Today’s fifth-grade class brought me face-to-face with a struggle I hoped I’d left behind when I fled the U.S. this summer. But there it was again, headlining the phonics section of Lesson One, taunting me as it always has: How do you pronounce the word bag?
I know how most of the country says you pronounce it—short a. I also know how the Upper Midwest pronounces it—long a, like leg with a b. And I know how I’ve come to pronounce it after four years of outside influence from my college peers—somewhere in between, meaning no one actually understands what I’m trying to say, and I avoid the word as much as possible. My speech changed pretty noticeably in college; I now say roof and rootbeer with long “oo” sounds and soda instead of pop, and I occasionally throw out a “CARE-uh-mell” instead of “CAR-mel.” But bag is one thing I can’t fully commit to.
All of this is to say that my insides let out a little scream when my LET asked me to do phonics for the short a sound, and the word list began with bag. I still contend that the a in bag is not the same as the one in cat, Pat, rabbit, or sad, but I taught it like it was. Regardless of my sacrifice in the name of education, though, some of the kids simply say their long and short a‘s the same, so I like to think the Midwestern bag will live on in Taiwan for years to come.
Teaching phonics and pronunciation to Taiwanese students is an imperfect process to say the least, but when you have a language as inconsistent as English—both in the way words are spelled and the way they are pronounced across states and even countries—you do what you can. The students have trouble knowing when a c is soft, like in race and excited, or when a k sound is actually a hard c, like in coffee, and sometimes they drop the endings of words like brave because Chinese syllables don’t end with consonant sounds. Listening to my LET sound out words phonetically makes me realize even more how difficult the English language must be to learn.
In other school news, yesterday there was an earthquake drill, and the kids wore these pillow hats for protection:
And in slightly related news (because I drive it to school), I became a lot cooler when I bought this scooter last week: