Friday, July 25, 2008

If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right

This week I’d like to touch on a subject near and dear to me, teaching pronunciation. I’ve never been a fanatic about trying to have every single student of mine learn to pronounce English perfectly. It almost never happens anyway. And the thing is, it doesn’t have to happen. In fact, it shouldn’t even be an ESOL teacher’s goal.

There’s nothing wrong with a person having a foreign accent in English ― so long as that accent doesn’t interfere with communication or draw unwanted attention to itself. You might even know somebody who goes “gah-gah” when he or she hears somebody speaking English with, let’s say, a French accent ― or even a British accent, if that person you know happens to be American. The point being that there’s nothing wrong with having a foreign accent in English.

By the way, when we say somebody has “a foreign accent,” what we’re talking about is when that person uses sounds from his L1 in the L2 (e.g., if he doesn’t aspirate the p when he says pear) or uses recognizable sounds in the wrong environment (e.g., if he says “seen” when he means sin).

When accent reduction is called for, many people overlook perhaps the most important reason to reduce an ELL’s foreign pronunciation in English. It’s not so much to get that student to sound better; it’s to get that student to understand the spoken language better. Yep, that’s right: to understand the spoken language better. I came to the realization many years ago that when you learn another language, if you don’t pronounce correctly, you won’t hear what people say to you correctly. I believe that’s because your mispronunciation of a word sets up how you think that word should sound, so when somebody doesn’t pronounce it the way you expect it to be pronounced, you just don’t understand what’s being said. It’s as simple as that. If I’m Pedro from Honduras, and I always say [dok-tor], when I hear a native English speaker say [dak-tәr], there’s a good chance I won’t recognize what that person has said. If somebody always says [aIs-land] when he means to say [aI-lәnd], well, you can figure out the rest. Not only will he confuse a listener, but he’ll also end up confusing himself when somebody says [aI-lәnd] and he doesn’t recognize the word. Not to mention, of course, the added confusion if the native speaker says [aIs-lәnd], the name of the country, but Pedro thinks that person’s talking about some island!

I’ve noticed over the years that there are some mispronunciations that seem to stick out more than others and that tend to be more universal than others. And I found that I could very effectively reduce my students’ accents by modifying only a few of those sounds that stick out the most. I’ve already pointed out [o] vs. [a] as in [dok-tor] and [dak-tәr]. Along the same lines we’ve got [do-lar] instead of [da-lәr] and [pro-blem] instead of [pra-blәm]. It’s really amazing how often we (in American English, at least) pronounce the letter o more or less like [a]. If you consistently make sure your students don’t get away with pronouncing that o incorrectly, you’ll already have gone a long way to reducing their “foreign accent.”

Here are some other gems that I’ve found tend to be pretty universal and that, when corrected and practiced a lot, go a very long way to reducing a student’s foreign accent:

*[tr] instead of [čr] in words like tree, retry, trouble

*[dr] instead of [jr] in words like dry, withdraw, dream

[tu] instead of [ču] in words like situation, actually, ritual

[du] instead of [ju] in a word like educate

[t] instead of voicless th in words like third (a real doozey when mispronounced!), bathroom, breath

And then there’s the ever popular [va-ke-šәn] instead of [ve-ke-šәn] for vacation.

We also have what I call avoidance substitutions, e.g., using [s] or [f] instead of voiceless th in words like think ([siŋk]) and with ([wIf]).

Last, but not least, we have hypercorrections. My favorite, especially because I’m from Florida, is [hyu-rI-ken] instead of [hәr-I-ken]!

So take it from me, by just focusing on the few sounds I’ve mentioned here, you can go a long way to reducing your students’ foreign accents in English. The closer they come to pronouncing a word correctly, the more they’ll understand the spoken word. In addition, the less attention is called to how they say such words, the more fluent they’ll sound in their L2.


*While it's true that there are native English speakers who pronounce the t in the combination [tr] as a [t], a great many speakers modify that sound and pronounce it [č]. The same holds true for the d in the [dr] combination, with some native speakers pronouncing that consonant as [d] instead of modifying it to [č].

Friday, July 18, 2008

Head Scratchers

Ever have one of those moments when you hear or read something and do an instant double-take? “Huh? What was that? What did I just hear/read?” And then you wait to see if you’ll hear it again or you reread what you just read so you can check out that you weren’t imagining things? Yeah, I’m sure you’ve had those moments. So have I. And then comes that “aha” moment. You hear it again or reread it, and it was exactly what you thought it was ― nuts! Totally illogical! Downright silly! But then comes the moment of self-doubt. “Am I the one who’s being illogical or silly? Am I perhaps being too picky?”

Okay, so you’d like to know what I’m going on about. Well, here’s an example: “This program has been pre-recorded.” Think about that for a moment. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen that flashed at the bottom of my TV screen or heard it delivered by a voiceover. “This program has been PRE-recorded”? Huh? Does it mean the program was recorded before it was recorded? Isn’t that what it means? Isn’t that totally nuts? Do you react the way I do? I doubt the TV studios that produced those shows got lots of letters pointing out the silliness of that statement. I say that because they’ve kept saying it, year after year. I just end up sighing in utter frustration. How about you?

This is fun. I love to vent, so let’s keep going. Another of these little silly gems created by the same TV studios, one that always cracks me up when I hear it or read it, is “Recorded before a live audience.” You don’t say! A live audience, eh? So they’re reassuring us that the show wasn’t performed in a cemetery or in a morgue full of corpses? Nice of them to let us know. Well, at least they didn’t say “Pre-recorded before a live audience”! How can people actually say such things deliberately? I mean, I can understand if somebody says something silly like that on the spur of the moment without realizing how silly it is, but you’d think that somebody else would catch it or the person saying it would catch it himself and realize how funny it is. But no, statements such as these have been thought out, accepted, and used on American TV shows without anybody so much as blinking when they’re flashed on the screen or said by a voiceover. How amazing is that?

Another gem that used to make me chuckle every time I saw it was a sign in the New York City subway system. It was there for years, and I wonder if it still is. It was at the 14th Street station on the IRT line, and it said, “Use last two stairways for toilet.” Don’t you just love it? I wonder if any literal-minded, inebriated person ever followed those instructions to the letter. Actually, I’m glad I never found out in person. But there you have it. Another example of people not realizing what they’re saying or writing. Sure, I understand perfectly well that it’s an ambiguous sentence, and that’s why it’s funny, but couldn’t somebody have come up with something unambiguous? I mean . . . really. (By the way, if any New Yorkers who ride the IRT read this piece, please let me know if that sign is still there, okay?)

Here’s one more that’s made me scratch my head on more than one occasion: “I’ll try and get back to her before the end of business today.” What’s with that often-heard phrase I’ll try and + base verb? Shouldn’t it be I’ll try to + base verb? Okay, I can just see you making a face and thinking, “Aw, c’mon, now you’re being picky. Lots of people say that.” Yeah, I know they do, but they don’t say it in the past (*I tried and got back to her …) and they don’t say it in the present (*I’m trying and getting back to her …), so how come it’s okay to say it in the future? I just don’t get it! It’s also another one of those gems that don’t make sense when you think about them in detail: You’ll try AND get back to her? You’ll try WHAT? You forgot to mention what you’ll try before you get back to her. Aaaaarrrghhh!

I’ve got to calm down. My blood pressure, you know.

Why does it seem that so many things we teach our students ― even the most basic things ― always seem to get contradicted in real-life English? Every Level 1 teacher goes over such basics as Thank you and its customary response, You’re welcome. You’d think that combination couldn’t be tampered with, wouldn’t you? Well, think again. I listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) most mornings. They give wonderful, in-depth stories that really inform their listeners. More often than not, when a piece is over, the anchor will say, for example, “Thank you, Quil, for that report.” Now you’d expect Quil to say, “You’re welcome, Lisa,” or “My pleasure, Lisa,” or something like that, right? Nope, that’s not necessarily right. What does Quil say? “Thank you, Lisa.” So Lisa has said Thank you and Quil has replied Thank you. And I sit there, making a face and thinking in a whiny sort of way, “We can’t teach our students to say that. Why are those two saying that?” And they’re not alone. It’s amazing how often I’ll hear Thank you repeated instead of a good old-fashioned You’re welcome or My pleasure. (Time for me to sigh.)

I could go on and on about head scratchers like these, but I’ll save the rest for another time. I’d love to know if you’ve got any I haven’t mentioned, ones that make you do a double-take, too. And I'd like to know if any of them have kind of ambushed what you teach your students they should say. So let me hear from you. I promise that your pre-recorded comments will be viewed by a live person.

Friday, July 11, 2008

A Rose by Any Other Name

Whenever I’ve taught an Intro to Linguistics course, one of the things I’ve discussed with my students is the fact that you can’t separate language from culture, that a language is an integral part of the culture of the people who speak it, and that it reflects that culture. In other words, you can’t learn a language in a vacuum.

Which brings me to the topic of euphemisms. Nothing is more telling about a culture than the euphemisms that culture has come up with in its language. Of course, this phenomenon can go a long way to driving ESOL and EFL students nuts. First, they’ve got the arduous task of trying to learn several terms for the same thing, and then they’ve got the daunting problem of learning when some of these terms are appropriate to use and when they aren’t. And, if all of that isn’t tough enough, they’ve got to learn which are considered nice and which are considered nasty. This is some job!

I suppose we all have out favorite euphemisms or favorite categories in which we can find lots of euphemisms to have fun with. I know I certainly do! Two categories that have always been nearest and dearest to my heart are the bathroom (itself a euphemism), including items related to it, and obesity. I like to focus, however, on the nice euphemisms, not the nasty ones.

English speakers have a “thing” about the bathroom. Americans, for example, just love their bathrooms. They beautify them with ceramic tile on the walls as well as on the floors. They install the nicest sinks and faucets and bath tubs or shower stalls. They go all out. And they make these cherished rooms sweet smelling so that they and their guests will walk in, inhale, and sigh with approval as they exhale. But don’t you dare call it what it is, the toilet. No, no! We can’t be so direct and low class about a room where such goings-on occur that we even find this topic difficult to discuss with a doctor, if need be. So English has come up with a bounty of euphemisms for that room which you go to “when nature calls” (also a euphemism): the bathroom, the gents’, the head, the john, the ladies’, the ladies’ room, the lavatory, the little boys’ room, the little girls’ room, the loo, the men’s room, the powder room, the privy, the restroom, the WC (water closet). And, of course, for those in less modern settings, the latrine and the ever-popular outhouse.

And what do we say when someone’s in the middle of doing his business in this famous room? “He’s indisposed.” “She’s on the throne.” Don’t you just love it? I remember the first time I heard my plumber refer to the toilet as “the commode.” How nice! How delicate a term! It’s just as delicate as the term that television advertisers had to come up with when they finally crossed the barrier and were able to hawk bathroom items in their commercials. They couldn’t call it toilet paper. Ugh! How crass! So now we watch commercials for “bathroom tissue.” It just rolls off the tongue (no pun intended): “bathroom tissue.”

Here’s a cute story about the word restroom. One of my students told me this tale about when he first arrived in the US. There he was in his first American airport after a very, very long flight during which he had had trouble relaxing and trying to sleep. He picked up his bags and then noticed a sign that said “Restrooms.” “How wonderful!” he thought to himself. “Americans think of everything! They even have a place where tired passengers can rest before they continue their travels.” So he went over to the one marked “men,” went in, and you can imagine the shock on his face as he realized it wasn’t exactly a place to “rest.” That was his introduction to English euphemisms!

Obesity, as I said, is my other favorite category. I just love the euphemisms we’ve created to protect the feelings of fat people. They’re fat. I’m fat. Lots of Americans are just plain fat. But we’ve got to be psychologically protected from that unpleasant reality, so people who want to be polite and sensitive to our feelings have come up with the following terms, which can even be designated as unisex, male, and female terms. Unisex: big, big boned, corpulent, heavy, heavyset, large, overweight, plump; female: buxom, full figured, Rubenesque, voluptuous, zaftig; male: husky, portly, stout. (I think I’ll be “big boned” today. Yeah, I like that: “big boned.”)

Euphemisms do provide a very important service for a language. They reflect how important speakers of a language consider one topic or another, and show us how those speakers deal with or don’t deal with that topic in their culture. The subject of euphemisms is almost inexhaustible, so I’ll have lots more to say about them at another time.

How about you? Do you have any favorite euphemisms, or are there any that you scoff at? I’d like to know what they are, so drop me a line, okay?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Is it a Change ― or is it a Goof? Part 2

In “Is it a Change ― or is it a Goof?” I dealt with the topic of recognizing whether some items are actual changes in the language or just mistakes made by people who don’t know any better. I think this topic merits an additional look, and I hope you do, too.

Just to put some more perspective on this issue, let’s showcase the words apron and umpire. If you had wanted to look those words up in a dictionary back, say, in 1200 (imagining that such a thing as a dictionary existed at that time), you wouldn’t have found them listed under a and u respectively. They would have been listed under n. “Huh?” you say. Yep, both of them would have been under n. That’s because something really odd ― but also funny ― happened to those words. When people speaking Middle English said those nouns with the indefinite article, after enough time had passed, the /n/, which was the first sound of those two nouns, migrated over to the indefinite article, so a napron became an apron, and a numpire (originally numpere) became an umpire. Ain’t that a linguistic kick in the head! And that’s the way those words changed. From a funny mistake said often enough, napron and numpire got transformed and became real lexical changes. That’s accumulation of error at work, all right!

And it keeps happening. A rather recent example is livid. Its original meaning is “gray,” or “ashen” in color. The original expression was livid with anger or livid with rage. In other words, if you felt that angry, your color would turn something like ashen. Well, you can see what happened without my telling you: the "... with anger" or "... with rage" parts got dropped, and livid has come to mean “very angry” or “furious.” And that’s okay. That’s what happens to language.

But here’s something that drives me slightly nuts. Almost everybody now says the media is rather than the media are. I talked about this in my first piece on this topic, when English speakers don’t recognize any longer that the Latin and Greek neuter –a ending is really a plural. Well, so be it. If English speakers want to make that an acceptable change rather than just a goof, okay. But I think that if it’s a real change, it should be consistent whenever used ― and in this case, it isn’t. Read the following and think about whether or not you feel comfortable with it:

The horrendous earthquake that hit southwestern China and the terrible cyclone that hit Myanmar were well covered by television, but were they covered just as well by another media like radio?

“Another media.” Are you comfortable with that? Wouldn’t you probably opt for another medium? If your answer is yes, then we’ve got a troublesome inconsistency. On the one hand, you may go along with employing media as a singular collective noun (the media is), but on the other hand, you may feel you should say another medium instead of another media. That’s not consistent. Maybe this is a change that’s still in the process of taking place. Maybe that can explain the inconsistency.

And if that isn’t enough to question how this word is used, even though with a completely different definition, read the following sentence, which I copied down verbatim from a television commercial for a language-teaching program ― of all things ― called “Rosetta Stone.” This is the testimony given during the commercial by a satisfied customer: “I’ve used a lot of different mediums to learn a language, but …” Oh, my goodness! “A lot of different mediums”? Before I freaked out altogether, I ran to different dictionaries to check this out. Most said that when the meaning is a means of communicating or transmitting information, the “usual” plural is media. One dictionary, however, listed an alternative plural form as mediums. So I guess mediums isn’t used anymore just to mean people who claim to communicate with the dead. I just keep shaking my head more and more when I come up against things like this. Is a real change going on? Is that why one dictionary I looked at mentioned that media is still the preferred plural form, but that mediums is okay, too? Maybe the jury’s still out on this one. But being the kind of conservative speaker I am, I’ll stick with television is a medium and television and radio are media. And as far as I’m concerned, Alison Dubois, who can see dead people, is a medium, and she suspects that her daughters are mediums, too!

So let me end by asking you how you’d categorize the following. Do you see them as changes, or do you see them as goofs? I’ll let you know what I think later, so do feel free to comment. And what do you think about this whole issue? Let me know.

1. I think I’ll lay down for half an hour. Wake me up at 6.
2. This paint goes on real easy. / She does her work quicker than most of my employees.
3. If he didn’t move away from that tree, he would have been killed when the lightning struck.
4. “Do you know where’s the main office?” “Sorry, I’m not sure where the office is at.”
5. We utilize those logs in the fireplace during the winter to make the living room cozier.