pronunciation of a foreign tongue

Putting aside the sufferings of the early martyrs, few men, I suppose, have gone through more than I myself went through in trying to I attain the correct pronunciation of the German word for church — “Kirche”. Long before I had done with it I had determined never to go to church in Germany, rather than be bothered with it.

“No, no,” my teacher would explain — he was a painstaking gentleman; “you say it as if it were spelt K-i-r-c-h-k-e. There is no k. It is —.” And he would illustrate to me again, for the twentieth time that morning, how it should be pronounced; the sad thing being that I could never for the life of me detect any difference between the way he said it and the way I said it. So he would try a new method.

“You say it from your throat,” he would explain. He was quite right; I did. “I want you to say it from down here,” and with a fat forefinger he would indicate the region from where I was to start. After painful efforts, resulting in sounds suggestive of anything rather than a place of worship, I would excuse myself.

“I really fear it is impossible,” I would say. “You see, for years I have always talked with my mouth, as it were; I never knew a man could talk with his stomach. I doubt if it is not too late now for me to learn.”

By spending hours in dark corners, and practising in silent streets, to the terror of chance passers-by, I came at last to pronounce this word correctly. My teacher was delighted with me, and until I came to Germany I was pleased with myself. In Germany I found that nobody understood what I meant by it. I never got near a church with it. I had to drop the correct pronunciation, and painstakingly go back to my first wrong pronunciation. Then they would brighten up, and tell me it was round the corner, or down the next street, as the case might be.

I also think pronunciation of a foreign tongue could be better taught than by demanding from the pupil those internal acrobatic feats that are generally impossible and always useless. This is the sort of instruction one receives:

“Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved upwards so as almost — but not quite — to touch the uvula, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say ‘Garoo.’”

And when you have done it they are not satisfied.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel

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