The Linguist

The Linguist 60,2 April/May 2021

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist Vol/60 No/2 2021 FEATURES Robin Meyer outlines how teachers can foster an understanding of the history and evolution of words as an aid to language learning W hen you have been teaching languages for a while, it is almost inevitable that you will come across that one student who asks a question you did not anticipate, do not have an answer to, or simply cannot afford the time to answer in sufficient detail. It happens and one gets over it. What, however, if it happens multiple times in a class? Worse yet, what if the question is 'why?' – 'Why do some French words, like œuil and œuf, have plurals with unpredictable pronunciations?' 'Why do some Ancient Greek verbs have a supposedly regular weak Sceptical? Let me try to convince you. In a year-long, intensive language-learning setting at university, my approach was to differentiate between three categories of linguistic facts: 1 Those that make language learning easier 2 Those that contribute to general knowledge 3 Less important ones (from a language learning perspective), of interest only to a small number of students. The first would always form a firm part of the lesson plan; the second would be included if time allowed; the latter I would share with individuals after class or by email. Making learning easier What do historical linguistic facts that make language learning easier look like, I can hear you ask. Let's consider a few examples. At the most basic level, this might involve telling students of French that the circumflex in many cases is the remnant of a historical 's' in the word: think of the French-English pairs hôtel/'hostel', forêt/'forest', pâté/'paste'. Coming back to the Greek aorist tense, here the linguistically savvy learner saves time and energy by turning 'irregular' forms, which would have to be learnt by rote, into regular forms with a twist. That twist – a historical sound change – can be expressed as a simple rule: verbs whose stem ends in a nasal or liquid ('m', 'n', 'l', 'r') 'lose' the regular tense- marker -σ- and lengthen their stem vowel in compensation. So you have μένω-ἔμεινα ('I remain(ed)'), ἀγγέλλω-ἤγγειλα ('I announce(d)'), δέρω-ἔδειρα ('I flay(ed)'). 1 Knowing about this, and similar historical sound changes for other classes of verb, saves you the trouble of learning a whole host of irregular verbs. What's in a word? aorist tense but lack the tell-tale past marker, like ἔμεινα without -σ-?' 'Why is it 'orange' in English, Orange in German, orange in French, but naranja in Spanish?' How do you engage with a student who wants not only to learn a language, but to understand how and why it works the way it does? As a language teacher and historical linguist, I recognise this need to know. A well-curated set of historical linguistic details of the language one studies can make learning and understanding some of its idiosyncrasies easier – or at least more memorable. Call it enrichment if you like.

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