The last lesson in the textbook was unexpectedly boring. I tried to put it across my Wednesday class and failed miserably, so I thought I’d do something different with my Thursday class. I have an educational resource called ‘Brainbox’ – a set of cards about 10 cm square, with a map of a country and pictures of representative people, places and things on one side and eight questions relating to them on the other. Students work in pairs – one asks the questions and the other answers. It’s a good way to practice clear speaking and careful listening, looking for information and sometimes attempting to pronounce very unfamiliar words, and maybe they’ll learn something about the world along the way.
One student had the card for Austria and looked slightly puzzled, because I’d already shown them the Australian one, so I quickly explained the difference. His partner asked him the questions, then he said to me what sounded like ‘What is Austria bin?’. My first thought was about rubbish bins but I couldn’t imagine why he’d ask me that. ‘What has Austria been?’ might be a question about the rise and fall of the House of Habsburg, but I couldn’t imagine why he’d ask me that, either. Then he wrote ‘bin’ and asked ‘What is this in Austria?’. I said ‘Do you mean “What does this word mean?”?’ and he said ‘Yes’. I said ‘That’s a German word. They speak German in Austria.’ I wrote on the board ‘I am an Australian. Ich bin ein Deutschlander’ (that may not be correct – I’m sure one of my regular readers will correct me if it’s not – but it was close enough for the purpose). I said ‘Look at these two sentences in English and German’ and said them, then asked ‘So what does “bin” mean in German?’. He said ‘Am’, but looked unconvinced, so I said ‘Why do you ask?’. He said ‘We learned about it at high. I’ve seen it on the internet’. I immediately thought of John F Kennedy’s ‘Berliner’ speech. He said ‘I’ll find it’. Soon after, he showed me the Korean Wikipedia page for Vienna. Light bulb: Vienna > Wien > 빈 > bin (because /v/ is not a phoneme in Korean). I went to the board and scribbled out the two sentences I’d written and explained the spelling and pronunciation of the name in English, German and Korean. The moral of story for him is ‘if you want the right answer, ask the right question’ and for me ‘Make sure of the question before you attempt to answer’.
He’d actually provided me with a clue while he and his partner were doing Sweden’s card, which showed a car. She said ‘Which car?’ and I said ‘Volvo’. She didn’t understand, so he wrote ‘bolvo’ (which is kind of puzzling as to why he got one ‘v’ right and not the other; the name as given in the Korean Wikipedia page – 볼보 – would otherwise be transliterated ‘bolbo’). But even if I’d remembered that, being asked what ‘/vɪn/’ (rhymes with ‘bin’) means isn’t really much better. (And because I don’t usually think or say ‘Wien’, being asked what ‘/vi:n/’ (rhymes with ‘been’) means may not have clicked.
If his intended question was ‘What is “Wien”?’, then the answer is ‘It’s the capital of Austria. English speakers call it “Vienna”.’ If his question really was ‘What does “Wien” mean?’, then I didn’t answer it, and there may not, in fact, be an answer. Some names of cities have a meaning; ‘Vienna’ either doesn’t mean anything or the meaning is lost in history.
PS some of the questions used the word ‘border’ (usually as a verb) and the same student asked about that. I explained in terms of South and North Korea. He replied that both sides don’t regard the DMZ as a ‘border’, instead viewing the whole peninsula as one territory.
Slightly connected – talking about Australia’s ‘border’ never seems quite right to me.