Linguistics

Recent teaching developments: I’ve started teaching “y” as “ee,” and “w” as “oo.” When Kurdish is written in Latin script, “ee” is always conveyed as “y,” and where I’d expect a “u” to go, there’s always a “w.” For instance, the word “short” is written as “Kwrt,” but pronounced “Koort.”
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The kids were (are) having such difficulties reading words not beginning with a liquid consonant (“bag” becomes “buh-ag,” and “dig” becomes “duh-ig,” etc), that I stopped teaching “y” and “w” as “yuh” and “wuh,” as I’d been taught in the US.
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And I’d be damned if they didn’t immediately start reading “wig” and “wet” and “yet” correctly.
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It’s also phonetically difficult for them to hear the different between “a” and “e,” because in Kurdish there’s neither. There’s one sound, written as “e,” which is halfway between a short “a” and a short “e” (writing “a” in Kurdish conveys a long “ahhhhh”). Short “i” is also difficult, because there’s no letter conveying the sound. Although a short “i” is included in Kurdish, it’s spoken to fill the space between consonants, and there’s no actual letter for it. For example, “you need” is written “peweestt” – but spoken as “peweestit.” I’m still getting the hang of when to include a short “i” between the consonants and when to blend them together, but it’s making more sense. The letter “u” is the same as “i” – it’s a space-filler between consonants, and it pronounced exactly the same.
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Kurdish is written in two scripts: modified Arabi and modified Latini. The Arabic script is standardized, and expressed sounds which don’t exist in Arabic or English. There is no standardized Latini script, so it’s often convoluted and difficult to read.
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Last week, I told my co-workers in the infants department about teaching phonics differently to Kurdish kids, specifically concerning “y” and “w.” It was strange – they dismissed this method out of hand, saying that we’re not teaching Kurdish, and anyway the administration says we should teach “y” and “yuh” and “w” as “wuh.” They didn’t hear that “y” is nearly ALWAYS (except for in words like “thyme,” where it’s pronounced like the word “eye”)¬†pronounced “ee,” and that “yuh” is actually a composite of two phonemes: “ee” and “uh.” Same with “w” – it’s ALWAYS “oo.” But, as English speakers, we haven’t been trained to think of “w” as “oo,” so we don’t hear it.
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Now, I’m not a linguist, so if any of you have evidence to support or disprove these theories, please offer it! I’m just showing what I’ve observed, particularly since coming to Kurdistan. I’m just discovering how much I love languages, and dissecting them and looking at all the parts, and then rearranging them. I’m passionate about languages but all my knowledge of linguistics has been pulled from the study of separate languages: English, Spanish, Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew, Polish, and Kurdish. I’ve never had a formal course in linguistics, so many of my conclusions may be off the mark. On the other hand, I’m not completely hindered by someone else’s view of linguistics, so I might notice things others don’t, particularly concerning Kurdish which is a largely un-researched language. The Kurdish-English dictionaries here are a medley of different Kurdish dialects, but they don’t admit it. So although Suli Kurds speak Sorani Kurdish, a dictionary I buy here could be Kumanji Kurdish and I wouldn’t know until someone here looked at me funny. There are no standardized Kurdish classes for expats – only English classes for Kurds.
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My (very entrepreneurial) friend suggested to me today that I develop a curriculum for an expat-focused Kurdish class. I have to agree, that’s something that’s sorely needed. There are so many expats here who don’t know a lick of Kurdish. I’ve learned all that I know by asking questions, seeking tutors, and writing everything down. But it’s all very informal and most Kurdish tutors haven’t had training on how to teach grammar or syntax. I’ll ask people why a sentence is arranged a certain way, and they say, “That’s just how it is.” If someone could develop a curriculum for basic Kurdish and then proceed to work with the numerous oil companies, NGOs, and English schools here, they’d make a killing. Grant suggested I do this, and I admit it’s something that I’d loooooove to do. But I’d have to be here for quite a bit longer to develop my Kurdish and learn how to, well, operate as an entrepreneur in the professional world. Sometimes I feel very much the 22-year-old.
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In any case, learning Kurdish is really, really helping me learn how to teach my kids. I’m sure some of my methods wouldn’t translate to other cultures, but I’m glad I’m ignoring the administration and inserting a little Kurdish here and there in class (they fully forbid any language but English to be spoken in class). I’m starting to see the spaces by which I can get through to my students – I’m not just banging my head against a brick wall hoping for a door to appear.
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4 thoughts on “Linguistics

  1. Sometimes linguists refer to /j/ and /w/, i.e. y and w, as semi-vowels or glides. The first term emphasizes how they create syllable boundaries, and the second emphasizes how they are sort of like diphthongs. When you say /w/ your lips start off real puckered-up, but they widen as the sound progresses, so it’s kind of like you are saying oo-a. With /j/, y, you start with the lips wide, and then the mouth opens up, like you are saying ee-a. The sound we associate with each of these letters lies in between the two vowels which make up the phoneme.
    I think you are on exactly the right track with helping your kids produce these sounds. This is phonology, not spelling, so they should be thinking about the sounds, not about some semi-arbitrary transliteration convention.
    My Spanish-speaking students have an especially hard time with multiple consonants at the ends of words: picked vs. piqued. The first is really pikt; the second peekt. That kt involves a transition between two consonants which is related to the difficulty with the semi-vowels, but on the opposite end of the phonological spectrum.
    It’s too bad that your Classics professor didn’t teach you enough phonology. That’s probably because he didn’t really know any phonology, though he is working on addressing that weakness now. There are some advantages to DEAD languages!

    1. My students have the same difficulty as your students with end consonants, especially “x.” About half my students say “sikis” instead of “six.”

      After 4 years of Ancient Greek and Latin, I’m finally using my ears!

  2. It’s fascinating to hear what different speakers hear in English. My Spanish student hears “speak” as “pick” – she thought it was about toothpicks, which she knows from her food cart business. She’s getting a lot better at reading sentences, but it’s hard to kick the habit of pronouncing silent e’s- like is lik-eh, live is leev-eh. And I need to remember that in Spanish it’s the h that’s silent. Oh language, you are so fascinating and limitless.

    1. It’s very cool that she hears “speak” as “pick” – I wouldn’t have thought those words would be similar! It’s so confusing when two languages use the same writing system (but not really). I think I’ll write a little about Kurdish phonemics later.

      I’m glad your student is learning how to read English! Man it’s difficult, so way to go – both of you!

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