“Education comes more easily through the ear than through the eye,” H. V. Kaltenborn declared back in 1926. He had to believe that, or needed to convince others of it, at least. After all, the newspaper editor had embarked on a new career that was entirely dependent on the public’s ability to listen and learn when he, as early as 1921, first stepped behind a microphone to throw his disembodied voice onto the airwaves, eventually to become America’s foremost radio commentator. Writing about “Radio’s Responsibility as a Molder of Public Opinion,” Kaltenborn argued education to be the medium’s “greatest opportunity.” And even though the opportunity seized most eagerly was advertising, some sixty American colleges and universities were broadcasting educational programs during those early, pre-network days of the “Fifth Estate.”
Kaltenborn reasoned that education by radio was superior to traditional correspondence courses since the aural medium could make up for the “imperfect contact between student and teacher” through “the appeal of voice and personality.” Among the subjects particular suited to radio he numbered “literature, oral English, foreign languages, history, and music,” but added that any class not requiring special “apparatus or laboratory work [could] be taught on the air.”
Not that a polyglot like H(ans) V(on), whose father was born in Germany, had any use for such on-air instructions, but a number of local stations (KFAB, Nebraska, and WMBQ, Brooklyn, among them) broadcast introductory courses in German during the early to mid-1930s. According to Waldo Abbot, who, in the 1930s, directed the University of Michigan’s educational broadcasts heard over WJR, Detroit, nearly four hundred stations in the US accepted foreign language programs, many of which were geared toward non-English communities, be they German, Albanian or Mesquakie. In 1942, as Variety radio editor Robert Landry pointed out, some two hundred local stations in the US were broadcasting in thirty languages other than English, at which time in history the efficacy of services in the public interest was being hotly debated.
Growing up in West Germany, I frequently tuned in to the English language Broadcasting Service of the British Forces (BFBS) and, lying in bed at night, twisted the dial in search of faraway international stations. Yet as much as the chatter of different, distant voices intrigued me, I was not so much enlightened as I was enchanted; and rather than translating what I heard, I was transported by it. I may have had an ear for language, but whatever came my way by way of the airwaves back then was mostly in one ear and out of the other.
Even when language poses no barrier to understanding, I do not assimilate spoken utterances as readily as written words. I was raised in the age of television and, to some degree, by that medium. So insurmountable was the visual bias that I have never been able entirely to rely on my ear when it comes to taking even the simplest instructions. I discovered early on, for instance, that it was difficult for me to write down a number taken from dictation; to this day, I struggle to piece together words that are being spelled out for me. My chirographic transcriptions of speech are often incomplete or frustratingly inaccurate.
Yes, I have long been keenly aware of the pig’s ear that nature made of my senses. I learned that those cartilaginous funnels couldn’t be relied upon to make, let alone fill, a purse, silken or otherwise. My head being thoroughly porcine, I nonetheless chose radio as the subject for my doctoral study—if only to give my eyes an earful.
If only education came “more easily” to me “through the ear than through the eye,” now that I am once again putting my ear for language to the test. I’ve been living in Wales for over five years now, but, insofar as I had occasion to mingle with the locals, I have communicated exclusively in English. Contrary to a travel guide one of my German friends showed me upon visiting, Welsh is by no means a language in extremis, even if its rejuvenescence is largely owing to the resuscitative measures of nationalist politics. Taking our recent move from a remote cottage in the country to a house in town as an incentive, I decided to grab the red dragon by its forked tongue at last. I started taking classes. “Dwi ‘n dysgu Cymraeg.”
To augment my weekly lessons, I am listening to recordings of the BBC’s Catchphrase program, a late-20th-century radio series designed to introduce English speakers to the Welsh language. While it is a comfort to me that fleeting speech is reproducible at the touch of a button or key, I am still finding it difficult to take in and recall what I am hearing, particularly as I am being asked to learn “parrot fashion,” to play and replay by ear without being given a table or chart that would allow me to discern a grammatical pattern. Much of what I have heard still sounds to me what the Germans call Kauderwelsch—or plain gibberish.
Though I am not quite licked yet, the Welsh ddraig keeps sticking out its tongue to make a mockery of my efforts. It’s no use slaying it by ear. I simply wasn’t born—nor am I Kaltenborn—to do it.