Analyzing Arrival: The Linguistics Behind the Film

This week’s post is something new for this blog: a movie review. Movies involving language learning are rare, so I had to write about Arrival. It’s best to read this post after seeing the movie; it’s a “car ride home from the theater” type of rant and might not make sense if you haven’t seen it yet.

Arrival has an unlikely hero. Amy Adams plays Louise, a professor who hears that aliens have touched down on earth during a lecture on Portuguese. She’s soon recruited by the government to figure out what these visitors want. Since she’s a skilled translator and speaks several very different languages (Farsi, Chinese, Sanskrit, and it’s implied that she’s fluent in several others), Forest Whitaker’s character believes she’s the person who will be able to learn the aliens’ language and communicate with them.

Louise is a cool character. She’s an insanely talented polyglot who learns an alien language, sees the future, and saves the world. It’s not every day that a linguist gets to do that in a Hollywood movie.

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Pronunciation versus Accent: Why it Matters for ESL Teachers

Picture this: You and your friend meet someone for the first time and have a conversation with her. She speaks a little differently from you and your friend.

Now imagine scenario 1: When you finish the conversation and the woman leaves, your friend says this to you:

Where do you think she’s from?

Now scenario 2: the woman leaves and your friend says:

What was she saying? I couldn’t understand most of it.

To me, this is the difference between accent (scenario 1) and pronunciation (scenario 2).

If you’re a language teacher, you should focus on improving your students’ pronunciation, even if they say they want to speak with an American/British/Australian/whatever accent. Hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be able to convince your students to focus on improving their pronunciation and accept, maybe even embrace, their accent.

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Teaching “th” sounds (theta and eth) + a card game

When I start my pronunciation unit on the “th” sounds, half of my class sounds like snakes and bees.

That’s because many languages don’t have theta (/θ/) or eth (/ð/) sounds, so those sounds come out as /s/ and /z/ respectively. If you do a speaking exercise with a lot of words with “th”, you’re going to hear “sssss” and “zzzzz” until you start helping certain students improve their pronunciation.

Since both of these sounds are represented with a “th” in English writing, you can teach your students the symbols – θ for unvoiced, and ð for voiced (these are real letters, just not in English. You’ll find θ in modern Greek and ð in modern Icelandic – pretty cool!)

For Arabic speakers learning English, this will make sense to them since they have two different letters for these two sounds:

 ث  = θ (unvoiced) and ذ = ð (voiced)

Arabic speakers will have no problem pronouncing these sounds since they have them in their language. But they might have trouble choosing which sound to use when they see a “th” in writing, so they can still get something out of a lesson on these two sounds.

Let’s consider a few more things when you’re teaching the “th” sounds.

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