Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Traps for language learners

A lot of the English that people are exposed to here is in the form of katakana, one of the Japanese phonetic syllabaries. This can cause huge problems with pronunciation, because of the different sound systems of English and Japanese. One problem is that words which contain 'th' are rendered into katakana as a syllable containing, instead, 's' or 'z'. If the vict... learner is not aware of the English spelling, he or she will sometimes wonder if it should be a 'th' or an 's', and a wild guess will result in something funny.

Today I was testing students. It was a 'conversation test', in which I graded pairs of students having conversations (or approximations thereof). They were very nervous. Two guys, who don't generally make silly mistakes, had an enthusiastic and highly-strung conversation about soccer. (They were friends, and disagreed about a lot.) The problem arose when early on, one of them became suddenly convinced that it was not soccer but thoccer, and the other one was so nervous and excited that he followed along and uncorrected his own correct pronunciation.

So these two guys went on and on about thoccer, and I sat there trying to keep a straight face and agonizing over whether I should correct them (you're not supposed to in a test, but my tests aren't that serious, are they? I wondered), and I was very tired because it was the end of the day so my mind started to wander, and I suddenly thought: This is my life. This is what it is all about. Sitting around and listening to a couple of katakana English casualties rabbiting on about thoccer. Oh dear. I want to go home.

I waited until they finished and then told them the correct pronunciation. They both immediately claimed they thought so but the other guy started it. A few wild accusations followed, and we all ended up laughing.