Ego and learning

When I lived overseas, I noticed that ego and a poor capacity to take criticism were the biggest impediments to people’s progress in learning a language.

A couple of examples:

I had a favorite Czech newspaper that I read every day. After a few months I got to the point where I could understand almost everything in it. I felt like my Czech reading was “good”. Then I picked up a different paper that was aimed at a different readership, and suddenly I could understand only about 60 percent. My first reaction was to feel humiliated and blame the newspaper. I got a grip on myself, and forced myself to learn to read that newspaper also. However, I see this same kind of ego attack stop some people’s learning in my classes.

I learned to welcome it when the kids in my classes burst out laughing at one of my mistakes. Face it! You can’t learn a language without making some hilarious mistakes! The situations where people laughed at my language were sort of a two-for-one prize, because I got to learn the correct way to say things, and I learned what was so funny. It was a double load of language learning.

And I would have made no progress at all if my friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even children and the popcorn vendor, did not volunteer correction without my asking.

Now I have an ESL student at a corporation whose English learning is slowed by his ego. He is extremely humiliated by any sort of mistake – in any aspect of his life – and so he avoids situations where he can be wrong. This means it’s like pulling teeth just to get him to do an exercise in a grammar book. First I have to assure him that the grammar in the book is really proper, and that using it won’t humiliate him in front of important people. Then this trepidation of his makes him break every lesson down into tiny detail, which slows everything down.

With a little time, I found one very useful tool for teaching this man English. He is more cooperative if I speak a little German in front of him and make mistakes. He laughs at them and tells me what I should have said, and he seems to learn better if he can humiliate me over my German. It makes his ego feel safer or something. So, I just let him do it, and even give him opportunities to do it. I feel like I’m letting him nail my German to the cross for the salvation of his English. It seems to work.


I do exactly the same thing with some of my “problem children”, Jamie. :lol:

And I agree: sometimes language mistakes can be downright hilarious. I certainly made my share of humdingers while learning German. My own hilarious mistakes never happend a second time, though. Those sorts of things always got learned in a hurry.


Hi Jamie,

You wrote:

It’s, indeed, excellent if people are that helpful. In fact, I’d very much appreciate if people did correct my mistakes when I speak English (but only to a certain point, of course). People just never correct me when I speak (although I cannot really understand why). Do you have any good tips regarding how I could make people (including children and the popcorn vendor) correct me so that I’d learn more from my mistakes?

Hi Englishuser,

It’s always very difficult isn’t it in normal conversation situations to correct someone when they are speaking your language as a foreign language. Personally I would probably find it hard talking in such a situation to you because I imagine on the strength of your written English that you have a very good command of spoken English as well. The only way it can be done is to ask the other person to repeat a corrected version/word of what you have said so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the conversation. The danger of course is that it will turn what purported originally to be a chat/conversation into a lesson.


Hi Alan,

Thank you very much for replying. I definitely agree with you: making corrections is almost impossible in a normal conversation, especially if you speak a language fluently. Besides, a non-linguist listener might not pay close attention enough to spot all mistakes you make simply because they don’t generally listen to grammar but to content.

And if you Alan read this, why wouldn’t you take the time to answer my native/non-native speaker question: have you ever met a person that you’ve falsely placed for a native speaker of English? And do you think that it’s true or merely a myth that it’s more difficult to achieve a convincing British sounding accent than it is to achieve a convincing American sounding accent, for instance?

Hi Englishuser

If your writing is any indication of your speaking proficiency, I can’t imagine an average native-speaker (American) ever voluntarily offering a correction. They’d regard it as impolite. Expecting corrections from people who are not ESL teachers is unrealistic, especially if you’re already fluent.

Even if you specifically tell people to correct your errors, chances are they’ll just simply forget because the mistakes aren’t big or bad enough to set off any correction alarms. Or they’ll agree, but still feel too uncomfortable to actually do it — because it will still feel impolite.

I can only assume from Jamie’s description that his Czech must have been spectacularly bad at the time to have elicited such an outpouring of spontaneous language assistance from his Czech friends. :lol:


Hi Englishuser,

You said:

Oo -er that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?

My attitude is that if someone speaks my language as a foreign language to them fluently, I am impressed, bowled over,delighted, and indeed flattered. The last thing I would be concerned about would be the accent that they used.


Hi Alan,

I’m afraid you might have got me wrong. This time I was rather uninterested in accents: I was interested in grammar-related corrections. And concerning a British-sounding accent, I only asked it because it’s well-known that imitating a British accent successfully is very difficult - many people say that it’s more difficult than imitating for example an American accent.

Hi Englishuser,

I can see you have a thing about accents! If you are a mimic, you can imitate any accent. I used to write a lot of scripts for BBC radio and read the conversational bits with voices in a variety of accents. I don’t honestly think that imitating an American accent is any easier than doing a British one but when you consider the variety of accents on my small island, just think of the immense variety there must be in North America.

As I have asked elsewhere what is an American accent and what is a British one? And quite frankly does it really matter?


Hi Alan,

And thanks for participating in this thread.

Yes, you would definitely assume that there are many more accents to be found in North America than in Britain. However, it’s a fact that Great Britain is much more diverse in accents than is the United States. It’s as surprising as it’s true, really.

I think that it’s quite clear to most people that British accents differ from their American counterparts. I don’t think that it really matters if a person has a British accent or an American one, but just like in writing, I’d still try to be as consistent as possible. That is, if you’ve learnt British pronunciation, it’s adviseable to stick to British pronunciations of words like ‘tomato’ and ‘schedule’.

Actually, the variety of accents in the UK is supposed to be greater than in North America. It has less to do with the size of the land mass than with how long it has been settled. The UK has been settled by English speakers many centuries longer, and the dialects have had more time to develop. In North America, the variety and distinctiveness is greater on the longer-settled areas along the east coast, and things smooth out as one goes west. Only in the past generation or two have areas west of the Mississippi developed distinctive accents.

Most people from the UK who settle in the US don’t seem to find a need to be consistent in that way, and they tend to adapt their speech to local norms. They don’t change everything, but they will change the pronunciation of words that attract humorous attention, such as the RP pronunciations of words like tomato and schedule, which most people here consider a little comical.

Hi Jamie,

You wrote:

I think that it depends greatly on the person how much they’ll change their pronunciation. But I agree with you to an extent: it’s only natural that you’ll change your pronunciation so as to sound more like people around you. If you’d move to the United Kingdom you’d most likely change your pronunciation a bit, don’t you think?

Yes, I’ve also got the impression that the RP pronunciations of these two words seem to attract humorous attention. Do you have any idea about why people tend to find it so very humorous if you pronounce the word ‘tomato’ in a way close to RP that people actually feel the need to imitate the pronunciation in front of you? Anyway, what I meant was that I think it’s good to try to be as consistent as possible when you’re learning English pronunciation. Native speakers can easily mimic other native speakers, but I really wouldn’t do so as a non-native speaker (i.e. try to imitate native speakers from various regions): too much experimenting might make it more difficult for people to understand you. So if you’ve learned General American pronunciation, I don’t really see any need for why you should pronounce anything the British way. And vice versa.

I used to think so before I had ever been to England, but now I think my pronunciation wouldn’t change much. My accent caused me no communication problems, and it didn’t make me a spectacle, so I doubt I would consciously change anything.

I know there are certain things that I would make a conscious effort not to change. One would be my pronunciation of schedule, since the standard British pronunciation is orthographically and etymologically a bit nonsensical. Consider school, scholar, scheme, schism, schizophrenia, etc. But in a good English word like schlockmeister, I’d certainly pronunce the SCH as “sh”.

Because it reminds us of people we find comical, such as the queen of England, English butlers, mad scientists in movies, and of course Austin Powers, international man of mystery.

Plenty of native and non-native speakers have mixed pronunciations, they have no communication problems, and nobody really cares about it. Issues like that are mainly in the imagination of foreign pedagogues.

It’s interesting that you find HM the Queen of Canada comical. And would you recommend people not to capitalise the word ‘queen’ when referring to the sovereign of a nation?

I hope that you’re correct. It just makes it all easier for people who’re trying to learn English. Gimson, for one, did not recommend students to switch between accents when learning English pronunciation. (I’m sure the name rings a bell by now.) And please take into account that I’m familiar only with the fourth edition of Gimson’s “An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English”. So if you choose to post any further questions somewhere else regarding Gimson, you should be aware of my limited knowledge about later editions of Gimson’s work. Gimson used to be a hugely important British phonetician.

Do you think that a British accent gives rise to conversational problems to Britons settling down in the US? If not, why would there be any need of neutralising a British accent for such speakers (apart from changing pronunciations that some people find humorous, of course)?

I haven’t mentioned it before, but I find it bizarre that you refer to the queen of England as “Her Majesty” even though you’re not a British subject. It is as strange as it would be to hear a Buddhist monk calling the Virgin Mary “Our Blessed Mother”.

You have to admit that the queen of England can be comical. She has that accent, she wears those funny hats (which also looked funny on Princess Diana, poor girl), etc. Plus, she didn’t have to do anything to achieve her exalted position, other than be born. This always makes me think of royalty as a sort of livestock.

I see that my favorite style manual says you should capitalize the titles of national or international officials when they follow or replace their names. I just prefer not to do it most of the time, although I do capitalize the title Hizzoner for mayors I don’t like.

Here we go with Gimson again. I’m glad to see that you said he used to be a hugely important phonetician. He’s been dead a long time, you know. By the way, do you happen to believe that every word of the Bible is literally true as written? That Lot’s wife literally did turn into a pillar of salt, etc.? Do you believe everything you read in the New York Times? I’m just trying to probe your general mentality and figure out why you have this Bible-thumping acceptance of Gimson. It really is strange.

I would be delighted if my students could switch between a British and American accent, or between an Irish and Australian one, for that matter. I would encourage it. Alas, every student I have ever had has had the accent of his own nation, not a native accent.

Well, it depends on the British accent. If it’s a heavy Yorkshire dialect, yes. If it’s RP or some other more general accent, no. A Scotsman speakng standard English with a Scottish accent is also well understood.

However, speakers of very conservative RP have a tendency to use spelling pronunciations of foreign words, such as pronouncing the word Byzantine as [baiz?ntain] or Nicaragua as [nikeregyuwa], which would be very confusing to us. We tend to use an etymological pronunciation of such words here, and in the US this kind of spelling pronunciation is considered indicative of a low literacy level, and not of erudition.

People’s accents change just from their being around other accents. Most people are not as self-conscious about their accents as you are, and their accents will drift toward those of the people around them without their knowing it.

One common result of this is the accents of the “General American” speakers you usually hear on the recordings that come with British ESL textbooks. When we hear them, we usually think, “Whoa! She’s been in England a long time!” They never really sound right.

One of my friends had a slight German accent for a while when she came home from a year in Germany.


Sorry, as I am slightly sluggish I’d like to start from the starting mark :slight_smile:

I agree with both points.
As many people can’t stand themselves being impolite and unpleasant, they avoid uncomfortable situations, even the possibility of it.
Others are ready to be impolite :), but too often consider correction as being too painful for you. And then also too uncomfortable for them, for their empathy.

One of my classmates – a Chilean woman – have been living in the UK for 5 years, her husband is a native British man, her vocabulary (and fluency in speaking) are now quite good, but her grammar is awful. As her loving husband never corrects her.
He did allowed her just to get used to using her improper and childish English grammar despite her permanent asking “Correct me, please!”
He just says, “I understand quite well and I don’t like to upset you.” You!!!

This technique works well indeed, and not only in language learning practice.
I’d just like to note that in this case ‘humiliation’ of the teacher is conditional and slightly ‘toy’, because it’s completely under control of the teacher, it’s not painful for the teacher’s ego becasue he/she still keeps for herself/himself the parent’s position. Being so skillful and mature to play teacher’s role so flexibly and edible for too vulnerable learners.