by Diana Angelo, ESL Teacher at ESL Works
Most people who speak English as a first language don’t analyze what they think or say — and they certainly don’t pay too much attention to the way they say things. After all, it just comes out naturally, right? But that means that a lot of us aren’t aware of how things sound to people who are trying to learn the language — which brings me to firstable.
I started noticing some of our advanced level 3 students writing “firstable” in their restaurant review creative writing papers. Sometimes, at some point, “firstable” was followed by “secondable”, “thirdable”, and so on. I addressed it one day in class. I wrote “firstable” on the board and asked, “What is firstable?”(students know that we ask “what is …?” when trying to elicit a definition of something from them.) Edwin said, “The first thing!” Heidi said, “The thing before all the other things!” And then Hector said, “It’s like when you start to write something or say something that has different parts to it and you want the person you’re talking to to know that this is either the first part or the most important part.” They knew what it meant, they just didn’t know how to spell it. I wrote first of all on the board. The ah-ha’s and the oh’s and the hmm’s echoed behind me.“But it sounds like firstable!” Fanny said. “So you mean it’s second of all, and third of all, too?”
“That makes sense!” Heidi confirmed.
Our students try to listen and soak in everything they hear. “First of all” does indeed sound like “firstable” because of the way native English speakers naturally reduce the ‘of’ and bounce the ‘f’ into the ‘all’ creating a kind of ‘b’ sound. Our students listen to their managers all the time and want to know exactly what they’re saying and they want to make meaning from it. So while native speakers of a language don’t usually analyze the language at all, people who are trying to learn a new language analyze it all over the place!
“Firstable” was born out of very intent listening and analyzing. I re-learned to be mindful of the way I speak. I don’t want the wrong impression, word, or meaning to be given — especially if I’m trying to communicate something important.
Listening intently shouldn’t be a one way street. When interacting with English learners, it’s just as important to listen to them! It can feel easy to dismiss something you hear that you do not understand, but what if an English learner is trying to communicate something important? And many times, our students are just trying to say things the way they hear them. I mean, what do you think “goose affer noon” sounds like?