Brush Up Lesson

Notes for the English Brush-up Lesson, Kumamoto, 26 January, 2014

1. Some Pronunciation:
  • It’s okay to mispronounce words. Don’t stress about it. People will usually still be able to understand you.
  • But if you make the same mistake and say “Za Beatles” all of the time, you could create a bad impression. People may think that you are careless, lazy, insincere, or even handicapped.
  • So find out what you often do wrong, and work on each problem, one at a time. You must be able to hear the sounds before you can say them.
  • Don’t work on just single-sound pronunciation.  There are several sorts of pronunciation. Word stress, sentence stress, intonation, rhythm, assimilation and linking are just as important.
  • Don’t use katakana, because it makes your pronunciation problems much worse. Instead, you could use phonetics, or online speaking dictionaries. The best way is to listen/read/shadow lots of English to become familiar with it.
  • Katakana causes the following problems with vowels, consonants and extra syllables.
  • VOWELS: In Japanese, there are 5 vowel sounds. In English there are 15 to 20, even though we only have 5 vowel letters. You need to learn how to form these sounds. Do minimal pair practice
  • CONSONANTS:  Gaps in your Y and W columns (ye, yi, wi, wu, we) cause problems with those consonants. Your Я consonant is a mixture of RD&L. Also, you have strange things happening in the T (tatituteto), S (sasisuseso) and H columns (hahihuheho).
  • EXTRA SYLLABLES: Your syllabary (not an alphabet) causes you add vowel sounds to consonants e.g. ‘and’ becomes ‘ando’. This is probably the worst problem that Japanese speakers of English have. It causes the most misunderstanding, because English people 'count' sounds to recognize words.
Common errors:
  • Fur (all the words used in the warm up had this sound)
  • Ə or schwa (the most common vowel, in e.g. onion, station)
  • Apple/apfel
  • Consonant clusters: M’cDONlds (1.3.1) vs makudonarudo (
  • Crispness of key consonants
  • Stress on the key syllable or word (3:1 times louder)
  • A great way to work on pronunciation is to read aloud nursery rhymes, limericks, and to record yourself reading a children’s story.

2. Some Grammar:

  • It’s okay to make grammar mistakes when you speak. People will still be able to understand you.
  • The biggest mistake is to slow down—or stop—to think. Don’t do that! If you have to think of how to say something, then you don’t know it, so you shouldn’t try to use that grammar. Say what you want to in a simpler way.
  • Just as for pronunciation, repeated errors of basic grammar create a bad impression. People may think that you are uneducated, lower class or even criminal!
  • So work on basic things first. Say things simply.
  • Even with perfect grammar, you will still make style errors and make awkward combinations of words. The only way to master style is to develop a gut feeling from a lot of exposure to real language (not more grammar books).
  • Finally, enjoy making mistakes—the more embarrassing the better, because you will remember those errors. Make a collection of them. Own them. Maybe write a book of them!
Important grammar:
  • Pronouns, especially his, her, your, their and its
  • Third person singular ‘s’ (e.g. The girl eats.)
  • Singular and plural forms
  • Simple past tense
  • Articles
  • Th~ words
  • Wh~ question words
  • ~ed/~ing adjectives (e.g. I am bored/boring)

3. Some conversation tips:

  • A good conversation in English is much the same as a good conversation in Japanese.
  • Think of it as a game for points that you play to have fun.
  • It’s NOT about how well you perform, or how ‘correctly’ you speak.
  • It’s not about choosing a serious topic. You don’t have to ‘debate’ or discuss an ‘issue’ (unless you want to).
  • A good conversation is like a good marriage, where there are more good experiences than bad, in a ratio of at least 4:1.

How to earn points:

  • Conversation is like throwing a ball back and forth. You earn a point each time you respond within a few seconds. Dropping the ball doesn’t lose you points. 
  • Don’t panic when someone doesn’t understand you. Don’t stop in the headlights. (You lose a point whenever you ‘freeze’.) Ask. Repeat. Use other words. Gesture. Guess.
  • Mistakes with grammar and pronunciation can earn you points if you use them to talk about, ask questions about, laugh about, discuss, learn from
  • Making small talk is a big art.
  • Be funny, make jokes, have fun, laugh and make the other person laugh (you get 1 point for a laugh or a smile)
  • There are almost no kata in English. For a given situation, have a few different ways to say the same thing, otherwise you will sound like a robot.
  • When you don’t understand, ask questions
  • You can repeat an information word in a questioning tone for more information
  • Practice making comments (e.g. “That’s a nice dress.”)
  • Try some body language. Try ‘mirroring’ the other person
  • Give and listen out for ‘free information’ (earn a point for each fact that you give, or respond to)
  • stay on topic for as long as it remains interesting (a point for each continuation)    
  • Use open questions with “Why?” or “What do you think about . . .?”  (lose a point for repeated closed questions)
  • Be bold, and be the first to start talking (you earn several points for this)

4. Some Successful Learner Secrets:
  • Learn from people who have learned a language (or 20):
  • Use the right attitude or psychology
  • Make your learning enjoyable
  • Choose methods that work for you
  • Choose interesting material
  • Don’t study grammar so much, but notice things
  • Use a variety of techniques
  • Use long-term memory to internalize skills
  • Put in the time, and play with the language as much as you can
  • Practice for short periods, and revise regularly

5. Some further advice:
  • There is only ONE way to fail with learning a language: giving up,
  • You’ll learn much more if you relax (you try too hard as a society)
  • If you want to learn quickly and automatically, you need to use your unconscious brain.
  • It’s important to make mistakes (everyone makes about 250,000 mistakes to learn a language)
  • Use the body language of a samurai or a monk so that people don’t take advantage of you (don’t bow, don’t act embarrassed, don’t act cute or girly, and be proud)
  • Listen to as much real spoken English as you can
  • Learn vocabulary in context, not as single words
  • Create an English world for yourself
  • Apply kaizen, or continual refinement, to your learning method   
  • Make small changes in your habits
  • Seek specific help from English-speakers (e.g. “Please point out my 3 main errors.”)

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