Learning to learn, a lesson from my Grandfather

A frequent traveler for his work with Firestone/Bridgestone, my grandfather would often meet with international businessmen who wanted to improve their English. Now, in those days of the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, he often worked with Japanese and South Korean colleagues.

I remember as a young girl, who was enthralled with the worlds my grandfather, Papa, as he will always be known to me, had seen—the people he had talked to, the anecdotes he told, finding all of his stories of other places fascinating.

Most of all, I will probably forever think of my grandfather when I hear the word learn.

He told me more than once, that the one word that his Eastern Asian colleagues needed to practice pronouncing to improve their English was the word learn.

He said it with a playful smile, but that is because he knew there were multiple depths of learning in that simple word.

As a grown woman with an MA in Linguistics, I can explain the phonological reasons why this word learn is so challenging to our friends from Japan and S. Korea and other Asian countries. First of all, on the International Phonetic Alphabet chart, the sound [l] and the sound [r] are called alveolar approximants, one is just a plain approximant and the other is a lateral approximant. This means very little to you other than they are produced in the same place in the mouth and have very little difference in actually producing them.

It then provides some very realistic reasons why in many Asian phonologies the two sounds are interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other, making it a worthy lesson in English pronunciation to properly produce the word learn, just as my grandfather had suggested.

This was not the only reason for pursuing the word. The fact is, a language learner will never finish learning! Just pronouncing a word correctly doesn’t mean the lesson has been completed.

I love the way my grandfather desired to see us grow and learn all sorts of things.

How radios work, how people do things in Australia, how motors cause things to run—he was an engineer, but he was also a learner and a storyteller. And he loved seeing others learn, too!

As we come upon the eighth anniversary of his death, he continues to influence my desire to learn about the world, how things work, how people think, how cultures function. I think of him when I think of the Navy, trains, tires, electricity, hot peppers, golf, jokes, rhubarb, antique cameras, Cadillacs, rotary phones, gardening, big brown leather chairs, and grey furry dogs, especially ones named Rascal. Some of these things I think of more often than others, but always they bring me joy as I remember how they connect me to my grandfather.

Mainly, though, I think of him in this country where I live, for I am a language learner.

In the years since moving here, I have learned the word learn in this language, but I think I am still learning to ‘learn’ here—learning how people think, how culture functions, how things work, how to joke, how to garden, and how to find the stories that will keep me learning.

And for you, Papa, I want to make a lifetime of it.

This was written for the #write28days challenge.