Book work not key to language

Becoming fluent in a language is a combination of brain and mouth. In short, your job is to line up the sounds that make up words and then say them in the proper order and with enough speed to have a decent conversation.

Fluent speech has two strange and interesting issues. One is that each sound you start to make affects the sound coming after it. And each sound affects the one before it. This leads to the second issue: the words you study in language class don’t exist outside the book. This is easy to show.

Suppose you want to say, “This is easy to show.” As you begin to say the first word, which is one syllable, the position of your mouth and the pressure you put behind it are affected immediately by the second word, which is also one syllable. In other words, “this” cannot be said without preparing to say “is.” And “is” cannot be said without being affected by the syllable in front of it.

The two words are changed so much in the process that they no longer exist. You might brag about the “A” you made on a vocabulary test, but those vocabulary words are nowhere to be found when they are spoken fluently.

Take a moment and say the word by itself: this. Now say “this is” at a normal rate of speed, and you will see the first word disappear. In your head, you may think it’s still the same word, but an audio analysis will prove it’s not.

All my students are online nowadays, and they know me through prerecorded lessons. To prove to them what I’m writing to you, I show them waveforms of words spoken in isolation and words spoken together. When you hold a conversation at a normal rate of speed, vocabulary words vanish. They are gone.

This happens one sound at a time. Returning to the simple sentence, “This is easy to show,” you might be surprised at what you’re doing all day long when speaking English. You are loading up words one after another and spitting them out as unrecognizable words but as easily recognized distortions. That’s pretty impressive.

The phrase “This is easy” is loaded up in such a way that the end of the first word is affected by the first part of “easy.” Your mouth prepares for that third syllable coming down the road. This truly is amazing performance. You’d never be able to say anything if you had to stop and think through all the sounds, and yet all day long you are talking like a pro.

How does that happen? Through lots and lots and lots of practice, which is why only a very tiny percentage of Americans — most of whom have had plenty of foreign language lessons — cannot talk their way out of a wet paper bag.

It doesn’t matter how many A’s they make in class. It does not matter how many scholarships they get. Without practice, nobody’s any good at language; and with practice, almost everybody becomes very good at it.

Humans are tailor-made for language. Humans are gifted at it. It’s the one thing almost all of them do equally well with practice. But most courses turn language into subject matter that has little relation to the real world.

So the odd challenge is that fluent speech and proper pronunciation involve (1) disappearing words and (2) sounds that change on the run while changing the words they precede and follow.

Makes you wonder how we talk at all.

Max T. Russell is owner of Max and Max Communications and formerly taught Spanish in Southern Hancock schools. You can contact him through his website,