• Common Linguistic problems

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    Contronyms, Heteronyms, Idioms, Oh my!

    English is an extremely complex language. Before a student can be considered truly proficient, he/she must not only master a variety of tenses and irregular verbs, sentence structure and parts of speech, but he/she must also work to understand and master lexical and structural ambiguities.

    Lexical ambiguities are very common and have a variety of names and definitions depending on the level of ambiguity.

    Homonyms are words that have the same spelling, but two or more meanings. An example of this is: mean. Is it describing an unkind person? Is it an average? Is someone talking about the definition of a word?

    Another type of lexical ambiguity is the heteronym. These are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings and pronunciations. An example of this would be ‘dove’. This could refer to a type of bird, or it could be describing the action of jumping.

    Contronyms, a very difficult form of lexical ambiguity, are words that are spelled the same and pronounced the same but have two completely opposite meanings. ‘Anxious’ is a good example of a contronym. Is the person excited and eagerly looking forward to an event or are they experiencing mental distress because of a perceived danger or misfortune?

    Learning and understanding these words and their usages can be extremely confusing for an English learner and also very challenging because they must often understand the rest of the sentence in order to determine the meaning of a single word.

    Lexical ambiguities can also exist in phrases, and not just single words. One of the most common forms of lexical ambiguity are idioms.

    Idioms are common expressions that have acquired a meaning that differ from their literal meaning. For example, if someone were to tell another person that ‘You are driving me up a wall!’ They do not mean they are literally seated in a vehicle that is being driven perpendicularly up a wall. They are actually saying that they are becoming frustrated or irritated with the other person.

    In order for an English learner to understand the meaning of this phrase or sentence, they must also look at the context in which it has been said. If they were to break down the phrase into its base components, it would not make any sense and could lead to a great deal of confusion or misunderstanding.

    Structural ambiguities are also very common in the English language and can present a challenge to an English learner. A structural ambiguity occurs when the sentence is arranged in such a way that it has more than one possible meaning. For example, in the sentence “The turkey is ready to eat”, this could mean that either the turkey has been cooked and is ready to be eaten, or it could mean that the turkey is hungry and would like to eat. Oftentimes, the speaker does not even realize their sentence has an ambiguous meaning, as they know the meaning they intend to convey. In these situations, often the whole context of the conversation must be taken into consideration before the true meaning of the phrase or sentence can be understood.

    In the English language there are many lexical and structural ambiguities that native English speakers take for granted, but can be very challenging for non-native speakers to understand and use correctly.

    Michelle Gipson

  • Common Linguistic problems

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    Linguistics is the scientific study of language, both theoretical and applied. This also includes the study of the structure and the meaning of language. Due to the complexity of the English language, many problems can arise between an English teacher and a foreign language student in the classroom, which can negatively impact communication between the student and teacher and hinder the students’ learning process. In this paper I will focus on some of the linguistic problems teachers may encounter in the classroom when teaching foreign language students.

    There is a strong connection between language and the culture within which the language is being spoken. Native English speaking teachers who have little or no knowledge of the culture of their students should become familiar with the student’s native culture and language. To effectively teach foreign language students, the teacher must become sensitive to what is acceptable verbal and non verbal communication in the students’ culture, to minimize the opportunity to offend. This knowledge will assist the teacher in translating the meanings of norms and values from the English speaking culture to that of the students, by translating the usages of vocabulary, idioms and gestures between the native culture and the English speaking context, thus ensuring the students have a sound understanding of what is being communicated. A teacher must be sensitive to the differences within the students’ culture that could impact how they interpret and understand what is being taught during the lesson, and become proactive to manage these differences. In managing these differences one could spend time with native speakers in a non teaching environment, observing the use of language and non-verbal communication skills; or speaking to other experienced Foreign Language teachers to glean understanding from some of their experiences when faced with these issues. In doing this the teacher can reduce the opportunity for misunderstandings between teacher and students, which can often lead to offences that can disrupt the teacher-student relationship and hinder the learning process.

    Another problem that may arise in the classroom between the teacher and students is they may become disconnected from the teacher and information being taught in the lessons, due to a lack of student-teacher rapport, being in mixed level class setting and comprehension difficulties, which can cause the students’ progress or growth opportunity to be stunted. By connecting with the students, the teacher can become familiar with their backgrounds, social status, interests, hobbies and goals, hence enabling the teacher to set clear, attainable goals which would aid in preparing lesson plans to meet the students’ needs. In a mixed level class setting, teachers should be proficient in reaching the students at the students’ language level, by effectively adjusting the lessons to meet the needs of the students at their individual level. If the teacher’s effectiveness is lacking in an environment of such, students’ language development could be hindered; they may become frustrated or bored, and eventually become disenchanted with the teacher and learning material, which could hamper their progress within their individual learning capacity.

    Students can also become disconnected when given poor comprehension text and instructions, and also by their own lack of good listening skills. The teacher must ensure the delivery of the lessons is clear and concise; so that the students will receive the information they need to assimilate in order to demonstrate their understanding of the lesson learnt. The teacher can prepare listening activities to improve their listening skills, for example; listening exercises with visuals, phonemic exercises to identify sounds, texts that are not redundant (short and simple) and by ensuring the students are familiar with the topic. Misapplication of background knowledge due to cultural differences can create major comprehension difficulties.

    Since language is one medium that people use to communicate and understand each other, teachers of foreign language students must become aware of the linguistic problems they may face when teaching. It is evident that there are various strategies that can be implemented to overcome the barriers of linguistic problems, to ensure effective pedagogy, to help each student’s learning opportunity to be optimized, and achieve their fullest potential in learning and communicating effectively in the English language.

    Shirley E Watson



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