese at university. I have seen people do it with French, with Chinese. The problem with filler words is that people easily fall into the trap of overdoing it. If you do not have the actual speaking skills to back up, and you are constantly hesitant in your speech choosing the right word, then you compensate by filling those gaps with your very limited filler words. My recommendation is simple. Don’t do it. It is a lot more preferable to say 让我想想 (let me think) than 那个, 那个 all the time.
These 3 misleading paths can be stumbling blocks to our language learning journey. I bet you have been in at least one of these situations, perhaps all of them. It is never easy work if you want to improve your speaking skills. You have to have enough words in your storage, mostly from reading. You have to be familiarized with the sounds of the language, mainly from listening. Writing and speaking to a satisfactory level require a lifetime of polishing. We need to have the right mindset. We mustn’t fear making mistakes. We need to be curious, audacious, always exploring, always asking. Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek, and you shall find.