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Teaching English in Italy: Some Challenges That Italian Language Learners Face When Learning English
I spent years studying the Italian language and leading an Italian social club in Atlanta, Georgia. All along, I was a teacher of English as a second language (ESOL) at various American schools for 21 years. I was later employed in Italy as a teacher of English for Italian students while, in my free time, I wrote articles, poetry, and fiction stories. The purpose of this article is to provide ESOL and TEFL teachers some tips about the challenges that Italian speakers often encounter when learning the English language. Each and every group of people with a unique language background faces its own challenges, but there are specific errors that tend to be made by most Italian learners of English at the beginning and intermediate levels. If not corrected in the early stages, those errors will later be difficult to unlearn.
Until a student reaches an intermediate level of proficiency, it is difficult to explore the literary analysis of English. This is why the first six months focus primarily on reading, writing, listening, and speaking with some attention to grammar. I often utilize some grammar to explain basic rules before putting those rules into practical use for direct communication. Most Italian students are very concerned about grammar although it is clear that one cannot rely on grammar alone in order to speak fluently and clearly. After having had many experiences with both the English and Italian languages, I have divided the primary challenges that Italians face into four categories: (1) problems with the use of gerunds, -ing verbs, and infinitives; (2) problems with the use of phrasal verbs; (3) challenges with the pronunciation of “-ed” and”th”; (3) issues distinguishing between when to use the present versus the present continuous tense; and (4) Italian students’ innate concern about learning the conditional tenses.
First of all, it is not easy for Italian speakers to decide which verbs must be followed by an -ing verb and which verbs must be followed by an infinitive verb. If teachers explore the Internet, they can find lists of those verbs that each require being followed by either the -ing forms or the infinitive forms. If students will dedicate some time to practice these gerunds and infinitives that follow other verbs, they will perform much better on tests such as the TOEFL and the IALTs tests. Since students usually do not know where to find these lists of verbs followed by gerunds vs. infinitives, it will be well worth your time to find them for your students and to keep them in your files for when they are helpful. Students can learn to use these verbs properly by practicing them. For example, the verbs “agree” and “consent” have to be followed by infinitives. Therefore, one says, “I agree to sign the paper, and I consent to buy the books.” On the other hand, the verbs “admit” and “practice” must be followed by gerunds. Therefore, one says, “I admit hiding the present, and I practice dancing.”
One of the reasons Italians report difficulty in using prepositions is due to the many English phrasal verbs which include prepositions as part of the verb. Some examples include: to put on, to put up with, to putoff, and to take off. Students must understand that phrasal verbs are like single words that work as a pair to create one unit with a specific meaning. All one has to do is to change the preposition following the verb and the verb’s meaning will change completely. It is helpful to provide students with a list of common phrasal verbs and to encourage them to begin studying those pairs rather than to introduce a few at a time. Numerous lists are available on the Internet and in books so the faster students become familiar with phrasal verbs the better off they will be in the long run. English has an extensive list of phrasal verbs that can be easily confused.
The “th” sound is usually very difficult for Italians because this sound does not exist in their language. Thankfully, most Italians do learn the”th” sound when they have a native speaker who gives them one-on-one pronunciation lessons. It does not seem to be much of an obstacle, but if one does not point out the correct sound to Italian speakers from the beginning, chances are they will continue to make the “t” or “d” sounds in the spot where one would normally pronounce “th” and this results in pronouncing the wrong words like “tree” instead of “three”. Once students have tackled the “th” and the -ed sounds, they will be able to express themselves much more confidently.
It is essential to point out to Italian students that the -ed at the end of gerunds and adjectives is usually a “t” or “d” sound unless -ed follows “t” or “d”. In other words, a term such as “jumped” is pronounced”jumpt” as the letter “e” remains silent. The word “played” sounds like”playd” without the letter “e”. Students benefit from learning the correct pronunciation early on because such mistakes become more difficult to correct later on. It can be quite difficult for speakers of a phonetic language like Italian to grasp the concept that English is not simply a phonetic language but that there are other patterns of sounds that are quite different from their spellings. Such patterns include digraphs like mb and th or trigraphs like dge, tch, and chr.
Issues that face Italians learning English often differ from those issues faced by Spanish speakers learning English. Fortunately, Italians do not voice the “es” sound in front of vowels, a common Spanish error, as in “eSpanish” or “especial”. Instead, Italians tend to add the “h” sound to some words, between two vowels, when the “h” is not needed as in “go h-away” and they leave out the “h” sound at the beginning of many words like “house”. Often, the words “angry” and “hungry” are mispronounced to convey mistaken messages.
One of the first aspects of verb tenses that I explain in class is the way English speakers constantly use the present continuous tense and how its usage differs from that of the simple present tense. Any English speaker who has studied Italian in depth knows that Italians use the present simple to describe almost every action they describe that is about the present moment. Whereas English speakers use the present tense to describe objects in the room, to describe habitual events, and to explain a story that they have already read, English speakers use the present continuous tense to describe an ongoing action that they are taking in the moment. For example, English speakers say, “I am sitting at the table where I am drinking a coffee and talking to my friend.” Instead, Italians say, “Mi siedo al tavolo dove bevo un café e parlo con mio amico” which literally means: I sit at the table where I drink coffee and talk to my friend. If teachers do not point out that English speakers use the present continuous (to be + ing) to describe actions that are occurring, there is the risk that Italian speakers will continue to speak and write mistakenly in the present simple tense for years to come. Of course, English speakers who learn Italian also risk using the present continuous too often when they speak Italian if they are not informed of the differences in usage.
For those people who are just beginning to learn English or to teach English, I recommend starting with the following verb tenses: the present simple,the present continuous, the present perfect, the simple past, the future, and the future continuous. Students will be eager to learn all of the tenses immediately, but I do believe these tenses will be the ones that will be most practical for a quick start. When I learned what I know of Italian 34 years ago, I began with the simple present tense and the infinitive form. I was playful with the language, and I would still suggest starting out with a playful attitude when using English verb tenses. Sometimes one has to dive in and take risks in order to make long-lasting progress. After all, language is mainly a spontaneous communicative tool that binds us for the betterment of society as a whole if we will only be patient.
There are four conditionals which play an important role in the English curriculum, so if you are a new English teacher who intends to teach English in Italy, I would recommend being prepared to teach those four conditionals (0, 1, 2, 3) before you begin to formally teach in the classroom. Of most importance are the distinctions between the 0 and 1st conditionals. The 0 conditional describes something habitual that is repeated whenever the condition occurs. For instance: If it rains, I do not water the plants. Instead, the 1st conditional describes something that occurs once such as: If it rains, we will not work outdoors. Italian students tend to grasp the first two conditionals quite well because they correspond directly with Italian conditionals. The 3rd conditional tense is used to show something that is highly unlikely without meeting a specific condition: If I won the lottery, I would write books. The 4th conditional is impossible since a past condition has not been previously met: If I had remembered to study, I wouldn’t have failed the math test. I would recommend making your own chart with examples of the four conditionals on it prior to the first day of class, and keep it handy. Teachers can personalize their own charts to meet the specific needs of their students based on their ages, various cultures, and linguistic levels.
Personalizing your teaching will make lessons much more pleasant for students. You will probably have to do some research to meet the needs of your class because everyone is a unique individual with his or her own learning style. Teachers should not neglect to consider that different strategies work for different students and that a wide array of visual, audio, and kinesthetic experiences will be appreciated.
Hopefully this summary of the major problems that face English language learners in Italy will be helpful to anyone who decides to teach English in Italy. The challenges that one linguistic group faces vary from those of other linguistic groups so if you are teaching in Thailand, for instance, the challenges will be different from those described in this article. Much of this knowledge is based upon my study of both the English and Italian languages in a comparative way. I found that having the basic knowledge of the learner’s first language was a useful tool that did not hinder me from using the English language as the primary means of communication in my classes. Once you will be teaching English in Italy, you will recognize the basic challenges described in this article and it should be easy for you to hone in on the most important lessons that you would like to teach.
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