Almost everyone considers words to be the fundamental building blocks of language. This being the case, almost everyone approaches the learning of a second language through words.
It seems to make perfect sense – just keep memorizing words and the grammar rules that govern them, and eventually you’ll learn the language, right?
WRONG- Language is NOT made up of words, it’s made up of sounds.
When you hear speech, you first process the sounds, then you reconstruct these sounds into mental abstractions called “words.” In other words (no pun intended), words are merely figments of our imaginations.
Because words have no physical reality to them, this creates several complications for anyone who centers their foreign language studies exclusively around words. In fact, the main reason why most people struggle at foreign languages is because they focus too much on words and not enough on sounds.
Allow me to explain…
Words are Imaginary
This statement always draws skepticism from people, because our education system really hammers in the idea that words are the fundamental building blocks of language.
It all has to do with the writing system and its favoring of semantics (meaning) over acoustics (sound). In most writing systems, items are divided semantically using visual spaces. So we are trained to think of everything between spaces (i.e. the words) as cohesive entities.
- The ’s’ after the apostrophe suggests the /s/ sound “ssssss”, but if you listen to the reduced speed track again you’ll hear that I’m actually making a /z/ sound (zzzz).
- The ‘c’ in “doctrine” suggests the existence of a /k/ sound, but listen close and you’ll notice that instead of a /k/, there’s just a gap of silence between the “do” and the “trine”.
Now here’s the freaky part – if before all this analysis I had asked you whether or not I made the /k/ and /s/ sound, you would have said “yes”.
This is what I mean when I say “words are imaginary”. You are taking a physical reality of sounds and syllables and distorting it to fit “words” that never really existed.
Why do we do this?
Literacy and It’s Drawbacks
Our distortion of speech sound has to do with our literacy education. Any “phonetic” writing system like English is only going to be loosely based on how things really sound. So when we learn to process language only within these systems, we are left with only a loose understanding of what speech sound really is.
And we really ingrain this loose understanding. From a very early age, we are submerged into a world of written words. Every time we see a word in a book, computer screen or street sign, we reinforce this loose system of sound and script. By the time we are adults, the system will have been reinforced trillions of times!
The end result is that no one knows what the hell they are talking about when they are talking about speech sound.
As literate adults, we have developed a very strong conceptualization of sound that is fundamentally flawed. It should be no surprise then that learning a completely new system of sounds in a foreign language is so challenging.
Syllables are Real
What if instead of thinking about speech in terms of imagined words, we thought about it in concrete physical terms? Each unique sound would have it’s own unique symbol, and the grouping of these symbols would reflect the real-world acoustic groupings.
This is what phonetic transcriptions attempt to do. There are quite a few phonetic transcription systems out there, but I find most of them inadequate for language-learning, so I invented my own – “Rhythmic Phonetic Notation.” You’ll learn a lot about RPN in future blog posts, or if you take one of my Flow Series courses.
Here’s how RPN would transcribe the earlier phrase of “Mimicry is my Doctrine”:
mɪ mɪ – kɹi zmaɪ dɑ – tɹɪn
You probably are not familiar with the symbols, but with the spacing you should be able to hear how it aligns with the original audio.
Rhythmically, the spaces are denoted by dashes, and the stressed syllables are denoted by emboldening and underlining. Phonemically, I use mostly IPA to represent the sounds, but sometimes I use my own symbols when I think the IPA symbol will confuse the learner based on his native language.
What’s important to note here is that, unlike the English writing system, each script corresponds to a specific sound and muscular movement in the speech organ.
Because each sound has one unique symbol, and each symbol has one unique sound, there is no ambiguity. The idea is for a person familiar with the symbols and the muscular movements they represent to be able to repeat the speech out loud near-perfectly without having to hear it, the same way a musician can pick up a piece of sheet music and re-create the sounds exactly.
This is extremely important for language-learners, because there’s no room for acoustic ambiguity when the entire language is based on sound.
Think in Syllables
Part of my mimicry ability derives from my ability to mentally deconstruct speech into rhythmic phonetic notation. When I am familiar with the Flow of a language, I am familiar with all its sound possibilities. So when I’m presented with a phrase and have no idea what it means, I can still break it down and mimic it.
This is an indispensable skill dealing with every day “connected speech,” in which “words” are often chopped, screwed, and fused with one another, making them unrecognizable to anyone who takes the “words-approach” to second language learning.
Learning to think in syllables, however, takes time and specific training. This is the training I give people in my Flow Series Courses. In the courses, students learn songs syllable by syllable without any clue as to the word boundaries or meanings. At first they’re a bit surprised by the difficulty and uniqueness of the training, but once they get over the hump they immediately recognize the value of the training.
Halfway through the course, students always send me a message similar to the following:
“I’m not sure what, but something has changed. [The target language] just feels and sounds different now.”
The change the students is referring to is in his newly-developed ability to process the physical reality of the target language. The language changes from incomprehensible babble to something that can be chopped up into little bite-size pieces and processed.
Now they have a foundation on which to build sound-meaning relationships. Remember, language is just a system for attaching meaning to sound, but without a strong grasp of the sound you will be lost forever.
Before you can imagine words, you must be able to hear syllables. In my next post, I’ll explain exactly how to train yourself to do that.
Till then, keep on Flowin’!