On pronunciation and memorization: A eulogy for Dr. Thomas Coates

My first German teacher (circled) along with his class
My first German teacher (circled) along with his class

Wer noch? Du? Steh auf! Blitzschnell!


Who are the most influential teachers? It’s not always obvious at the time, but some lessons seep into your bones.

I took a three-week intensive German course during the summer after Junior High. It took place at Northeast Missouri State University (now Truman State University), in Kirksville, Missouri, at the Joseph Baldwin Academy (JBA)—which my aunt affectionately termed “nerd camp.” How can I argue with her? As young high school students, we spent our summer in university classes. Since I was deeply motivated by school and learning, being surrounded by other academic-centered kids (especially girls!) was exhilarating. Plus I learned German!

The above was a typical lesson from my first German teacher, Dr. Thomas Coates, who passed away in 2007. The lesson was as simple as I present. He would find the next person, tell him or her to stand up and recite the alphabet as quickly as the student could. The drill included the “special” German vowels and diphthongs at the end (ä, ö, ü, au, eu, ei).

What was the point? Pronunciation and precision. If one wanted to learn to speak another language, one had to wrap one’s lips and tongue around the strange vowels, slowly at first, but with increasing speed and accuracy. (Dr. Coates also spoke Japanese with a fantastic accent.) Like a daily jog changes the way you sit on the couch, his relentless exercises forced my mouth into a different shape. He sent us to the bathroom during class to look at our mouths as we pronounced.

To this day, the sounds of languages come easily to me, and I have to credit Dr. Coates. Thanks to him, Germans can’t figure out my nationality at first. The sensitive ear for languages that he gifted me with makes Somalis give me a double-take when their my accent as I simply pronounce their names.

At the end of the JBA session, we had a talent show. The Academy offered multiple courses in addition to German, so students of many varied interests took part. Alongside the musicians and Dr. Coates had his class perform a poem in German. The idea would be to overact it so much that the audience could follow the content. Our year, we performed, “Der Erlkönig,” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was a real, classic German poem in which we all had parts to memorize. Since the poem is only eight strophes long, we all memorized the whole thing. (I still know my parts to this day.)

At the same time, he was a fun teacher. Even though he was a university professor, he brought the whole class of Junior High kids over to his house to hang out. He had all kinds of cool stuff: a HAM radio, a computer (this was cool—it was 1988), and I remember some classical music (records, of course) on a nice stereo.

When I came back to high school for my sophomore year, I entered into the second year of German. From then on I had the best pronunciation of any student in any language in any class (except for the native Russian speakers in college). Any time I use a word that occurred in that poem, a little, tiny lightbulb goes off in my brain. That poem created the first matrix of all my German knowledge.

Looking back, this three-week “curriculum” amazes me. The first week was just pronunciation. If the three weeks was equivalent to a high school year, that would be like studying pronunciation until Thanksgiving (late November). We studied grammar, too, by means of his self-published grammar running about 12 pages long. Otherwise, we read stories, memorized poetry and songs, and learned vocabulary.

Dr. Coates—may he rest in peace—made me re-fashion my English-speaking mouth. I will be forever grateful for that skill in all of my languages. I also thank him for the gift of Goethe’s poetry that still sticks in my mind.

Who have been your best language teachers? What gifts do you take from them?



22 thoughts on “On pronunciation and memorization: A eulogy for Dr. Thomas Coates

  1. I completely agree – pronunciation is key. I think it’s a matter of respect – respect for the language, for the people, for the culture that grew that entire language.

    When I started the Mandarin course at DLI, the homework for the first few days was simply mimicking the different sounds. The effort to wrap my mouth around the different sounds gave me a headache every night, but it paid so many dividends later on! Even now, when I say something in Chinese to an unsuspecting person they don’t always realize that I spoke Chinese right away.

    It bugged me that a lot of my classmates wouldn’t even try to master the pronunciation. Made their Chinese sound just so sloppy. Here we are, being taught by native speakers, and you’re not fully taking advantage of it.

    Anyway, since the teachers all came from different regions, their particular accents sounded a bit different. I personally loved the Taiwanese Mandarin accent, so that’s what I mainly adopted.

    The other thing I loved (and this goes back to your “best teacher” question) came from my high school Russian teacher – he taught us quite a few root words (prefixes, suffixes, word parts) and what they mean. We had a daily quiz where he would write five words we hadn’t learned before on the board and we had to identify the root and take a guess at what the word meant. It was very empowering when I went wandering on my own into Russian literature that was actually in Russian.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What good fortune you’ve had to have such good teachers! Many of the language-learners out there are talking about what they need to learn on their own, but sometimes a teacher gives us things we didn’t know we needed. An ear for sounds and an eye for roots makes you a powerful language-learner.

      Liked by 1 person

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  18. I’m so sad to hear that Dr. Coates passed! I was a student of his at JBA two years before you, and while I never quite got the pronunciation down (he teased me about my Tennessee-accented German) the mindset for linguistic skills he imparted served me well in later years, allowing me to more easily pick up other languages. Oddly, the first instance of this was the following year at school, when I began Latin; my high school didn’t offer German, but my teacher was Austrian, so I spoke as much German with him as I could. In later years my ability to pick up local patois while in the military was particularly useful. He left another gift with me as well, the exposure to amateur radio that you mentioned, as two years later I got my first ham license. He was truly an influence on my life. Thanks for writing this touching piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome story! I’m glad you had such a great experience with him, as I did. He hung in with JBA for a long time. It’s wonderful to see how dedicated he was to young people, not just his university students.


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