Thursday, 14 July 2011

The magic power of sounds

I thought of two different titles for this post: "The magic power of sounds" was one of them; the other was "Too bad we teach our kids to write in a foreign language too soon". I decided to go with the optimistic one.

My five-year-old daughter has been exposed to some English at kindergarten for a couple of years (she’s at “preescolar” now, her last year before primary school first grade). She’s starting to learn how to read and write in Spanish, so my house is full of sticky notes of different colours here and there with words and numbers on them. In her English lessons, they speak and sing songs and recite short poems. They don’t read or write any English yet.

Yesterday, she gave me a present: a small paper with the names of an English family (which they had mentioned at school). The names she had written were MAM, TAT, TOM and LITTU BABY. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that TAT was actually DAD and LITTU meant LITTLE. I thought "wow, this is interesting!"

Our /d/ sound in Spanish is not plosive. In fact, it’s much more similar to the sound in they than to the sound in day in most contexts. So what seemed obvious was that she was perceiving an extra force in the sound in dad, different from Spanish d, which she could only accomodate as a t. Along the same lines, she quite evidently hears some kind of dark l in little, which she interprets as a u. This is great! She’s acquiring sounds!

Trust me: next year, when she starts writing in English, she will say thad (for dad) and litel (for little).

A pity, isn’t it?


  1. What a fascinating observation. It makes a lot of sense that by getting students writing so early we are reducing the need for them to pay close attention to what they hear.

    I'm reading more and more opinions that are coming out against the idea of the V-A-K (Visual Auditory Kinaesthetic) model. I'm honestly not sure where I stand on it but I know from recent observation that we are not so fixed in our preference of one way of learning as some people might think.

    It may just be that this early writing that you lament is a strong cause for a majority of our learners being so-called "visual" learners. In a language as complex as English with its changing vowel lengths and so on, it would certainly aid our learners if they were more "audio-focussed".

  2. Thanks for your great comment, Gordon! I hadn't thought it that way but I think you are right! And the fact that Spanish pronunciation is so strongly linked to spelling doesn't help!

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