We had some wonderful “Eureka” moments last week with 8- to 11-year-old EFL (English as a foreign language) students while reviewing letters and vocabulary with a spelling game. The word dolphin came up – quite a tricky word for French speakers. On the one hand, the letters ph are maintained, while the French au” is turned into a simple o. We came to the inevitable
daulfin, and at the end of the game, and I suggested we look for other /f/ sounds to determine whether there was a pattern as when to use f or ph.
I mentioned that there might be a connection between French and English. The kids rattled away lots of words – we went from fire to fromage, foot to phone, and I wrote each word in a f or ph column on the board.
pharmacy – phone – photo – phrase – alphabet – philosophy – elephant…
fire – finger – foot – flower – for – four – fourteen – fine – fruit – favorite…
Interestingly, once they began to understand that the ph words were nearly the same in French and English, we got more f-based cognates, like fruit, fine, and favorite.
Although I did not explain that the etymology of ph and Greek roots, I did ask my students to pay close attention to all /f/ sounds in both languages, asking them to determine the likelihood that a French word containing ph would find its way into English with a very similar pronunciation and spelling.
Raising language awareness has several advantages. For example, the learner is encouraged to look for letter and sound patterns, which removes some of the guesswork or strict memorization that can be involved in spelling and writing. Additionally, in the case of f and ph, there is an excellent correlation between ph cognates in French and English, so educated guesses are often correct and enhance speaking skills.
Most importantly, heightened language awareness is an important step to mastering any language – from a native language to a foreign language – because it helps a learner to overcome fears and to perhaps find some sense in what appears illogical. The fear of not understanding, and the fear of new, illogical sounds and letters can be obstacles.
Some kids are blissfully unaware or uninterested in paradoxes, or “weirdness” found in English, while others let these fears get in the way of engaging into speaking and writing activities. Consequently, language awareness can help some children feel more secure and grounded in their learning.
Indeed, teachers should not burden children with metalanguage, etymology, and derivatives but where appropriate, they can should set the stage playfully and allow learners to make discoveries and share observations. As we were starting on our next task, I heard victorious little sighs, breathing out new words: Christophe! Wow, that works! How about paragraphe! Wait, what about geography? Yes, that works, too.