Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hearing Pidgin English

Going back to the exercise, 'word wizard' in the book Keep Talking, I was discussing in class the other day which words they would choose that they consider to be the most important. I started writing them up, and added a few words that would make communicating easier:

that thing
what/where/when/how/who (not why - it can be too abstract)

The learners contributed things like:

family etc.

So we had about 35 words on the board, and we started trying to make conversation using 'pidgin English'. The conversation went like this:

What work you do?

I do big work: thing go up: thing go down (they make helicopters!)

Where you go weekend?
I go there: do love woman: go eat drink family.

Doing this is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do in class : lower our level of English to that of the learner, ie speaking pidgin English. But it teaches valuable lessons about English:

1. English is essentially quite a simple, monosyllabic language. With just thirty words, I can something like, 'I do no work', which my learners are surprised to discover is grammatically correct, and certainly not pidgin English.

2. We communicate much more with our gestures, facial expressions and intonation than with words themselves (according to some, only 7% of communication is verbal)

3. Perhaps the most important, that English intonation forces the listener to hear pidgin English, that is, as we 'swallow' almost all 'grammatical' words, like prepositions and articles, the listener only hears the 'meaning' words, like verbs, nouns, adjectives.

To demonstrate this last point, I give the learners some sentences to analyse, for example:

do you want to know what he's going to give me?

which could be pronounced (I never do, of course):

jerwanna know wha(t) izgonna gimme?

Or a little more sensible:

On a clear day, you can see the mountains on the horizon.

I point out that in the real world, the prepositions, articles and auxiliaries are so softly pronounced that one only hears:

clear day see mountains horizon

thus turning a perfectly good sentence into pidgin English.

Go to the pronunciation pages at for more information about intonation and articulation in English.

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