When we teach or learn languages, we inevitably compare our own language to a foreign one. Apart from mere curiosity, such comparing and contrasting can serve us a good purpose. If you know how your language is different from English, you can avoid mistakes. If you know the similarities, we can understand some foreign language phenomena better and progress faster.
Significance for teaching
Being language teachers, we spot similarities and differences between languages quite often. It can affect our teaching a lot. First, noticing such things helps us anticipate problems and come up with appropriate solutions. For example, we might expect our Russian-speaking students to have problems with Present Perfect, articles, and /θ/ or /ð/ sounds simply because there aren’t such things in the Russian language. On the other hand, some words or structures which would be problematic for a speaker of Spanish or, say, Greek will be absolutely understandable to a Russian speaker because of their similarity to those in Russian. It means that we can save time and focus on presenting and pre-teaching more challenging things in our lessons, even if a coursebook suggests ‘colleague’, ‘tram’ or ‘extreme’.
Another thing to mention is interference. When we use a foreign language, we may make mistakes because of the influence of our mother tongue – mistakes in pronunciation, grammar, and other levels of language. For instance, Russian students tend to ignore the fixed word order of English because things are much more flexible in Russian.
Some practical implications for a teacher would be the following:
- evaluate the coursebook looking at it from your students’ L1 perspective;
- planning words for presenting or pre-teaching, remember about cognates and false friends,
- devote more time to grammar issues that have no equivalent in the students’ L1;
- working with tricky sounds, start with how to pronounce them physically. To do that show a video – my absolute favourite is this workshop by Adrian Underhill, the author of Sound Foundations: Learning and Teaching Pronunciation. There, he basically shows you the sounds in action.
- do not reject translation if you feel that it can be beneficial.
If you want to read more on the subject, try ‘Learner English’ by M. Swan and B. Smith, CUP, 2001. This book will shed some light on how speakers of different languages deal with differences between English and their own language.
Significance for general understanding
What makes comparing languages even more interesting is the aspect of cultural differences. Sometimes students have problems with expressing themselves and understanding others not because of poor grammar or difficulties with listening. It comes from the blend of language and culture. For example, Russian speakers might often sound rude or bored to an English-speaking person. It happens because the intonation patterns of these two languages are quite different. An English speech pronounced in a Russian manner may lead to a misunderstanding or even a conflict. Another thing to mention is politeness. Getting feedback on an essay like ‘It looks quite nice! Next time, you might want to use more words from the unit just to have a chance to practise them. Also, your sentences look a bit wordy at times.’, a Russian speaker is likely to think that everything is fine and there is no need to improve their work. This is probably because we are more direct and speak our mind more often.
Another example might be an IELTS essay. A lot of people keep struggling with writing for IELTS and searching for a magic pill. However, their scores might be lower than the ones they are aiming at. One of the reasons can be the difference in developing ideas in English and Russian. In Russian, we most often start descriptively and then slowly bring the reader to the main idea. In English, though, we tend to start with this main idea and then develop it and bring examples. No wonder that understanding each other is so difficult!
All these things are definitely more complex than grammar and vocabulary. However, drawing your students’ attention to these is crucial. Here are some tips to try out:
- plan some time for working with intonation. Try jazz chants which will help students practise proper stress, rhythm and intonation. Or else, do some shadowing by repeating after their favourite actors, influencers or other people they are interested in;
- encourage being emotional while reading things or acting out. A lot of Russian-speaking learners seem to be embarrassed or even ashamed of sounding emotional. Even if your students exaggerate their intonation in the classroom a bit, it will still be beneficial.
- teach culture. Small talks and feedbacks, complimenting and criticizing, taboo topics and politeness can all tell a lot about the language and help students understand the differences, not just take them for granted.
- use authentic materials. They can provide students with a chance to spot differences themselves.
All in all, comparing languages is not only exciting but also crucial for making progress in mastering a foreign language. By drawing students’ attention to similarities and differences between English and their L1, we can promote a better understanding of English rules and concepts. Spotting cultural differences embodied in languages helps prevent misunderstandings and contributes to communicating in a more advanced way.
Speaking activities are, obviously, essential for English language speaking classes. A lot of students join classes particularly to develop their communicative competence, become more fluent, versatile, adaptable, and confident communicators in English. However, designing speaking activities might be time-consuming and nerve-wracking for any teacher. We have prepared a memo with superb ready-made speaking tasks that will make your student talking. Download it here.