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July 2016
Dr. Wee Lian-hee (Linguistics) Shares Tips on Improving Conversational English
The Buddy Post interviewed Dr. Wee Lian-Hee (Dr. Wee), currently an Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature. He shared with us his passion in linguistics and his mission of teaching at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU).

Reporter : What attracted you to study linguistics?

Dr. Wee: It was an accident. I did not do very well academically when I was in high school but I did get myself admitted into the Faculty of Arts. Initially, my interests were Drama and Chinese Studies. A friend suggested that I try Linguistics. Contrary to expectations, I became fascinated at how Linguistics is a perfect combination of science and humanities. It is science because it is a study of the human cognition with implications in artificial intelligence, medicine and even military applications. It is humanities because it is about a core aspect of humanity: language! Most people have very strong feelings about language, especially their own. However, few have taken the trouble to look at other languages as well and see from a higher vantage point that might offer a more revealing perspective. How many of us have heard of Yawelmani, Axininca Campa, Diola Fogny, Ngizim, Hixkaryana? This is not about exoticism, but about how much we do not know about the human language, and therefore also how little we know about our own languages. For example, did you know that in Hong Kong English, a high pitch tone can spread across syllables in a word very similar to an African language like Shona? Or in Cantonese, there is a tonal suffix for expressing affection and closeness that attaches to the final syllable of a noun?

Reporter: What is your mission for education?

Dr. Wee: My mission is to let my students understand that Mother Nature does not divide herself into tiny categories that are so often used to divide different academic subjects. True knowledge is based on sound reasoning and empirical fact, extending from the fundaments of nature to the far reaches of human imagination. The pursuit for Truth, Good and Beauty begins with the courage to face facts, even if the facts run against the grains of our acculturation. Take for example the complaint by many people in Hong Kong that the youths today are lazy in their speech, pronouncing [l] where they should be pronouncing [n]. Regardless of what your personal preference is, did you know that pronouncing [l] involves more muscular coordination than [n]? Why would anyone think that is lazy? When we find that courage, we shall be able to truly have an open mind that is also not an empty one.

Reporter: Can you tell me something about your research interests?

Dr. Wee: Most of my research is predicated on phonology: the study of sound patterns in human languages. Phonological studies reveal to us how the human mind organizes one of the most fundamental aspects of language. It is the phonology of a language that gives it the musical and rhythmic properties that are the bases for poetry. To date, I have worked on the use of tones and intonation, the relationship between tone and music, and the sounds of Asian varieties of English. Beyond phonology, I have dabbled with the issue of word classes in Chinese. Chinese word classes can be very elusive. 方便 ‘convenient’ for example, can be used a noun, an adjective or a verb. In fact, lots of Chinese words are like that, yet at the same time there are some words where their properties are not quite so elastic. 跑 ‘run’ for example can never be used as an adjective. With words classes so elusive, can you imagine its impact on grammar?

Reporter: Apart from becoming an educator, what are the possible career opportunities of students of language and linguistics?

Dr. Wee: The career prospects of students of linguistics can be very diverse. Linguists are in demand in IT (like artificial intelligence and computer technology), in medicine (for helping patients with post-traumatic speech or language impairments), in forensics, in archaeological and historical research, and even in the military for various kinds of intelligence. The common associations with teaching, journalism and creative writing would really just be a tip of the iceberg.

Reporter: Many employers protest against the declining language ability of young people nowadays, especially spoken English. What would you suggest them to do to improve their conversational English?

Dr. Wee: Hong Kongers learn English since early childhood, and certainly have a sizeable vocabulary of words and expressions. They may not speak like the Brits, but then making a HKer British is not the goal of language training. We must learn to understand and accept that each community would have their distinctive speech patterns. We wish for HKers to be articulate and clear when communicating in English, not that they should sound like they work at the BBC. Having said that, my observations are that HKers hiccup on their verbal English really because of unclear thinking and lack of confidence. Try some of these and see if they help: (i) Think before speaking. (ii) Speak slowly so that you can hear each syllable that you utter. (iii) Use short sentences. (iv) Find the keywords, then make your sentence. For instance, if you wish to express to someone your burning desire to invite him to dinner, do not start with “Will you …” Instead, think about the key words first, and you will find words like dinner, join, eat, please, tomorrow. Even if you can’t say something like Would you like to join me for dinner tomorrow?, you can be sure that you can still say Dinner tomorrow? And those two words would sound a lot better than Will, eh.. would... eh... tomorrow… dinner ..um…. you dinner tomorrow …um… yes?

It is also important to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution since different people have different root causes for their difficulties. It could be a matter of character, of confidence, of awkwardness in a given context among many other reasons. Still, I think, if you really want to communicate, you will. If not using language, then using gestures. If you’re sincere, you will be fine.

Interviewee's Biography:
Lian-Hee Wee received his Ph.D in linguistics at Rutgers University. He is currently Associate Professor at the Department of English Language and Literature.

Back to The BUddy Post July 2016

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