Friday, November 28, 2014

Adorkable and Hangry?

As an English teacher - and one who teaches to non-native speakers of English, I am often struck by words that are seemingly "invented" by speakers every year.  I often wonder whether these words sometimes crop up as slips of the tongue. For example, years ago, I remember meeting and talking with a very distinguished French professor in social science (Professor Bruno Latour) while he was at UCSD.  I was very nervous and excited to meet him, so as I was describing my observations at a symposium on chimpanzees, instead of saying "chimpanzee symposium," I said "chimposium." As soon as I said the word, he laughed and thought it was quite clever. In fact, the new word was what came out of my mouth as a result of being nervous and speaking quickly. I've used the word subsequently, of course, and it's possible that the term might have spread in our community of anthropologists, primatologists, and sociologists of science to refer to subsequent gatherings of chimpanzee experts. In fact, I found the word was invented and used more recently here with a slightly different meaning..

There is a TED talk that discusses neologisms such as adorkable and hangry (the title of this article) and how they become "real" words. The topic was especially intriguing to me because of my own memorable innovation (it's possible that many others have made that same slip of the tongue, however).  Because of that phenomenon, I can easily imagine words like "adorkable" (an adorable dork?) and "hangry" (simultaneous feeling of being hungry and angry) slipping out of someone's mouth while trying to describe their feelings of being both hungry and angry. I can also imagine listeners' approval and recognition of an imaginative new word and of it spreading from that one listener and speaker to his or her community and beyond. Ann Curzan doesn't address the "invention" of words such as "adorkable" and "hangry," but because of my own experience, I believe that sometimes new words or usages of words come into being as productions of some natural wiring in the brain that produces these combination words. In fact, an article about slips of the tongue and Freudian slips delves into this phenomenon and how these expressions can easily get picked up by an internet-wired community of speakers. I never tire of learning about language.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Was that a choice or a yes/no question?

Sometimes students have great difficulty understanding the importance of intonation when speaking. When a question has an "or" in the middle of it between two nouns, is the speaker asking you to choose between the two nouns, or is the speaker simply asking a yes/no question?

By changing the intonation of these two questions, a native speaker can differentiate between these two types of question. Can you say the questions below using two different intonations so that the meanings are different? 

Do you want to go to a movie or watch TV? (Choice)
Do you want to go to a movie or watch TV? (Yes/No)

In the choice question, the answer should be either "a movie" or "TV." However, in the Yes/No question above, the response should be "yes" or "no." Listen to the following videos to get an idea of what a choice question sounds like and how it is different from a "yes/no" question in intonation. The most important concept to keep in mind is the rising and falling intonation.

In a choice question, the voice goes up on the first choice and falls on the second choice as illustrated below.
                                 Q:  Do you want to go to a movie ⤴ or watch TV ⤵ ?
                                 A:  I'd like to watch a movie.

However, in a yes/no question, the voice goes up at the end of the question.
                                 Q:  Do you want to go to a movie or watch TV ⤴ ? 
                                  A: Yes. Let's do something relaxing.

If you have problems understanding the difference between the two types of question, listen to the examples and practice. Then practice some more. You should also record yourself using a device like Try to approximate the pronunciation of the people in the videos. Have fun!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Spelling Matters

The word "matters" has a double meaning here. (However, matter actually has more than two meanings or uses.) One meaning in this post is that spelling is important (i.e., matters is used as a verb to mean it has significance or importance).  The other refers to the topic of this essay, Spelling Matters (i.e., issues, problems or difficulties).

Convincing students that spelling is important in English is a daily song and dance, especially in writing classes. Why do I care that students learn to spell words correctly? With word checkers built into Word software, why should anyone care?

Amazingly, many tests of English (the Cambridge Exams, IELTS (International English Language Testing System), SAT writing, AP writing, and so on) require test-takers to write by hand. Even if you take the internet-based TOEFL exam, there is no spell-checker on the test computers. In other words, the test candidate must demonstrate his/her skill in writing in English without a dictionary or spell-checking device on the computer. They are not allowed to bring any electronic equipment (e.g., cell phones, iPods, etc.) into the testing area. One letter can create a huge or embarrassing difference in meaning or perception: "mad vs. made," "sit" vs. "set," "to" vs. "too," "read" vs. "red," and on and on. Whether you are a native or a non-native speaker of English, mastery of spelling is a mountain we must all climb to become literate communicators.

I, like many others, fall into the group of educators that believes that spelling counts. Last year Loewenstein wrote a thought-provoking blog post for Edutopia which posed the question "What would happen if you were to eliminate subjects in your classroom?" That is, instead of labeling what students learn in school as "spelling," "reading," "writing," "math," and "science," why don't we focus on projects-based learning, which integrates all the skills that students need to communicate in the real world? 

While I'm not sure that eliminating the label "spelling" as a topic or subject of concern in school would make it any less of a pain for poor spellers, developing the habit of correct spelling does make a lot of sense. Similarly, it makes sense to learn how to add and subtract correctly. That means not being sloppy or lazy whenever you make any kind of financial transaction. When you enter an amount to withdraw from or depost to your checking account at the ATM, don't you pay attention to how many zeros you type in? The ATM doesn't have a checker for you? In the same way, sending an e-mail message to a work colleague can have a very strong negative or confusing effect if you misspell a word or leave words out. If you spell a word that exists in English, a spell checker isn't going to catch a mistake, so you can easily confuse a reader.

In a previous post, I published a photograph of a headline of the wrong word choice printed in the San Diego Union Tribune. However, when I searched for a link to the newspaper's online version, the headline had already been changed. My only proof of this public gaffe is the photograph. While this error was not a simple spelling error, it highlights the significance of word choice and word form as well as spelling. Living in a society with a written language system necessitates being careful about spelling and the words we choose to express ourselves. Words matter, and so do their spellings.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

SAT Writing vs. TOEFL Writing

The big news for educators this year has been that the College Board is redoing its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) by eliminating the writing requirement in 2016. Is this a good thing? Will this de-emphasis on writing have an effect on ETS's Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)?

More than a decade ago, ETS (Educational Testing Service), which also makes the SAT, decided to create an online internet-based TOEFL (iBT - Test of English as a Foreign Language). In my view, this change was a vast improvement over the paper-based test as it included compulsory speaking and writing components. Before the iBT, I saw many of my Asian students proudly achieve the score of 450+ gain admission to local California community colleges. Later, however, I discovered that many of these same students were still taking ESL courses. Why? Although the paper-based TOEFL was supposedly their passport to entrance into and success in an American college, they found out subsequently that they had little ability to produce academic-level spoken or written English. The old paper-based TOEFL was not a great predictor of success for these non-natives in an American college system.

Not only were these students challenged to understand lectures in English, but they had to summarize and verbally restate in writing what they had heard in lectures. The skills that they needed to be successful at an American college were not just the passive skills (reading, listening, and structure/grammar) that they were tested on in the Paper-Based TOEFL (PBT). They needed to be able to produce English - not just recognize meanings or do error correction. They had to be able to rethink what they heard or read and interpret meanings. With almost no or little preparation or training for this approach to learning, they remained stuck in remedial ESL classes. With the advent of the iBT, many of these foreign students found a purpose to learning to be active producers of English.

It makes no sense to eliminate writing as a component of the SAT unless there is some other way to verify a college applicant's capabilities to produce English. Doing a timed written test in English is different from submitting a prepared statement of purpose for admission. This latter document was likely read and edited by multiple friends, family members, and paid tutors - and may not be an indicator of how a student will fare under college test conditions. Why is ETS planning to eliminate an important measure of the productive and critical thinking abilities of native English speakers while demanding measurable performances from non-native speakers on the iBT (internet-based TOEFL)?

Though I admit to preferring more creative writing in high school, I was grateful in the end that my 11th grade English teacher worked my class hard, so that the five paragraph essay was almost reflexive by the time I was a freshman at UCLA. I passed the Subject A exam of those days and was able to enroll in a required English course from my first quarter. The former "Subject A exam" still exists at UCSD, for example, in the form of The Entry Level Writing Requirement. Students who do not achieve at least one of several entry-level writing composition scores must take a composition course (for which they earn no credit toward their future degree) and pass an exam. An ESL instructor who teaches this composition course at UCSD through Mesa College told me that if a student fails the end of quarter writing exam, (s)he must repeat the course until a passing mark is reached.

As much as I am against the teach-to-a-test approach to education, if high school students know that colleges require a writing score from the SAT, they will prepare for it with the guidance of their teachers. This practice alone may send a message to all (i.e., parents, students, teachers, administrators) that critical thinking clearly expressed in writing matters.

For a supporting view, please check out this Washington Post commentary. For a broader view of the elimination of the writing component of the SAT, read Inside Higher Ed's news brief.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Assessing Grammar through Speaking

Recently I taught a course in high intermediate grammar. One of the SLOs (student learning objectives) was "Students will be able to ... produce in writing and speaking... [certain structures, such as present perfect with question formation and basic subject-verb agreement]." It is relatively straightforward to assess for grammatical structures in a writing assignment, but how does one objectively assess the "natural" production of certain structures in a speaking task? You can have students give prepared presentations, but this is somewhat "unnatural" in my view. What I would want to know if I were an English student is whether or not I can control certain structures in a "normal" conversational situation.

To get students to practice target structures in a conversation mode, I gave pairs of students a game board, with die. They also received a speaking rubric for the task so that they could see what they were being evaluated on. The game board has more than 50 squares with the base form of both regular and irregular verbs in each square.

Below you can preview the rubric and directions and decide if you like it before going to the pdf file link above. You can also see the game board which uses a bogglesworld's board template, which I like a lot. I modified slightly with with my own words.

Target Features
Present perfect (questions, statements, short answer)

Subject-verb agreement (singular/plural)

Simple past (question formation, statements)

Irregular verbs (present perfect and simple past)

Pronunciation of -ed endings (present perfect and simple past)

Name___________________                                                                       Score______/20

PRESENT PERFECT (questions, short answer, statements in positive/negative):
4 = Error-free use and production of the structures
3 = Occasional errors in use and production of structures
2 = Frequent errors in use and production of structures    
1 = Lacks control of use and production of structures

4 = Always follows rules of subject-verb agreement
3 = Occasional errors in subject-verb agreement
2 = Frequent subject-verb agreement errors
1 = Almost no control of subject-verb agreement

SIMPLE PAST (Wh-Q, statements)
4 = Error-free use of the structures
3 = Occasional errors in use of structures
2 = Frequent errors in use of structures                
1 = Lacks control of structures

IRREGULAR VERBS (present perfect and simple past):
4 = Error-free use of the structures
3 = Occasional errors in use of structures
2 = Frequent errors in use of structures                
1 = Lacks control of structures

PRONUNCIATION OF -ed ENDINGS (present perfect and simple past):
4 = Error-free pronunciation of verb endings
3 = Occasional errors in pronunciation of verb endings
2 = Frequent errors in pronunciation of verb endings       
1 = Lacks control of pronunciation of verb endings

A Verb Game board** was used to elicit questions and responses in present perfect and simple past.  Students practiced for part of one period and "played" again the following meeting. They needed to practice "yes/no" questions in present perfect, short answers, and follow up wh-questions in the simple past. Answers to the wh-questions needed to use the simple past form of the verb in the original question. The paired speaking activity was recorded and rated for accuracy in use and production of target structures (about 2.5 to 3 minutes). 

**A partial view of the game board is attached at the bottom. It is not in landscape format. I printed boards and handed out dice for students to share for this activity.  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Video Illustrating Multiple Meanings

There's a new post at my sister blog Picturing English which has a link to a great video. It has been linked multiple times, but apparently is a creation of RadioLabs. You can also find this same video and a worksheet here at EFL Classroom 2.0 .  In the version at EFL Classroom 2.0, the owner of the site modified the original video slightly to eliminate what he considered images inappropriate for school-age children, such as the raised middle finger drawn on a whiteboard. That image is included in the original form at the Picturing English site, so you have a choice of video versions.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Spanish words that have no English equivalence

As an ESL (English as a second language) instructor, I often tell my students to avoid using translating dictionaries and to try understanding new English words by learning synonyms, paying attention to context, and by listening to or reading lots of examples from native speakers.

The Huffington Post recently came out with a list of Spanish words for which there may be no single comparable English word.  Since I'm not bilingual, I can only trust that the translations to English are as close as possible to the meaning of the words in Spanish. As with English, the main problem of providing a single definition for these Spanish words is that other meanings are possible, e.g., sobremesa (could be a tablecloth or dessert). The most common usage of a word is usually the only one provided in paperback translating dictionaries. Even when searching online for definitions in English, there are many dictionaries and definitions to choose from. Language is very much a reflection of culture (previously touched on here), so it's not surprising that there may be no single word equivalence between languages. Translation always requires interpretation of one culture's vocabulary into the standard of another. If Facebook is any indicator of how far we have to go with translating apps, we still have a looong way to go with non-European languages such as Arabic, Korean, and Japanese.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Teaching Sarcasm in English

When teaching intermediate-level students how to become better listeners, we often advise them to listen for differences in intonation or word choice that might signal meanings that are different from the dictionary definition of the words themselves. Learning to make inferences or to infer meaning from the way people express themselves in a foreign language can be daunting.

Some of my students who don't recognize the word sarcasm have difficulties understanding it from a written definition, so besides using examples from their textbook, Listening Power 3, I offer them some free online examples linked to my wiki. It is helpful for students to be able to listen to audio tracks or video examples outside of class.

The first one here is from the BBC's Learning English website. It gives a student some insight into English or British culture and a few audio examples of what sarcasm sounds like. The next is a link to a popular American TV series called The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). In this segment of an episode, one of the main characters Sheldon is trying to learn what sarcasm is. This video clip reinforces the explanation given by the BBC.

Personally, I'm not a fan of sarcasm as it was not part of my personal background. I didn't encounter it much until I was in high school. As explained in the BBC Learning English track, not every culture uses sarcasm as a form of humor. When dealing with non-native speakers, especially, but also with native speakers of English who you don't know well, be careful about using sarcasm. If the person you are interacting with doesn't know that you're being ironic or sarcastic, (s)he could misunderstand you and be hurt by your words. Sarcasm when aimed at a person unfamiliar with this form of communication can feel like an insult or a put down.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Word Forms Matter

Last year, UCSD psychology professor Christopher Bryan reported a fascinating finding about word forms and behavior. In an experiment exploring adults' responses to the verb use of "cheat" and the noun form of cheat referring to the person who cheats or "cheater," Dr. Bryan found that when people were directed "not to cheat" or advised "please don't cheat," they were more likely to cheat than if they were advised "not to be a cheater." Here is a link to the abstract of the research report. 

More recently, in a collaborative study, Professor Bryan worked with a team focusing on word choice and effects on behavior in young children. Similarly, experimenters were able to get child subjects to help more often by asking them to be "helpers" rather than to "help." Findings such as this lead me to believe that we need to be more attentive than before to the word choices and more specifically, word forms, that we use to promote ethical behavior in our students. It would be interesting to know if the same effects apply to non-native speakers of a language as to native speakers. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The meanings of "date"

As part of my series of posts about WMMs (words with multiple meanings), I am now adding to my sister blog, Picturing English. There, whenever possible, I will provide photos, drawings, or clipart to illustrate the multiple meanings of a word. This provides a language learner with another way to acquire vocabulary so that it sticks to her/his long-term memory.

In the classroom, I often act out words. Former students have told me that a word "stuck" because of my "act" or visual illustration of it. Ultimately, that's the goal of language teachers - getting the language to stick!

Most of the words or expressions that I remember from Spanish, French, Japanese, and Quechua classes taken decades ago are those that are associated in my mind with events or images of people or a context in which I used or understood the language. I have no memories of words that I wrote on a page or a flashcard - even though I did use those tools for studying and improving my foreign language skills. Maybe those methods work best for short-term memory building.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Language and Thought ("Futured" and "Futureless" Languages)

Back in the 20th century before laptops, smart phones, and the Internet dominated student lives, I took my first course in anthropology. Since that time, I have been fascinated by the concept of cultural relativism and Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic relativism (or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which views language as a cultural construct that shapes our thoughts and the way in which we view the world.

The academic debate about the influence of language on thought goes back at least a few centuries, and the discussion continues to pop up and to cause me to reflect on my English teaching practices.Students are often confused when they try to translate English into their own language or when they seek a word in English from their native tongue. Sometimes there isn't an equivalent concept, term, or item that exists in both languages. Most translating dictionaries do not show the range of usages of a single word in another language, so how far should I go in explaining to students that when they enter another language, their thinking and behavior might change?

Last year, I ran across this TED blog post and talk which made me pause to think more globally about human language, the English I teach, the vocabulary that enters American English from other languages, and the grammatical rules that continue to be broken and change as my American English becomes a species of English.

The findings of Keith Chen presented in this TED talk are provocative. (The published paper related to the talk is accessible here for free.) Chen's long-term research and surveys provide some compelling evidence to support the view that something basic like the existence of a future tense or lack of one can result in noticeable and measurable differences in behavior. Patterns of saving, for example, are correlated with the existence of a future tense. Wow!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Another Reason Why Grammar Matters

Recently Wall Street Journal (WJ) published an interesting analysis by Redfin and Grammarly on the effects of spelling and grammatical errors on real estate listings. Apparently, "typos and missing commas can slow sales and drag down prices" (WSJ, M12, Friday May 9, 2014).

One of the VPs (vice presidents) at Redfin infers that potential buyers view a realtor who is attentive to the details in his/her real estate listings as someone who will also handle sales carefully. By the same token, a sloppily written listing could signal a "potentially sloppy transaction" (WSJ, M12, May 9, 2014).

For English teachers searching for real-life examples of why grammar matters, this is a great instance of the impact good or poor grammar can have on people's lives in real economic terms.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Beat It," "Eat It," and "West Side Story"

To teach students the concept of parody along with count and noncount nouns, students first listened to a young Michael Jackson singing and dancing to "Beat It " (1982) Then they watched Weird Al Yankovic in a video parody called "Eat It" (1984).  Students examined the lyrics (or words) to Weird Al's song, examining nouns for countability. It was difficult at times to understand the food references without knowing brand names such as Captain Crunch, Raisin Bran, and Spam.  Much more could have been done with this song in a literature or reading class, and I hope I'll have a chance to try the materials again with another high intermediate or advanced level group.

***You can also go back in movie history and watch an excerpt from "West Side Story" (1961) which the Michael Jackson dance video seems to parody.  There are other excerpts which seem relevant to "Beat It", such as the scene where Tony tries to break up the fight between two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The scene parallels Michael Jackson's role in "Beat It," except Michael, of course, is able to get the two gangs to dance out their hostility.  

Friday, April 11, 2014

Funny Translations from Chinese to English

The hardest thing to convey to students, especially lower level ESL students, is not to use a translating dictionary to write in English. Here are some very funny examples of signs (you may need to click on the replay button for Gallery after you get to the first photo) that obviously don't say what was meant. Most (all?) of them are apparently mistranslations or literal translations from Chinese to English. We hope that no one was injured by following some of the directions.

Even though there may be some pretty good translating programs online, creating signs are a challenge even to native speakers. To avoid this kind of comedic representation of English, it is essential to have a native speaker of English or a bilingual bi-cultural speaker of Chinese and English verify the spelling and meanings of signs before they go up in public. I have no doubt that Americans translate to other languages in the same fashion as the Chinese. As I pointed out here, we don't even make signs very comprehensible to our own people.

I hope that we can, however, all enjoy the many colorful Englishes used around the world and appreciate the effort that non-native speakers of English (who far outnumber us native speakers of English!) make to apply or master our tongue.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pronunciation of Minimal Pairs /p/ and /b/ (initial and final positions)

When teaching pronunciation to intermediate level students, you have to find some balance between giving them the information they need to produce certain sounds and finding a fun way to practice those sounds a lot in class. Here are some of the resources that I used and created to help my students, primarily Arabic speakers, distinguish between /p/ and /b/ in both initial and final position.

A game that was fun and successful is a variation on Go Fish, where students try to match cards with identical words written on them. That is, instead of asking if someone has any "Queens", the student asks a partner if (s)he has the word "PUB." If the student asked has the card with "PUB" written on it, (s)he gives the card to the student asking questions.  If the student being asked does not have the word, "PUB", the other student must draw a card from stack of cards that were not passed out.  Below is a photo of some of the cards I made up. I printed the words on an Avery label sheets. I stuck the words on old playing cards. You can often get these as give-aways from local casinos. Students liked playing with cards that looked like actual playing cards.

I used words from this minimal pair list. Students had a chance to practice the words on the list two days earlier. As with all card games, there is some time investment on the part of the teacher making them, but once she has the game(s), she can use it (them) repeatedly.  I also made another set of Go Fish cards using the images and words from this site (= a very useful site with lots of written and visual materials put together by a speech pathologist). Finally, you can have students practice pronouncing the sounds outside of class with YouTube video links, such as this one.  More advanced level students can also practice learning all the sounds of English using the phonemic alphabet.

It is also possible to use these same cards to do vowel contrasts (e.g., "cap" and "cup").  When students had played a few round of Go Fish, they also could play a game of Concentration or Memory using the same cards or a subset of the cards. I also showed my students a link to an audio version of Concentration for practicing pronunciation.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Fancier the House, the Fancier the Words to Describe It

One of the areas of greatest interest to me in teaching ESL is vocabulary.  English is an incredibly rich language with the largest lexicon of any language in the world, and everyday people everywhere are affected by words, especially printed words.

Last year Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a brief article about a study on the language used by real estate agents to describe property.  One of the interesting findings was that the more expensive the house, the greater the number of characters were spent on describing the property.  Another way to look at it is that the fancier the house, the longer are the words (or the more words) used to describe it.  Just look at any real estate section of the newspaper!

Read some descriptions of mansions or luxury homes in San Diego and compare a $1,000,000 home with a $400,000 house. You can use the Word Count Tool to see if you can observe the pattern highlighted in WSJ. My observation just now is that I experienced a negative reaction when I compared a million dollar home with one for less than half that price because the description of the two houses, in this case, did not differ at all in number of characters. In fact, I had the feeling described below.

If there isn't a lot written about the million dollar home, a prospective buyer might suspect that it has a major drawback or shortcoming. In fact, Mark Liberman (Linguistics professor at University of Pennsylvania) is quoted in the article saying, "Given that all the descriptions of better properties are full of these empty-enthusiasm words, it might be interpreted by readers as an indication of problems if they're absent."  

We are definitely influenced by words, so it's good to be aware of all the power - indeed, 'empty-enthusiasm' words - wielded by marketers in every realm of sales.

Luxury apartments for monkeys at San Diego Zoo

Here are some popular high-end words for million dollar homes or to make a less costly house sound like a wonderful buy: exquisite finishes, luxuries/luxurious, expansive, gleaming hardwood floors, sea-view terraces, remodeled/updated to perfection, stunning.  If you want to grow your vocabulary of rich language, it's all around you. You can even find it by checking out real estate listings!  

Thursday, March 13, 2014

More Really Funny English!

Some of you may have seen this set of 31 photos trending on Facebook. If you haven't yet, I hope you enjoy these very funny English translations of Chinese. As with most humor, explaining and analyzing the translation may destroy its hilarity. You'll know that you understood a sign correctly if you are chuckling to yourself or sometimes holding your sides from laughing so hard. Always keep your sense of humor.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Build Vocabulary with Signs

Here's a link to Picturing English for a look at a way to raise your vocabulary to an advanced level, even if you're a native speaker! Wherever you stop along the road or highway, keep your eyes open for signs full of new words. If you find a cool sign, please send it on to me here at Many Englishes or Picturing English.  I'll post it for all.  Enjoy the rest stop!  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Bending Motion or a Vending Machine?

I am teaching a low intermediate pronunciation class and trying to impress upon my students the importance of syllable stress in English.  The concept is not obvious for them because if you're a Spanish speaker, the syllable stress is marked with an accent over the vowel. In Japanese, syllables are not stressed.  That is a problem for me when I'm in Japan because I am Japanese by blood, but I am third-generation American Japanese. English is my first tongue, so when I speak Japanese, it is hard for me to eliminate the tendency to stress, for example, the second syllable of America (when I identify myself as amerikajin). Unless students go out into the world and are misunderstood by native speakers, they don't ever quite grasp how syllable stress can lead a native speaker to make a wrong inference. 
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Bending MOtion

Recently, a non-English-speaking San Diegan asked for help at the public library. My son was working at the front counter and was stumped by the question. The man asked for a bending motion  /'bɛndiŋ 'moʃən/.  My son and another library patron tried to make sense of the query, but because the man mispronounced the 'b' for a 'v' and put the stress on the first syllable of the second word, the image of someone bending came to mind. It made no sense, so the listeners continued to ask for clarification. At that point, the Korean man's face turned red. Rather than repeat himself a third time, the man was able to explain that he wanted to buy a bottle of water.  
Vending maCHINE

Suddenly, the other patron and my son understood the object of the man's query - a vending machine /'vɛndiŋ mə'ʃin/.  I explained to my class that even with a mispronunciation of the first part of the word ("mo" instead of "ma"), if the man had put the stress on the second syllable of motion and said, "moTION," the native speakers might have understood the target word as "machine."  A little knowledge about the importance of syllable stress can go a long way toward anticipating and resolving problems of miscommunication. When learning a new word or new expressions, always listen to where the stress falls in the word or phrase.