Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Teaching and (Not Necessarily) Learning

As a linguistics student in the UK, I was one of a handful in my class who could produce every single sound on the IPA (International Phonetic Association) chart. After all, being able to pronounce (if not necessarily speak) English, Singlish, Mandarin, Teochew, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil, German, Italian and French does widen one’s phonetic repertoire considerably. Not knowing Zulu, Xhosa, Hausa, Swahili, Luganda or any other African language, however, meant a big gap in that knowledge. The sound I found hardest to do was the ingressive click; and I am not sure if I ever mastered the voiced fricative ‘r’ (Czech ř, I believe).

The British have a reputation for being monoglots, and my classmates didn’t disappoint. Try as he could, one of my friends couldn’t pronounce the rounded front vowel /y/ (in Mandarin Chinese qu ‘region/song/go’; French brut ‘rough/raw’; German Küh ‘cow’). This prompted our professor to ask, ‘Didn’t you learn French in school?’ To which my friend blithely replied, ‘Well, I was taught it!’

He had no recollection of the episode when I mentioned it to him a few years later, but said it must have been a rare moment of lucidity. Anyhow, this drives home the importance of teachers taking time to reflect: ‘Yes, I have taught — but did they learn?’

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