Stephie the parrot

Stephie, The Parrot

It was around the year 1990 at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville (UTK) when I became like Stephie, The Parrot. I had arrived there on August 11, 1989, as an exchange student. The plan was for me to study chemistry in Graduate school for nine months and get to know more about America. Then I was going to go back to Germany.

It happened differently. My advisor invited me to stay beyond the initial exchange period and get my degree at UTK. My initial decision was to extend for one year and get my Master’s degree. Later on, I decided to get my Ph.D. there, too, instead of returning to Germany.

On the day of this story, my Ph.D. advisor, Prof. Craig Barnes, and I were standing in our chemistry research lab, talking about my research. It was a typical conversation; something about the next experiment I was going to do.

A female friend of mine, also a Graduate student, popped into the lab. She stood there and listened as Craig and I finished our conversation.

“That Was So Rude!”

After Craig had left, she turned to me and said “That was so rude!”

“What do you mean?” I asked my friend with surprise. I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Prof. Barnes. He was so rude to you!” she said.

“He was???,” I asked. “Why? How was he rude to me?” I wanted to know.

“He corrected you right in front of me. Your English,” she said.

“He did?” I wondered.

A second later I realized, yes, indeed, he had corrected something I had said. Not the science of it but how I expressed it in English.

Our Method To The Parrot Madness

Oh, that is ok. That is how we talk all time. That is how I learn English so much faster.

Stephie Althouse, ~1990

I told her that I was like a parrot. I’d say something. If I had made a mistake in how I said it, Craig would correct me. I would repeat the corrected sentence. Then, without a second thought, we’d go on in our conversation. It became a habit. After a while, I was barely aware of our “ritual.”

My friend had a hard time wrapping her mind around this idea. Being corrected in front of someone else seemed rude to her. To me, with Craig, it was normal. And I appreciated it.

How Else Could I Have Become Fluent?

How else could I have become fluent in English? How confident would I have been to write my dissertation? What about the articles and books I have written since then? And as of late, the Brilliance Nuggets? (Yes, I know they are not “perfect.”)

How else could I have become comfortable speaking at conferences and in front of groups? (There is Toastmasters, of course … and yes, I am a member, even an officer, with this excellent organization).

I get a lot of joy out of both speaking and writing. And the first person I get to thank for that is Prof. Craig Barnes. Thank you, Craig!

I think being like a parrot is a great idea when you pick the right person to parrot. You get better so much faster. You meet your goals so much more easily. I know people who have come to this country a long, long time ago – and they still make even basic mistakes in the use of the English language. They didn’t have a “Craig” to parrot. I still make mistakes – but maybe not quite so often. You be the judge.

I’m Curious

Where in your life have you benefitted from someone correcting you? Where have you been like a parrot or an emulator? Have you had any person like that who is not your actual parent?


  1. Carolyn Koenig on at

    It is very hard to learn how to speak another language and, more so, when you are past your early teens. Stephie, you were so lucky to have somebody who had your vested interest in mind and wanted you to excel. Having said that, maybe some people are overly sensitive? Maybe your friend should have asked about your arrangement with Prof. Barnes, rather than jumping to conclusions and forming a negative opinion of your mentor!

  2. Neal Ostman on at

    This is true. Immediate feedback is a great learning method. Delivered appropriately of course. This applies to better business writing as well. When I was in Internal Audit, our Director of Audit would bleed ‘red’ edit marks all over our draft reports. What was extremely valuable was that he would call you in his office and go over the reasons. This occurred within a day of the drafting so the feedback was immediate and we learned how to write more concisely and accurately. If you want to learn, then accept getting corrected, especially from a respected teacher.

    • Stephie Althouse on at

      Thank you, Neal! Excellent point and a great story. Of course, one could also use a green pen… maybe it looks a little less intimidating (?)

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