Spoken Swatow – Teochew Language Textbook for English Speakers Gets Reprint after 49 Years

"It is our hope, as it is with most linguists, these volumes will inspire younger generations to not only appreciate their language inheritance, but be the impetus for continued upgrading of the language learning process."

- Dr. Alvin D. and Mrs Barbara A. Koons

Spoken Swatow - Introduction

The first English-speakers to learn to speak Teochew were a small group of Christian missionaries based in Thailand, which in the early 19th century was a key node of the Teochew junk trade network and popular destination for the migrant labourers it sent abroad. Their goal to aid others who arrived later continuing their work led to the language’s documentation in romanised form. First Lessons in the Tie-chiw Dialect published in Bangkok by American Baptist church planter William Dean in 1841 was an early product of these efforts. Spurred by the opening of Swatow as a Treaty Port in 1860, and the desire to promote local alphabetical literacy enable the natives  ("Of the men [in Swatow]”, Adele Fielde reported in the 1880s, “not more than one in a hundred can read") to read the Bible and other scriptures, the second half of the century saw the publication of a handful of Teochew-English vocabulary books and learning guides (nearly all of which can be downloaded free in The Teochew Store language resource section).

This development came to an end in the beginning of the 20th century when the proliferation of public schools in China and in the overseas Chinese communities supported the emergence of Teochew language resources written in Chinese. instead. The consequence faced decades later was "the problem of insufficient materials" in the study of the Teochew language for English speakers, which Alvin and Barbara Koons, then Fraternal Workers from the American Baptist Churches of the USA to the Teochew speaking Baptist Church community in Hong Kong, decided to resolve. The product following years of laborious work was the first printing of Spoken Swatow in 1967.

Now after 49 years, a second print of Spoken Swatow has been made by its original authors and it is again available to English-speakers keen to pick up the Teochew language.

Spoken Swatow - Features

Spoken Swatow consists of two volumes, Book 1 (潮語初步) and Book 2 (潮語進階). It opens with the introduction of important features of the Teochew language, including its tones, tone changes, vowels, dipthongs, consonants and a sound drill chart. As its title suggests, pronunciation taught in Spoken Swatow is derived from the variant spoken in the Swatow city area, which before 1921 was part of Thenghai (澄海) county. This sets it apart from its 19th century predecessors, which although referred to the Swatow spoken language/vernacular/dialect (the association made by virtue of Swatow being the part of the Teochew region most recognisable in the outside world), were in fact based on the prestige Teochew prefectural city standard (潮州府城話).  The difference between the two branches are subtle, yet noticeable, as illustrated by the expression "Teo-chew" 潮州 itself (transliterated here according to the Thenghai/Swatow influence), which would be rendered “Tie-tsiu" if old prefectural city accent is applied. 

The contents of Spoken Swatow are organised into 24 chapters, each teaching a particular grammatical aspect of the language (as shown in the table of contents for Book 1 and Book 2 below). Every chapter is systematically ordered into conversation, vocabulary and pattern sentences sections. Being intended as a textbook, there are also extensive drill practices and translation exercises from chapter four onwards for the learner to work on. Lengthy vocabulary lists round up both Book 1 and Book 2.

Another notable difference from the older resources, Spoken Swatow uses phonetic symbols based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) system, and not alphabets, to represent the sounds of spoken Teochew. This is a major step up as linguistic experts and language teachers have long recognised the inadequacies of the alphabetical letters to stand in for spoken sounds accurately, even in English.

Spoken Swatow - Review

As it can be imagined, the majority of English-speakers who wish to learn Teochew are no longer Western missionaries or diplomats, but second, third, or fourth-generation overseas Teochews brought up in the US, Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand. Here Spoken Swatow finds its sync with the learners of today because it conveys the vernacular in its Swatow variety, which would be familiar sounding to a large segment of the Teochew diaspora whose forefathers came from or around Thenghai. Moreover because of the years when it was written, it captures the language from the period of the learners’ grandparents or parents’ lifetime.

Having said these, Spoken Swatow is not for the recreational learner. It provides vocabulary lists, but you'd need prior knowledge of phonetic symbols to grasp their pronunciations here. Moreover the book does not contain any Chinese character to clarify any possible confusion. If you do not know the IPA, using the book will be daunting. However learning the phonetic symbols might be worthwhile as they have universal application and will help in the learning of other languages. Otherwise it will be easier referring to other English-Teochew books or mobile apps currently available.

The strength of Spoken Swatow is its focus in imparting grammar rules, the nuts and bolts for learning a language properly. This requires detailed observations and thorough analysis of the language on the part of its authors, and they accomplished the task rather admirably. Learning a language’s grammar is not by means easy, much less writing a book to teach it. For this reason Spoken Swatow has few substitutes and it is invaluable for anyone desiring to learn the Teochew language seriously.

Perhaps the strengths and limitations of Spoken Swatow are best summed up by Alvin Koons' preface to Book 2. Noting that "with the completion of this Book, the student will have been introduced to the basic sentence patterns of Spoken Swatow, and will have acquired a vocabulary of over 750 words and phrases", his advice was for "contacts with Swatow speaking people should be sought out wherever possible in order to gain a wider and more natural experience in the language usage than afforded by the classroom environment"

Book 1 and Book 2 of Spoken Swatow are now selling on Lulu.com at US$15.00 each.

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