Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Theory vs. Practice

There are two things you need to know about me.

(Well, there are a million things you should know about me, should you care to know me, but for the sake of this particular and specific post, only two shall do.)

1. I love linguistics more than I love literature. And I love literature.

2. I am firm believer in learning the theory first before applying such theory in practice. I mean, you need to know before you do.


I'm taking a phonetics class in my university. I love it. My professor is brilliant, and I particularly love the fact that I'm the only one among my classmates who has ever taken a phonetics class before - so I get to show off and ask questions like, "Is that a Schwa, or simply a weak e-sound?" or, "That's a bilabial sound," or "My gosh, that is clearly fricative!"... and I actually know what I'm talking about. And I am actually right. My teacher is so impressed. He gives me candy every time I score - which is not often, my participating, that is, because I want my collegues to participate as well, you know? I am magnanimous like that. We try to dumb down our private conversations, so that my classmates - my poor classmates who have never before had the pleasure of learning linguistics - can follow us and perhaps understand.

I don't have a problem. I know the difference between [ε] and [e] and [æ]. In fact, I know there is a difference. theory.

In theory, I know the [ε] is completely different from the [e] and from the [æ], because you position your tongue in a completely different part of your palate; and you open your mouth wider for one more so than for the others; and I know which sound goes with which tongue and mouth position! theory.

Because when you ask me to actually pronounce these sounds... well...

...they all end up sounding like a plain, normal e.

I am completely unable to make the sounds sound different! And I do everything right: I place my tongue in the precise spot, I open my mouth wide enough, I let just enough air through my vocal chords... but I am still unable to make the sounds differ. In fact (to make this even more embarrassing), I am unable to make either of the sounds properly in German! You see, in Spanish we have one sound for the letter /e/: [e]. That's it: you smile wide, the back part of your tongue goes up to meet your palate, and you blow lightly, as if saying the first sound in "elephant" or "elegant" - one simple /e/. Never short, never long; never weak, always strong. The Germans have 4 different sounds for the /e/, and I am able to make only one: the one that sounds like the Spanish /e/ - which is, of course, the one the Germans most seldom use.

Oh, well. At least I know the theory. At least I know the Germans have 4 different sounds. At least I know, theoretically, how to sound these sounds (even if only in my mind). At least I know there is a difference (even if I can't always hear it, or say it). At least...

...well, at least I know what this means. Right?

So what if I say "berry" /b[ε:]rѳn/ and people understand "bears" /b[æ:]rѳn/? It will make for interesting stories to share.


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