Using Pseudo-Phonetics to Remember a Foreign Phrase
When I was a kid growing up outside of Pittsburgh, baseball was big thing. We had heroes named Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente on our hometown team—Bill Mazeroski and Manny Sanguillen. Other cities had their heroes too, Hammerin’ Hank Aaron in Atlanta, Say Hey Willie Mays out in San Francisco.
We would spend most of our summer days playing wiffle ball out in the backyard, mimicking our heroes. Willie Stargell’s stance with his pinky finger curled around the nob of his bat as he propeller-cranked up his swing, found its twin enacted by a right-handed kid switching to left to look cool standing next to home plate.
I had a t-shirt with a marker-drawn 35 on it, so that I could be Manny Sanguillen when I played catcher. Manny’s trademark move was his unorthodox crouch behind the plate. He’d have his left leg poked out straight to the side and his right tucked up underneath him. This was to prevent passed balls, or to give his knees a rest when there were no men on base, I guess. (I haven’t been able to find any pictures of him in that pose on the web, but there are a few of Tony Pena, from back in the day, doing his best impression.)
“What does all this have to do with Korean New Year?” you might ask.
Well, I’m no longer a child. I have a wife and a daughter; and many of those heroes from my childhood seem like they were from another era.
My wife did not grow up in the Steel City, she grew up on the other side of the planet, in Seoul, Korea. That kind of thing happens more and more these days as the world gets more accessible. (When I was a kid, the only person I knew who had been in Korea was my dad—during the war, in the 1950s.) After moving around a bit, my future wife and I both ended up in Brooklyn, in the 1990s. The people we knew there came from all around the world.
Anyway, sometime before we were married, I was invited to meet her family, over the holidays. I knew that New Year’s traditions are very strong in eastern societies. I figured I could at least learn how to say, “Happy New Year,” in Korean.
It seemed easy enough. I mean, how hard could it be to learn one phrase in another language?
The phrase “Happy New Year!” in Korean is something like this:
I was like, “What?!”
It seems that my stiffened adult mind failed to even hold onto the simplest of syllables. Learning that phrase was like watching liquid mercury pour through my fingers and slip down the drain. My brain was a barred door, refusing to budge, hinges rusted in place.
I had to ask: ”Can you please repeat the phrase to me, slowly, a piece at a time?”
In slow motion, this is what I heard, and what I thought:
“Say Hey” –stop. Oh, I can remember that. The Say Hey Kid! Willie Mays. I even remembered him having a cartoon back in the early 1970s.
“Poke Manny” –stop. Well, it wasn’t exactly “Poke Manny,” but that was close enough to get me in the ballpark. So, Willie Mays, The Say Hey Kid, was going to poke Manny Sanguillen and try to knock him out of his crouch.
So now I had, “say hey poke Manny.” These images were really helping me remember the phrase. That’s what I call pseudo-phonetics. It’s a way for adults to use the visual memory that they already have to learn a few words and phrases in a language that they don’t have a history with. Now, I would never suggest that a person could learn a whole language this way (it would take an incredible amount of effort to be conversational that way), but it can provide an early start. Early successes can breed an interest that takes things much further.
For me, armed with “Say hey poke Manny,” I could get the rest of the phrase, with a little help. The rest was something like: “Pa do say, oh.” Of course this was all said with an accent where the P sounds were actually somewhere between B and P sounds. In any case, with a little practice, my results were good enough to show that at least I was trying.
A couple of days after the holidays I returned to Brooklyn and found myself in a Korean bodega. At the checkout, I was able to thank the clerk there and wish her a happy new year (Say hey, poke Manny, Pa do say oh) as well as I could, in her native language. She smiled and responded in kind. Her teenage son stood at her elbow with his jaw dropped at the end of his “Wow.” I turned and I made my way out the door, smiling while I walked home.
Using images to remember facts is a tried and true method that many memory experts use to put information into accessible parts of their minds. Some people build mental rooms and place things they want to remember beside the couch there, or on top of the piano, or behind door number 3. Extending this process to remembering basic words and phrases is not such a stretch.
Just for fun, here’s a word for you in Spanish.
Mariquita is the Spanish word for ladybug.
(mari’kita) might be good enough for pronunciation.
(ma-ree-kee-ta) might be better for some people.
(mary-key-ta) might not be the most phonetic, but it is perhaps the most memorable option because it can be broken into images.
Pseudo-phonetics can be a fun way for adults to begin learning new words in a new language—even if your pronunciation isn’t pitch perfect. (Believe me, native speakers will be only too glad to help correct you:-)
Pseudo-phonetics is a system, or device, for improving memory of things or concepts—in these examples, words in different languages. Scientists call this kind of a device a mnemonic.
You might say: “That’s all Greek to me.” In this case, you’d be right. The word mnemonic stems from a Greek word, mnēmōn, which means mindful.
Incidentally, if you want to remember how to spell mnemonic, you might use the mnemonic phrase men are confused (m-e-n becomes m-n-e) as a place to start.
If you find that this post has been informative, or entertaining, or insightful in any way, or if you have any comments, or insights of your own, please share them with us. We would love to hear from you.