Teaching at Maranatha Baptist Bible College
Missionaries often fail to shed their foreign accent even after many years of faithful service. You might think that eventually over the years they can become more proficient in speaking like a national, but actually what probably happens more often is that missionaries simply solidify the speaking patterns they developed early in their language learning experience. It is true that it is basically impossible for a missionary beginning to learn a language as an adult to fully sound like a national, but most can significantly minimize their foreign accent. How can they do this? By taking a course on phonetics and phonology.
I taught these subjects (with some pragmatics thrown in too) at Maranatha Baptist Bible College in early May. BI consultants, as members of the only Bible society that shares their beliefs and convictions, are often called upon to assist fundamental Bible colleges and universities to train up the next generation in the area of linguistics. Though we cannot accept every invitation, we see these opportunities as important times both to establish relationships with students that may turn into long-term ministry partnerships and to further sharpen our own skills in linguistics as we prepare for the courses and respond to sometimes complicated student questions.
The module in May had 21 students enrolled in the course. The students were majoring in cross-cultural studies, teaching English as a second language, or biblical languages. They learned the exact mechanisms involved in pronouncing all the English language sounds, as well as all the other sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet, including the very exotic clicks. When they were tested in the phonetics final, almost every student couldn’t keep from laughing when they pronounced the bilabial trill (the initial sound we English speakers make when we say “brrr” in the winter).
The students also learned that though they may master the pronunciation of the dictionary form of the word, they still don’t know all they need to in order to speak the language. They need to understand why the dictionary form changes in different environments (environments for words are syllables, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and discourses). So, their brains were stretched as they analyzed language data to understand the phonological process that changed the sounds. I often illustrated the processes by relating it to how English works. For example, I explained that the “t” sound in “stop” alters when it is in such words as “top,” “button,” “butter,” and “fasten.” See for yourself by saying the words as you would in normal speech!
The phonetics, phonology, and pragmatics module is actually only one half of the full course, Basic Linguistics. Next year one of our consultants will teach the second half, which includes morphology, syntax, and semantics. We hope that the students at Maranatha will be better equipped through this course to reduce any foreign-accent barrier that might prevent the gospel from going forth freely. We also hope that some of them will join us at BI!