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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Are We Listening?

In 2007 Steve Walker ran the Philadelphia Marathon. He's a well-known podcaster, the host of Phedipeddations, a podcast about running. Throughout the podcast he referred to the major river that runs through the city, the Schuylkill. He pronounced the river's name as "shy-kill." The rest of the world pronounces it "schoo-kill." It grated on me as I listened intently to his story. How could a well-educated, tech savvy fellow from western Massachusetts not have heard of that river?

In the past months I've kept up listening to "A Very Spatial Podcast," a weekly discussion of GIS/geography topics by three academics. A few weeks back the trio discussed how a Virginia Tech geography class interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi via Skype. The pronunciation of the name did not match my expectation. More recently, that podcast discussed the newly launched Pleiades satellite. Had I not know of the news already, I'm sure I would not have deciphered the name.

It's interesting that all of these "challenging to pronounce" terms are loosely related to geography. The Sckuylkill is a river. Suu Kyi is an activist from Burma. The Pleiades is the name of the "Seven Sisters" star cluster. The satellite project was named after it.

Why did all of these very smart people mispronounce these terms? I have a guess. These are very mobile and Web savvy folks; all of them speak of their smartphones on their podcasts. I suspect they get most of their news and have many of their conversations via the typed word, either on those devices or others. So, it's possible in prepping for the Philadelphia Marathon, Mr. Walker never had to hear or speak the term "Schuylkill." Similarly, while the folks from Very Spatial may have read about Suu Kyi and Pleiades, it's possible they never heard about them.

Is is possible we are not "learning" via audio as much as we once did? I know of the Schuylkill because my parents spoke of it due to their connection to Philadelphia. I know of Suu Kyi because the correspondents on National Public Radio (NPR) and the BBC (we hear the World Service here in Boston) say her name quite a bit. The Pleiades? One word: Cosmos. I learned all those astronomy words from Carl Sagan himself back in the 1980s.

I do hope the excitement about mobile devices does not cut us off from spoken language. I know I learn  very well by listening. That's why I like my news from the radio and enjoy spoken word podcasts on my runs and walks. Think about it: are you listening enough? Are your students?