This book excited me. Hard to credit I admit, and perhaps most easily explained by the free seminars I was able to attend. It was written by a Hungarian academic who had taught my closest Hungarian friend and colleague, so the reading of it was accompanied by many long and detailed discussions in the pub.
That being said there were three other good reasons why this was such a good read for me. One, it was written for Hungarian teachers of English and so gave me good insights into both teacher training and language education in Hungary. This challenged, but ultimately affirmed the notions about language and how it should be taught that I have garnered from my own training and teaching experience. Two, it contained the most detailed information I have seen about spoken Hungarian, and that in itself was manna for a struggling student of Hungarian. And three, it added immensely to my knowledge of English speech, strangely reaffirming my beliefs both that even ordinary speech is complex and beautiful, and that poetry is the ultimate expression of language. In the rest of this review I will limit myself to a discussion of language education.
In the debate that contrasts skills with knowledge, Hungarian education is definitely in the knowledge camp. So here the trainee teacher is presented with many rules and detailed lists of exceptions. Though frequently given the advice that we can choose what we should teach, the understanding is that we should know all this ourselves. Coming initially from a more skills friendly background I was shocked that there was very little instruction of how to get the student to articulate the sounds of English. I thought better of this, remembering the Hungarians are schooled in the production of speech early in their education. Nádasdy obviously felt that this ground wasn’t worth going over again. There are plenty of ad-hoc tips on how to get Hungarians to produce English like sounds, and detailed explanations of why it is occasionally difficult for them to do so.
A more lasting worry is the presentation of language as a system of rules, and those rules as a series of binary contrasts: voiced/voiceless, soft/hard, short/long, weak/full, tense/lax, free/covered, stressed/unstressed, neutral/non-neutral. It is worth pointing out that each speaker of a language has his own realisation of that language – an idiolect. And although I am pretty much a speaker of standard English with received pronunciation, there were many of his examples which simply didn’t work for me. In the classroom too, teaching simple phonetic and intonation exercises, often results in lack of conviction on my part because the recorded examples simply don’t illustrate the teaching point they’re meant to. I’ve resorted to teaching through my own voice to avoid confusion. Corpus linguistics has shown us that language is a question of more or less rather than yes or no, teaching otherwise simply flies in the face of our own and our student’s own experience.
Likewise I object to the characterization of everyday language which doesn’t conform to the ‘rules’ as ‘exceptions’: I believe there is a reason for everything. The ‘exceptions’ really do expose the inadequacy of the ‘rules’, and not “prove” them (From the proverb which is itself misunderstood due to the change in the meaning of ‘prove’ over time). The issue of language ‘rules’ really comes to a head for me in Násdasdy’s treatment of spelling. He believes that if students manage to learn a strikingly complex set of spelling rules and lists of exceptions, it is possible for learners to predict the pronunciation of an English word from its spelling. I do not, and Nádasdy’s long account of tense and lax vowels does not convince me otherwise. If he had produced some statistics to support his arguments – e.g. the percentage of words that are actually are pronounced regularly, they might of carried some weight. He doesn’t. There is an important difference here to highlight, the difference between a rule and reason, there are reasons why English Words are spelt the way they are, and to be fair he mentions some of the most important; conservatism, foreignism and morpheme identity, but these cannot be used by learners to predict the pronunciation of the word – they don’t know how a word was pronounced in the past, or where it was borrowed from, or its morphology – this is information they don’t have. To find it out, they would have to go to a dictionary, they can usually find the pronunciation there too.
Later on, Nádasdy remarks that “advanced learners [and native speakers] are generally able to place the stress on words they have never pronounced before. Obviously they possess some knowledge which enables them to do so”. Generally, but not completely true, I still encounter new words that my intuitive pronunciation of is different to the one given in the dictionary. It may be difficult for a Hungarian to grasp, because they are given lists of rules in primary school, but native English speakers generally are not. The ‘knowledge’ Nádasdy writes of isn’t a knowledge of rules, its skill in assigning written words to models of pronunciation, these patterns I was given in primary school.
In the absence of statistics, I would hazard a guess that the more unusual a word is, the more likely it is to be spelt regularly – the converse of Nádasdy’s observation that the most common words in English are the mostly spelled irregularly. The most common words in English also have multiple pronunciations (strong and weak forms). Nádasdy describes this thoroughly without reflecting on why it should be the case. I suggest that there are two things going on here: language is not homogeneous, but an amalgam of discrete systems which have to interact for language to work. The interaction of these systems can often result in conflict – therein comes the other thing, a language has to have a system of preferences so that compromises can be made. This makes language much more of an engineering problem than a logical problem. A discussion of this sort of interaction in the context of language evolution can be found in Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution.
So in any language there are lexical systems, and syntactical systems and phonological systems, and so on. For example, lexically a word consists of a particular vowel but in some utterances it is difficult to realise that vowel within the syntactical and phonological constraints that are placed on it. Sometimes it can be realised with the full vowel, sometimes with a reduced vowel. Hence the formation of strong and weak forms of the same word. Obviously, English doesn’t give a very high priority to the pronunciation of vowels, so they can be changed within a word without any loss of meaning. Regional accents are another example of this, and perhaps the low priority given to vowel production is one of the reasons for English’s international success. In Hungarian vowels are given a much higher preference, so my sloppy pronunciation of Hungarian vowels does lead to the breakdown of communication. Nádasdy is aware of the sort compromises a Hungarian speaker of English has to make in making his phonetic systems conform to English, but is often wrong about what is and what is not acceptable to other English speakers. The issue of preferences within a language is not one I’ve ever seen discussed, yet it is one that would seem to be very important to language education.