Thursday 14 April 2011

Instant English?

Last Monday I paid a quick visit to Feltrinelli International, one of Italy’s most famous bookstore chains, comparable to Waterstone’s in the UK. As its name suggests, it sells books in many different languages, including Italian, English, French, German, Spanish, and Russian.
Walking around the English section I found a shelf entirely devoted to Instant English by one John Peter Sloan, a book aimed at Italians who want to learn (or improve their) English by means of funny exercises. The book in question also has a website, with information related to its contents as well as videos showing the author “in action”. John Peter Sloan, as the site puts it, is an English teacher who started his career as a frontman in the rock band The Max. He then travelled across Europe until he settled in Italy, a country he adores. Today he is a singer, a comedian, an actor, as well as a teacher of English.
In one of his videos posted on YouTube, he claims that his book is the only one in Italy that can make you learn English “instantly”. Coursebooks like those published by Oxford or Cambridge are – in his opinion – only for English native speakers, not for EFL students, as they are usually written in English rather than in the students’ L1. Italians, he claims, need teachers who can speak to them in Italian rather than in English, as they don’t seem to understand the grammar or vocabulary they learn in class. An English mother-tongue speaker who can speak very good Italian is rare, he stresses at some point during the video – “I am probably the only one!”, he snobbishly concludes.
He then goes on to say that what Italians really need is master what he calls “the Anglo-Saxon family” (?), that is verbs like get, put, set, do. English, he says, is a simple and concise language in which words tend to repeat themselves again and again. That’s why, if you want to improve it, you don’t need a dictionary but Instant English, as all the essential vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation rules you may require are contained in it.
Well, I’m not going to make any comments on these absurd claims, as I suppose our author/teacher/singer/actor... whatever, wouldn’t be able to understand them. What I AM going to say, though, is that his Italian sounds just horrible and that there is no sentence he utters without a single mistake.
But as this is essentially a phonetic blog and not usually one dedicated to linguistics at large, I’m going to concentrate on another video of Sloan’s. In it he describes and explains those sounds that Italians tend to find difficult to pronounce. And this, too, as you can imagine, contains a cartload of rubbish which I just cannot not comment upon.
Towards the beginning of the clip, Mr Sloan states that, unlike Italian, syllable-initial consonant clusters zn-, zl- are not possible in English. Fair enough. Snow is snəʊ and snake is sneɪk. But saying that orthographic ‘s’ is always pronounced as in Italian serpente seɾˈpɛnte is totally absurd. Also, pronouncing snow Italian-style znəʊ or znoː rather than RP snəʊ doesn’t usually cause any breakdown in communication. In my view, there are more important pronunciation features Italians need to pay attention to (for example the difference between short and lax ɪ and long and tense ).
Another nonsensical statement is about the phoneme t. Mr Sloan asserts that English people usually misunderstand Italians when they pronounce the word time. That’s because, he explains, the ‘t’ is different: in Italian the t phoneme is dental, whereas in English it is alveolar. (In the video he doesn’t actually use any of these phonetic terms, but viewers are led to think this is what he means by the way he tries to articulate the t’s in the two languages.) So English native speakers, he concludes, interpret time as dime due to the different places of articulation. Wrong! It’s the absence of aspiration of the t in Italian (aspiration to which he later refers as “attack”) that makes English native speakers interpret as d.
And what about English ‘r’? Well, our teacher says that in English there is no phoneme r (= alveolar trill), only ɹ (= postalveolar approximant), and that in words like water, answer, and river the final ‘r’ is never pronounced. That’s obviously untrue: try and ask General American, Scottish and West Country English speakers! Also, in pronouncing English ɹ your tongue is not “curved at the bottom of your mouth”, as he puts it.
Finally, we come on to the phonemes ð and ə ɜː. The former is defined as being pronounced “con la nota di voce” (“with a note of voice”?) and is the one we find in the phrase the man. According to Mr Sloan, pronouncing this expression Italian-style d̪ə ˈman is “terrible”, but he probably doesn’t know that in Irish English t̪ d̪ are pretty much common for θ ð. Then, the schwas (long and short) are called “il uomo morendo” (“the dying man” – correct Italian would be “l’uomo morente”), as these are the sounds sick or injured people are thought to produce when they’re on the point of passing away. (?)
All these false and inaccurate statements about the English language and the way it is pronounced just leave me speechless and make me express doubts about the quality of most English native-speaker teachers in Italy. The overwhelming majority of these people have no qualification in linguistics whatsoever but are nonetheless the first ones to be employed in universities and schools throughout the country on the grounds that they are ‘better’ than non-natives.
Well, if the quality delivered by these English mother-tongue speaker teachers in this country is comparable to the one we find in Instant English, honestly I prefer those non-native speakers who are very much aware of the fact that NO LANGUAGE is ever learnt instantly!

UPDATE: Here's another video with John Peter Sloan but this time it's in English.


  1. great as usual

  2. it's me Homoud.......I tried all the options to send my earlier comment but all my trials failed. The only way it was sent was by choosing the 'anonymous' option. sorry for this.


  4. I am a qualified mother-tongue English teacher who's retrained as a maths teacher. John Peter Sloane's unqualified bragging and blagging wouldn't get him far in mathematics. Thanks Alex for writing what I've been thinking.

  5. I completely 100% agree.
    Thanks for sharing.