I want to take a moment to talk about a pedagogical experiment I’m trying. And no, it doesn’t involve Northwest Airlines.
That’s right, when I teach English, my co-teachers are five stupid dope brothas from Compton. Before anyone involved in my job at the school gets concerned, I am not running this experiment there. I’m doing it with a private student of mine in Tbilisi, a fourth grade boy. His English is better than that of any student at my school, so I figured we could try something more interesting than what is usually done in English lessons..
What we’re doing, for two one-hour lessons a week, is listening to NWA songs and going through every line, slowly and painstakingly, until he understands all of it. Occasionally we work on him repeating the lines back along with the recordings, and we will probably do more of this as he gets better at listening.
The obvious question is “He’s ten? Aren’t NWA lyrics grossly inappropriate for a youngster?” Yes, typically they are, but it happens that NWA’s first album, Straight Outta Compton, contains three clean tracks: Dr. Dre’s “Express Yourself,” and MC Ren’s “If It Ain’t Ruff [sic]” and “Quiet on tha [sic] Set.”
The next obvious question is “What’s the point of doing this?” The boy’s English, although good in terms of grammar and vocabulary, is stiff as a board. When he speaks, every syllable is given the same the same length and volume, and every word is given completely, and this makes his speech sound unmistakably foreign, almost as much as saying “this” as “zis.”
The problem is partly due to Georgian influence. For one thing, Georgian doesn’t really have stress: not only is stress not meaningful in Georgian (as it is in English; compare “insight” and “incite”), it’s not even regular (as it is in French, where the stress always lands on final syllables). You can pretty much stress or not stress syllables as you please. For another thing, Georgian is what linguists call a syllable-timed language, meaning that every syllable is given about equal time (Spanish is another such language, and this is what give Spanish its machine-gun quality). This contrasts with English, which is stress-timed, meaning that the stressed syllables are given about equal time and unstressed syllables are crammed in wherever they fit (Russian is similar).
Example: Consider the sentence “Yesterday I went to the store.” Most native speakers of English will, even speaking at a relaxed pace, say something like “YEStrdayI WENtth STORE.” The vowels on unstressed syllables and words like “to” and “the” are either reduced or dropped so that the stressed syllables can come out on the right beats. Georgians, on the other hand, will give “to” as much emphasis as the “yes” in “yesterday.”
This makes their speech sound dull and boring, and my student is no exception. So my hope is that by listening to music wherein rhythm and stress are paramount, he’ll get a better feeling for how English is supposed to sound. I did the same thing when I was learning French, and listening to MC Solaar really helped me out. I’m not a French expert by any means, but I will say that ability to speak French with the proper rhythm and timing vastly outstrips my knowledge of French vocabulary and grammar. Since my student doesn’t really need to work on those things, I think this will benefit him.
It’s fun for both of us. Prior to starting this, we had been reading an abridged version of Robinson Crusoe. If you haven’t read it, I suggest that you don’t, unless you’re an enthusiast of tides. Neither of us liked the book, so the lessons weren’t very fun. Now his face lights up whenever he recognizes a line (his favorite line so far is “Dre is in your neighborhood / And he’s up to no good”), and I always get a chuckle out of hearing a ten-year-old Georgian saying “You see I’m hatin’ the fakin’ / I keep the suckas like shakin'”.
In case you were wondering, I haven’t told him what NWA stands for (what, you mean you don’t know?), and I probably won’t.
I leave you with the brilliant closing lines of “Express Yourself”:
When I start expressin myself, Yella’s slammin’
Cause if I stay funky like this, I’m doin damage
Now I’m’a be too hype, and need a straight jacket
I got knowledge, and other suckers lack it
So when you see Dre, a DJ on the mic
Ask what it’s like, it’s like we gettin’ hype tonight
Cause if I strike, it ain’t for your good health
But I won’t strike if you just (Express yourself)