Archive for Tag: pronunciation

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Ryhthm of English Grammar

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

Does this exchange sound familiar to you?

   Student: I can go.
   Listener: You can’t go?
   Student: Yes, I CAN go.

The frustration experienced by students when they believe they are speaking clearly and grammatically correctly, but they are still misunderstood, is palpable in this kind of conversation. However, there are some simple, low-cost ways of helping students avoid this kind of frustrating exchange.

All Words Are Not Created Equal

As I said in a previous blog, English is a stress-timed language. This means that not all syllables in English are said with equal stress. Some words convey important information. These content words are stressed; we say them longer, louder and higher than the other words in the sentence. The function words (I call them garbage grammar words, just to make the students laugh) are unstressed. They are said more quietly and weakly. There is a comprehensive list of these words in Melody Noll’s fantastic book, American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections (2007). (If you are not teaching in the USA, don’t be scared off by the word American in the title; her tips work for all kinds of English pronunciation!)

Main verbs are usually stressed because they tend to give essential information. However, auxiliary verbs, including modal verbs, are usually not stressed, unless they are negative. Hence, the conversation above occurs frequently. Students whose first language is syllable-timed want to pronounce each word clearly when they speak English, but native English speakers’ ears are trained to only listen to key words. Conversely, when a native speaker says something like,

     “By 3:00, I will have been studying for more than 6 hours, so I’ll be ready for a break.”

The student hears,

     “… I’lluhbin studying …”,

which sounds unlike any vocabulary word the student has ever studied.

So, What Does This Mean For Grammar Teachers?

It is not enough for us to simply teach the structure of the language. We also need to make sure that students can actually use the language successfully in a conversation. One important part of this is being familiar with the role stress plays at the sentence level. We need to make sure that when we cover target structures in our classes, we also prepare students for the stress or lack of stress they will hear and be expected to use in the world outside the grammar class. 

The Glorious Elastic Band – Part Two

As I mentioned, a few weeks ago, I wrote a blog extolling the virtues of the elastic band, as it is particularly helpful when introducing students to the pronunciation of regular verbs in the simple past tense. However, its usefulness does not end there. In fact, elastic bands can also help students master the pronunciation of the perfect and progressive tenses as well as modal verbs like can. I give an elastic band to each student in the class and then we read sample sentences. We pull hard on the elastic band when we say the stressed words and relax it when we say the unstressed words. This helps students to really feel the difference between the two kinds of words. 

A Round of Applause

Another wonderful strategy for helping students to internalize the rules of sentence stress is clapping. Meyers and Holt (2001) demonstrates this technique clearly in their videos. On the board or using a PowerPoint presentation, I write the key words of a sentence. For example, for a sentence like, “I haven’t been able to wash my hair.” I would write the words haven’t, able, wash, and hair on the board. Then, students and I chant the words and clap in rhythm several times until the students are repeating and clapping in unison. Once the students have the hang of that, I add in the other words, writing them in a small script and crowding them between the main content words. The students then read the entire sentence while clapping, but they should not change the rhythm of their original clapping. In other words, students accelerate through the unstressed words to fit them in between the stressed words and claps. This activity is a lot of fun and efficiently reminds students of the importance of speeding up on the unstressed words and slowing down on the stressed words.

Incorporating pronunciation into grammar lessons needn’t be stressful (pardon the pun) for teachers or students. Some simple strategies for helping students feel the rhythm of English can make all the difference. There is no reason to neglect this important part of the process. After all, most students aren’t studying English just so they can fill in blanks on worksheets. They want to USE English easily to communicate. Not being aware of the norms of sentence stress can hinder them in their goal. However, students most likely won’t master the skill overnight. Applying English stress to their speech will take months or even years of conscious effort. Our job, it seems to me, is to show them the path and help them along.

Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001). Pronunciation for success. Weston: Aspen Productions.

Noll, M. (2007). American Accent Skills: Intonation, Reductions and Word Connections. Oakland, CA: The Ameritalk Press.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Simple Past’s Best Friend . . . The Rubber Band?

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium 

There is always at least one of me at the bottom of your purse, bag, backpack or briefcase. I come free when you buy celery and when your newspapers are delivered. I am everywhere, but I also hold a magical power for students when it comes time to learning the simple past tense. What am I? An elastic band!

English is Stressful

Have you ever heard students say that they “miss-ed” their families or that they “watch-ed’ TV last night? On one hand, it is great that the students know there should be an -ed ending with simple past regular verbs. On the other hand, their mispronunciation of these verbs in the past may cause listeners to have difficulty understanding them. English is a stress-timed language. This means that pronouncing the correct number of syllables (or beats) in a word is key to “listener-friendly pronunciation.” (Gilbert, 2008). If a student adds an extra syllable or doesn’t pronounce enough syllables, listeners may have a hard time understanding the word.

Pronunciation and the Simple Past

After we have covered the “grammar-y” part of the lesson – the formation and use of the simple past – I show a slide in my PowerPoint presentation that shows the three different pronunciations of the -ed ending: /d/, /t/ and /ɪd/. Specifically, in verbs that end with a voiced consonant sound (/b/, /g/, /ʤ/, /v/, /δ/, /z/, /m/, /n/, /ŋ/, /l/, /r/, and /y/) and any vowel sound, the -ed ending is pronounced /d/. In verbs that end with an unvoiced consonant sound (/p/, /k/, /ʧ/, /f/, /θ/, /s/ and /ʃ/), -ed is pronounced /t/. Finally, with verbs that end with the sounds /t/ and /d/, -ed is pronounced /ɪd/.

Then, I let my students in on The Big Secret. The biggest difference between the three endings is that with /d/ and /t/ endings, we don’t add an extra syllable, but with /ɪd/, we do. Students are unfailingly delighted to learn that they don’t need to sweat the difference between /t/ and /d/ as long as they get the syllable count right. (In my opinion, students and teachers who are obsessed with exact pronunciation are the only ones who really care whether the final -ed is pronounced /d/ or /t/. Listeners certainly don’t, because the speaker can be easily understood regardless of which of the two endings they pronounce.)

Enter the Rubber Band!

When I am teaching the simple past tense of regular verbs, I bring enough elastic bands to give one to each student in the class. Students pull once on the rubber band when the verb has only one syllable, like pushed and moved, but they pull twice for verbs that have an extra syllable when the final -ed is added, like wanted and added. For these verbs, students pull hard on the rubber bands when they say the stressed syllable and only pull it a little when they say the rest of the verb. This helps them to feel the difference between a one-syllable past tense verb, like laughed and a two-syllable verb, like waited. Gilbert (2004) suggests that the elastic bands be thick, the thicker the better. Pulling on a thick elastic band requires more effort, which helps students to internalize this pronunciation skill. Students have lots of fun with this activity, and getting students laughing and moving in a grammar class is always a good thing!

Gilbert, J. (2004). “Exchanging thoughts on teaching pronunciation.” Paper presented at TESOL 2004 in Long Beach, CA, USA.

Gilbert, J. (2008). Teaching Pronunciation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acquiring Proficiency in English: How Much Does Geography Matter?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

I have been following with genuine interest Dorothy and Richard’s discussion on the possibility of acquiring a “full command” of English while not living in an English-speaking country. I’d like to enter that discussion by focusing on some of the issues addressed by my fellow-bloggers. 

First off, is the terminology that we use to describe the level of language command important?

Yes. Although saying that some learner has a “full command” or “mastery” of English may suffice in many contexts, I would suggest using the term “proficiency.” Academics in English language studies at the University of Cambridge have employed this term to designate success on Cambridge ESOL’s most advanced exam: The Certificate of Proficiency in English exam, and to categorize exercises and entire textbooks designed to prepare learners for that exam. The Cambridge exams are globally recognized and the term is very serviceable. According to exam materials, those who have earned the Certificate can comprehend practically everything they hear and read, can discuss complex topics “without awkwardness,” and can “express themselves precisely and fluently.” It is an exam designed for those language learners whose level of English is similar to “that of an educated native speaker.” (See .) 

Does studying English in a non-English-speaking country mean only memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules?

Absolutely not. Activities focused on successful and meaningful communication as well as on context-specific language dominate in English-language classes offered in many countries, at least many European ones. In Poland, for example, both oral and written parts of the standardized National Secondary-School Exit Exam in English include many tasks which assess students’ communicative competence. Judging from the contents of the textbooks which are most popular in Poland, The Czech Republic, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, one may conclude that it is effective communication, not “memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules” that constitutes the core of English-language curricula in these and some number of other countries. 

Can you acquire native-like pronunciation without living in an English-speaking country? 
Yes. It is widely recognized that good instruction focuses not only on fundamental grammar and vocabulary as well as register-specific grammar and vocabulary (including slang), but also on phonetics (including emphases on consonant and vowel articulation, stress patterns, and intonation units). In Polish schools (and I’m quite sure that my home country is not an exception here), all those components are regularly part of English language curricula adopted in programs designed for all levels of language competency. Most textbooks, even those for beginning learners, devote a section of every unit to practicing phonetics. Those studying to be teachers of English are very often required to take a three-year course in phonetics. 

Can you be exposed to enough English to become in other ways proficient in the language without living in an English-speaking country?

Available evidence suggests so. There is no doubt that exposure to spoken and written English is required for the internalization of the language, and that English language input is generally more abundant in countries where it is spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. There is also no doubt that variation in register and idiom is concentrated in those countries. However, sufficient exposure to spoken and written English (both formal and more colloquial English) is demonstrably available in places beyond the borders of those countries. Where school and university curricula demand that English is the medium of instruction and all oral and written exercises, all oral and written exams, all graduate papers, and all theses must be done in English (as is customary in many Departments of English in European countries), the amount of exposure is routinely sufficient. English is mandatory in English language classrooms, but it is also commonly read, heard, and spoken in public arenas in those countries, where, I think it’s fair to say non-native speakers of English meet with native speakers of English more than occasionally. It hardly needs mentioning that various media, both monodirectional (e.g. television) and bidirectional (e.g. the Internet, with its email, chat groups, and Skype), add to the amount of English language input available in such countries. 

Is exposure to sufficient English language input- without studious attention to patterns of English grammar, vocabulary, and idiom- enough to guarantee proficiency?

Of course not. Untold millions of people have relocated to the United States from non-English-speaking countries and, after years or decades of copious exposure remain functional but less than proficient in the language. On the other hand, there have been those who have lived in non-English-speaking countries and who have been sufficiently devoted to becoming proficient, and have achieved proficiency in English. 

What are the keys to becoming proficient in English?

Immersion in the language is crucial, but clearly learners do not need to relocate to an English-speaking country to be “flooded” with English. Equally important is that the exposure is exploited in the name of English language internalization and proficiency. Attentive, devoted, motivated, and active learners take advantage of much of the input they receive.

Some years ago, a Polish friend of mine who had never taken any formal English classes, but who had “devoured” textbooks, listened to tapes and to BBC radio, watched BBC TV channels and movies, surrounded himself with reference books, and often spoke to himself in English, passed intensely competitive university entrance exams (both oral and written) with scores which were among the very hig
hest registered by that (large, Polish) university that year (and native-speakers were on those exam panels.) The scores of the only two candidates who had actually lived in an English-speaking country (England) were nowhere near as high as his scores. Was he an exception?
I have also known more than a few fellow-teachers who learned English as a foreign language in Poland and who are often mistaken for native speakers by their British or American colleagues. Are they also exceptions? Perhaps not. Are there plentiful examples of proficient non-native English speaker-writers who are from Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere and who have briefly or never lived in an English-speaking country?
Quite likely.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Perspective on Dorothy Zemach’s “Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher”

By Richard Firsten 

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I enjoyed reading Dorothy’s article written in response to some questions posed to by an Iranian English teacher who she’s named “Ibrahim.” You can’t help but feel the nurturing and supportive tone that Dorothy has created in it. One of the things I’ve always liked about most of the teachers I’ve met in our field is this caring quality that has led to teachers in other disciplines sometimes labeling us in good fun as “mother hens.” Well, that’s fine; I don’t mind that label at all, and I have a hunch that Dorothy doesn’t mind it either!

While I appreciate many things in Dorothy’s article, I’m afraid I have to take exception with some of them. I’d like to comment, right off, on two points Dorothy makes:
  • “… it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English … without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking country.”
  • “I’ve personally met enthusiastic and talented groups of teachers in countries such as Ukraine, Libya, and Algeria who had excellent English language skills … who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me.” 
Let’s Define “Excellent English Language Skills” 
It would be helpful to have a definition of what it means to say that somebody is “an excellent user of English” or has “excellent English language skills.” Such phrases are really quite open to interpretation, but I’m going to assume they mean mastery of the language. There may be some very rare individuals out there who can master English without ever living in the US or UK or other English-speaking country, but I would say that the vast majority of people, no matter how much they apply themselves, could not accomplish this for many reasons.  
Stress and Intonation Critical to Mastery
First, mastery of English does not simply deal with memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules. How can a person living in a non-English-speaking country possibly learn the nuances and subtleties of the prosodic or suprasegmental features that English has? I’m talking about the importance of stress and intonation, which can be very influential in what a sentence means. As for stress, say the following out loud and you’ll see what I mean:
  1.  Have you ever seen a catfish?
  2.  Have you ever seen a cat fish?
As for intonation, say the next two out loud:
  1.  (driver talking to passenger) What’s that in the road ahead?
  2.  (same driver talking to same passenger) What’s that in the road, a head?
Forgetting about the written form in which spacing and punctuation play all-important roles, if you’ve applied English stress and intonation properly, I imagine you’ve come up with very different renditions for those utterances! Try learning these subtleties if not surrounded all the time by English speakers. 

What About Cultural Aspects and Register?

 Second, what about all the cultural aspects of a language and the matter of communicative competence? How can a person not living in an English-speaking environment possibly learn the intricacies of register to know which vocabulary or phraseology is appropriate in different situations with different people, and deal with various levels of formality and informality? On top of that, we have the problem of applying current cultural trends to certain lexical items, things that it would be nearly impossible to be exposed to and master when not living in the context in which such things are used:
  1. (student walking into a university administrator’s office) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”
  2. (same student entering his dorm room, seeing his roommate) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”If you’re aware of communicative competence, you cringe upon hearing the first utterance, but you’re fine with the very same utterance in the second context. I don’t believe such things can be mastered outside of an English-speaking/cultural environment. 
Conrad and Mehta Learned English in English-Speaking Environments
 As for Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta, some points need clarification. Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, started to learn English when he was around 29 years old, but he didn’t do this in Poland; he did it in an English-speaking environment. He arrived in England while working on a ship and started learning English there and while in the company of completely English-speaking crews on board various vessels. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that even though Conrad mastered written English and became a great novelist in the English language, he never lost his thick Polish accent, and I have serious doubts about how well he ever mastered the prosodics of English.
Ved Mehta was born to an upper-class family in British-controlled India. Because of these two facts, I’m sure he was exposed to English at an early age.
Moreover, he started living in a completely English-speaking environment at the age of 15, so I don’t think we can use Mr. Mehta as a role model for people who want to learn English as fully as possible yet stay within the confines of their own non-English-speaking countries. This is not to say that Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta didn’t achieve great success in mastering English. They did. But I think their stories support my argument quite well.
Is Language a Window into How People Think? 
Finally, let’s look back at one other point Dorothy makes:
“Would Americans be less afraid of Iranians if more of us studied Farsi in school? I believe so. Language is an essential clue to how people think and experience the world and express their thoughts and emotions. It’s not a question of adapting to another culture, or being overcome by a different system, but of understanding other ways.”
I don’t think Americans, on the whole, are afraid of Iranians; I think they’re afraid of Iranian politicians and their mindset. I can’t agree that learning a language outside of where that language is spoken will allow us to understand “other ways” except, perhaps, on a superficial level. Yes, we might gain insights into how speakers of a particular language think or view the world around them, but not to any meaningful extent. 
I remember when I was deep into learning Spanish. I wanted to know how to say I dropped it. I was told to say Se me cayó, which I found very odd because that basically means “It fell from me.” On another occasion, I wanted to know how to say I forgot and was told to say Se me olvidó, which means something very hard to put into English like “It got forgotten from me.” It dawned on me that in both cases, Spanish isn’t letting the speaker take responsibility for those acts: I didn’t drop it – it fell from me. It did that, not me. And I didn’t forget anything – it got forgotten. This is an interesting psychological observation on the part of an English speaker learning Spanish, but it’s certainly not a way to judge how all Spanish speakers think. No, just learning a language doesn’t necessarily allow us to understand “other ways.”
Advice for Ibrahim

So, Ibrahim, all I can say to you is that I hope one day you’ll be able to live for a decent period of time in an English-speaking country. Perhaps you should consider Canada. I don’t know how tough the Canadians would be on giving you a visa for an extended stay, but you might want to find out from the Canadian embassy. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will become a much more fluent speaker of English (in all aspects that such a description includes) once you’ve had the opportunity to live in a country where you’ll be surrounded night and day by English and be immersed in one of the cultures that influence the language so heavily. 

Good luck to you, Ibrahim. And thank you, Dorothy, for having given Ibrahim such a nurturing and supportive answer.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Conversation with Amir

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

For quite awhile, I had an ongoing conversation via e-mail with a young EFL teacher from the Middle East who’d come across my blog and determined to start a dialogue with me. He’s a very bright young man who teaches English at a technological university, and the following “conversation” is based on some of that ongoing correspondence we had. I’ve copied Amir’s sections just as they were sent to me.

I’d love to hear your reactions to this conversation and receive any extra observations you can make on this subject.

Amir: Why don’t the Americans follow exactly the English way of using grammar, words, pronunciation, etc? Since I think there are two versions of one language. At the word level, for example, tap is British English and faucet is American. At grammar level, for example, the British past participle of get is got, but in American English gotten. At pronunciation level, water in British English is pronounced very different from the American one. You see that I didn’t say the opposite, that is, why don’t the British follow exactly the American … since I think English is originally English not American and so it must be better. What do you think?

Me: I think that’s a marvelous question, Amir. The easiest way for me to answer it is to turn the question around and ask you the same about Arabic. The homeland of Arabic is the Arabian peninsula, but the language spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Do you speak the same Arabic in your country that’s spoken, say, in Morocco?

Amir: Of course not.

Me: The reason for that is that languages keep evolving. In any region, the causes can include geography, the natural environment, other languages that have an influence, the arrival of immigrants, and the history of the region.

Amir: Since your answer is wonderful, it deserves a good reply, and I will do my best. Firstly, I expected you turning the question around.

Secondly, let me explain what I was talking about is the “standard English” accepted in Britain and America.

Thirdly, I’m going to talk about the Classic Arabic or standard Arabic compared with standard English.

Fourthly, I agree with you that we speakers of Arabic do not speak the same in term of pronunciation since everyone has their regional accent, but we use exactly the same words. For example, the word window has many names according to the country one lives in, and that is so-called “dialects”. But when it comes to speaking Classic Arabic, one should use the very word which is understood from the north to the south and from the east to the west.

Fifthly, at the level of grammar, it is completely the same.

Sixthly, there are dictionaries designed for British English and others for the American one. This drives me to presume that they are different. If not, why to have different dictionaries as long as the same? Likewise, in Arabic we have different dictionaries but they differ in the way words are presented but not in the content, that is, a dictionary may start with a word that another may not start with. Yet the meaning and the understanding of word is still the same.

Seventhly, and the most strong factor, is that Arabic is a sacred language. It is used in religious texts, especially the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions.

Me: Your original question had to do with why American English doesn’t follow British English exactly. I answered that by explaining that American English has been influenced by American Indian vocabulary and by vocabulary from every immigrant group that joined us to create the country we now have. Immigrant languages also had some influence on certain grammatical patterns, although not a strong influence.

Pronunciation in American English was first influenced by various pronunciations in the UK. Then American pronunciation was influenced by the way immigrants pronounced certain words.

I hope you get a general picture now of why American English hasn’t strictly followed British English.

As for “standard” English, this is a very tricky area. We don’t have a sacred language like Classical Arabic, so we have nothing to turn to as a reference. Nor do we have a national academy like in France and Spain that makes decrees on what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.” So what do we have?

Well, first, “standard” American pronunciation is based on how television and radio reporters, especially in the 1950s, pronounced English. One of the greatest influences on this aspect of American English was a TV news reporter named Walter Cronkite. His Midwestern pronunciation was so clear and easy to understand that it became the norm for broadcasters all around the country, and that led to its being adopted more or less by all educated speakers who made a conscious choice to speak with a “standard” pronunciation. In the UK, it was how broadcasters on the BBC sounded that became the accepted “standard” British pronunciation except for another version called RP, “received pronunciation.”

As for vocabulary, that becomes a much more difficult area to discuss. My guess is that the majority of English words are what we can consider “standard” vocabulary, and the test for that is that they’re understood by most educated American English speakers. So it doesn’t matter really if you call it a faucet, a tap, a spigot, or a spicket ― most of us will still understand what you’re talking about.

Of course we have words in one region that may not be understood by people in other regions. Those words are classified as “nonstandard.” They may have a standard counterpart, but they’re still considered nonstandard.

Here’s one example: If I say frying pan to native English speakers, they’ll understand what I’m talking about. But then there are regionalisms such as fry pan, skillet, spider.

Here’s something interesting about faucet and tap. I’m mentioning these again because I want to show you how words can become integrated so well into the standard language even though they may originally have been nonstandard. I’m from New York, and I grew up calling that device on the kitchen sink a faucet. People in some other regions call it a tap. But if I’m thirsty and I don’t want bottled water, I’ll say I’d like a glass of tap water even though for me it comes out of a faucet. So I get tap water from the faucet!

The main point is that one variety of English isn’t necessarily better or worse than any other variety. Yes, there’s something we gingerly call “standard American” or “standard British English,” but nobody’s 100% sure what that means except to say it’s the common language used by most educated people in the country.

Okay, Amir, may
be I’ve given you more information than you wanted to know.

Amir: No, I understand, and I think I know much better why you have many differences and why you don’t copy British English. Thank you, Richard.

So what’s your take on this topic? Anything to add? If something comes to mind, let me know.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My English is Better than Your English! Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In my last entry, I discussed standard language compared to nonstandard language, focusing mainly on variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, and besides mentioning a few differences in the past and current language of Michigan compared to standard American English, I reported what my British friend Mick O’Hare had to say on the subject.

Now I’d like to mention some more differences between standard and nonstandard language, and also get a little into what we term substandard language.

I come from New York City. To this day people don’t stand in line when waiting to get into someplace; they stand on line. That’s an example of nonstandard American English. But in one part of the city, it’s common to hear people say things like You want I should do that now? instead of Do you want me to do that now? And even though it’s fast dying out, there was a time when it was common in a certain part of the city to hear people switch the pronunciation of “oy” with “er,” so you’d hear things like I need some erl for my car and That British aristocrat is called the Oyl of Devon. So should a teacher in New York City teach stand on line along with stand in line, and should that teacher tell students it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or She’s a lousy cook. The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water!?

My answer to the first question is yes, stand on line can be taught alongside stand in line since ESOL students in New York will undoubtedly hear native speakers say on line, but the teacher should emphasize which one is the standard phrase. My answer to the other question is no, teachers should not teach that it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water. That’s because such grammar and such pronunciations are not standard or even nonstandard English; they’re simply substandard English, and substandard English is unacceptable as a teachable variation. Such grammar and pronunciation basically fall into the same category as ain’t and double negatives. They exist, but the consensus of opinion is that they’re substandard forms. Sometimes it may take checking into to decide if something is a regional variation (nonstandard) or substandard.

At any rate, here are the questions I put to my Australian colleague, Penny Cameron, to get her take on things, and Penny’s answers:

Penny, does Aussie English have regional variations that are so outstanding that you don’t have a problem recognizing which part of the country somebody comes from?

There are regional lexical items, and some regional variation in, for instance, long or short /a/ in words like Newcastle. Please visit the Australian Word Map for a work in progress on this very topic.

Is there a standard Aussie English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech?

We try to teach a standard English, but the kids undermine us the way they always did.

Is there any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Aussies poke fun at the way other Aussies speak?

Not really. We make cruel jokes about other states, suggesting that Tasmanians are inbred and Sydneysiders brash and property obsessed, and we sometimes say that Queenslanders drawl.

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Aussies in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand?

Very few, I believe. See SCOSE (the Standing Committee on Spoken English) and the Word Map

We have a steadying influence in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) based on the BBC. Apart from giving us informed non-partisan discussion (the politicians hate it), the ABC hosts SCOSE, the Standing Committee on Spoken English.

This is from their website: “The ABC’s Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) this year celebrates its fiftieth year. It evolved from earlier groups which had existed since 1944.

“However, the brief for previous incarnations of SCOSE was to maintain standard English pronunciations. In 1952 it was recognised that the ABC should make some departure from BBC practice and recognise Australian English.

“The role of SCOSE is to provide a reference source for broadcasters and journalists through the Language Research Unit, which is maintained by News and Current Affairs.

“Broadcasters and journalists can check all aspects of spoken and written English ― pronunciation, grammar, spelling, usage and style. The Committee also monitors the use of language in a broad sense across all ABC platforms to ensure it is conforming to community standards and the ABC’s editorial policies.The Committee meets once a month to discuss language policy and usage, queries from staff, and any observations or complaints from the public. Members include staff representatives from program producing areas across radio, television and online.”

The SCOSE Academic Adviser Professor, Pam Peters, is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University. Professor Peters sits on the Macquarie Dictionary Advisory Board and is the author of Cambridge University Australian English Style Guide, my constant desk companion.

However, we certainly sound different to other people. Please see the story at the beginning of the most recent Ozwords (Oct 2007) about the unfortunate Australian woman who got arrested.

I did, Penny, and I was amazed at what happened to her. Incredible! I hope all my readers will take a look at the story and see what misunderstandings can arise from one form of English to another. And thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, Penny, and for offering such good links to visit.

As I said last time, I’d love to hear from you folks, so please share any reactions or thoughts you have with us by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My English is Better than Your English!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I returned some days ago from East Lansing, Michigan, where I gave a six-hour workshop on grammar to over 150 gracious, enthusiastic ESOL teachers from all around the state who eagerly wanted to understand more about the workings of the English language. The six hours flew by, and I feel very grateful to have had the experience of meeting and chatting with those teachers.

One of the topics that came up while some of us were chatting during breaks and after the workshop dealt with a subject I had brought up in the early part of the workshop, namely, standard English vs. nonstandard English, also known as regional variations. A number of the teachers wanted to know if one was better than the other, and which form of English (e.g., standard American, standard British, etc.) should be considered “the best.” I quickly explained that there is no such thing as one form of English being better than any other and that all forms are fine if they work all right for the people who use them. I added that we have what is gingerly referred to as standard English, which seems to be the language that’s understood and used by the majority of educated native speakers. I suggested that the teachers might want to teach standard language to our students first, but that there was nothing wrong with introducing regional variations, nonstandard English, at the appropriate level and appropriate time.

Here are some examples of regional variations as opposed to the standard forms. For example, in pronunciation, since it was the fall and the leaves were starting to turn colors, I mentioned foliage (/fo – li – әj/ as the standard, /fo – lәj/ as the regional variation). Then one of the teachers brought up auxiliary. She’d noticed that I pronounced it /ŏg – zIl – yә – ri/ while she always said /ŏg – zIl – ә – ri/. Which one was standard, she wanted to know. I told her the way I pronounce the word is standard, which surprised her. But she said she’d pronounce it that way from now on.

Then there are words. In Michigan, years ago, people called a couch (sofa) a davenport. And when you were thirsty and didn’t care for water, you’d go to the fridge and get a pop (a soda). So couch or sofa is the standard word, and davenport was the regional variation. Refrigerator and soda are the standard words, while fridge and pop are regional variations. Does that mean the former are better than the latter? Not really. The only thing that may be important for us ESOL teachers is to know which should be taught first to our students. Or perhaps the two forms should be taught at the same time. Food for thought. One other thing of importance is attitudes that native speakers have about standard language as opposed to nonstandard forms. How judgmental are people about nonstandard pronunciations and vocabulary compared to the standard language?

Of course, American ESOL teachers aren’t the only ones wrestling with these questions. While preparing this blog entry, I contacted a friend of mine, a writer and editor in London, to get his take on what is considered standard language in the UK. I did the same with a friend and colleague in Sydney, Australia to hear her views on this topic, and will discuss her answers in my next blog entry.

So here are the questions I put to my British friend, Mick O’Hare, along with his answers. Mick has written some wonderful books and is an editor at New Scientist magazine:

Mick, is there a standard British English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech? Is it different from “received pronunciation”? And if it is different, who learns that and who learns RP?

Only in the public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rodean (posh private schools to you), I believe they still teach RP through elocution. Otherwise you are taught in the accent (generally) from the area in which you were born. I guess teachers tend to iron out dialect, but as far as I know there’s no law over pronunciation. For example, my teachers would have said /fæst/ whereas my wife’s would have said /fast/ purely because I’m from the North and she’s from the South. And, of course, we all had teachers who came from different parts of the country, so they just taught in their own accents. I don’t recall any calamities. RP is taught to the wealthy or the aristocratic, but it’s dying out to a certain extent as regional accents become more acceptable and as English homogenises generally through TV, etc.

Is there still any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Britons poke fun at the way other Britons speak?

Yes. my wife’s mum, for example, who speaks RP, thinks that only RP should be allowed on the BBC (even happily says it to me). But even so, society is far more egalitarian now and it matters far less. Nonetheless, certain prejudices apply to certain accents: good examples would be the Birmingham ‘Brummie’ accent, which is associated with being stupid and rather universally disliked, Glaswegian which is considered incomprehensible by everybody else, Geordie (much the same), Yorkshire (my accent), which is considered dour or down-to-earth. On the other hand, some accents such as Edinburgh, Highlands, West Lancashire, and West Country are considered ‘pleasant’. And everybody who is not a cockney hates cockney because they all love themselves too much, the chirpy l’il sparrers!

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Britons in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand? (I’m talking about regional variations within England, not including Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.)

Yes, lots. Loads of dialect words. I’m not too up on other areas, but obviously, because of rhyming slang, there are simply hundreds in cockney. And I know East Anglia has a lot, but in Yorkshire we have plenty ― these are the ones I know best. My granddad could speak virtually in a different language if all the dialect words came out at once. A few that spring to mind are laik (“play” ― I still use this and also laikers for “players”), baht (“without”), allus (“always”), claht (“cloth”), and snicket (“alleyway”).

Pronunciation might still catch people out area to area.

Thanks very much for your i
nsights, Mick. I think it will be helpful for English teachers, no matter where they are, to read your take on these points about British English, compare them with things I’ve mentioned about American English, and then think about whatever form of English may exist in their parts of the world. This may have more of an impact on how they teach English than you might think at first glance.

Any thoughts, folks? If something comes to mind, please share it with me by leaving a comment.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Head Scratchers, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Awhile back I wrote a piece with the same title as this piece, “Head Scratchers.” I had lots of fun with it, and I must say I enjoyed sharing my amazement with you over the things that people say or write without anybody questioning the logic of what they’ve come up with. I said in that piece that I’d have more little gems to comment on, and the time has come. So let’s get started.

First off, there’s the case of one of my all-time favorite redundancies: Church of Christ. Now really, can there be any other kind of church besides one that deals with Jesus Christ? Or there’s a Spanish version I’ve recently come across: Iglesia Cristiana, “Christian Church.” This is just silly. Jews have temples or synagogues; Muslims have mosques; Hindus and Buddhists have temples ― and Christians have churches. We know who churches are for.

Besides silly things people say or write, there are things in our grammar that make me scratch my head just as much as the kinds of things I talked about in my first piece on this topic. Take, for example, a newspaper headline like “Ice Cream Chain Co-Founder Dies.” (This was a story about Irvine Robbins, one of the co-founders of Baskin & Robbins, Inc.) Yes, I know it’s common to use the simple present in such headlines, but have you ever stopped to consider how silly that is, how funny that sounds, and how this use of the simple present can confuse ELL’s? Here’s a verb form that signifies something done repeatedly or habitually, and it’s being applied to something like dying? Where’s the logic in that? I mean, if you’ve died, you’ve died. You’re not going to do that all the time! If you want to say Ice cream chain co-founder shaves, that’s okay. Ice cream co-founder smokes, that’s okay (grammatically speaking, anyway). But Ice cream co-founder dies? Doesn’t that bother you? There are points of English grammar that do bother me!

And just for the heck of it, how is it that highly is an adverb, but lowly is an adjective? (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Continuing with more grammatical oddities, let’s talk about teeth whitening. I’m beginning to come across this outrageous creation of advertising more and more. TEETH whitening? Not TOOTH whitening? To begin with, the grammar rule is that when you’re compounding nouns ― which is what’s happening here ― the first element, the descriptive element, is almost always in the singular. That’s why we don’t say *bedsroom or *starslight. The exceptions are when that first element is normally used in the plural, like in the arms race. Why on earth would they think that teeth whitening would be acceptable? Do we say TEETHbrush or TEETH decay? And how about fingers or feet? Have you ever heard anybody say FINGERSprints or FEETprints? Exactly! I rest my case.

Finally, before we all run for some aspirin or blood pressure medicine, there’s the matter of unnecessary mispronunciations. Shouldn’t educated people at least approximate the way a name is pronounced? Not too long ago, the famous fashion designer Yves St. Laurent passed away. That’s pronounced “Eev San Laurón” for those in the know, not like my local news anchor who pronounced it, “Eev Saint Law-rent.” Ugh! And I recently heard the actor Ben Stiller do a public service announcement to help the victims of that horrible cyclone that hit Burma, also known as Myanmar, or, as Mr. Stiller so sophisticatedly pronounced it, “MY-an-mar,” as if the first syllable should rhyme with tie. I must have heard a hundred news stories about that country after the cyclone hit, and in every one of those stories, the reporters pronounced the name more or less correctly, “Myanmar.” But not our Mr. Stiller. I guess he never listens to the news. And along the same lines, another one of my local news anchors called the General Secretary of the United Nations “Ban Kigh Moon” (“Kigh” also rhyming with tie) instead of the right way, “Ban Kee Moon.” That gentleman is the Secretary General of the United Nations, for Pete’s sake!

Am I amazed at these mispronunciations? Yes! I would think that educated or professional people would know better. They don’t have to get the pronunciations exactly native-like, but they surely can come close if they just put a little effort in checking out the pronunciations when in doubt. The problem is, they don’t seem to care.

But that’s not what really gets me. What absolutely flabbergasts me is that those people aren’t working in a vacuum. They’re involved with script writers, producers, directors, videographers, et al., and yet nobody but nobody seems to notice their off-the-wall mispronunciations and think it important enough to save the day by giving them a tip on the right way to pronounce the name. That’s what flabbergasts me. I just don’t understand it.

Here’s one for you that you may not know. There’s a very ancient fish swimming around out there in the ocean that scientists thought had gone extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. It’s the coelecanth. That’s right, you haven’t read it wrong; the coelacanth. Now don’t you think it would be a good idea to check out how on earth that name is pronounced? I certainly do. Well, it so happens that the name of that ancient fish ― which isn’t extinct after all ― is pronounced “SEE – luh – canth.” So, besides being one of the ugliest fish you can imagine, it’s also got a name whose spelling doesn’t give you much of a clue about its pronunciation. Of course that didn’t stop yet another TV newsperson from calling it ― yes, I’m sure you can guess ― the “koh – ELL – luh – canth.” You can imagine how fast I fired off an email to him! At least he had the courtesy to thank me for the correction.

Of course the example of the coelacanth is kind of understandable. It just boils down to laziness or not having enough curiosity to check the pronunciation out. As far as all the other gems I’ve cited in these two pieces like “Recorded before a live audience” or teeth whitening, I keep trying to come up with scenarios that will explain how such blunders are made, but I can’t. I simply can’t. If any of you can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful. I’d like to stop scratching my head before my hair starts falling out.

I don’t think I’m being picky in these instances. Some things are acceptable, but some things just aren’t. And yet there they are, for all to hear and read and use. And we don’t have any Academy to rule on such usages, do we, or to tell us what is or isn’t silly. Nope, we don’t. With English, it all seems to be very “democratic,” so to speak. If enough people say it’s okay and use it, or simply don’t react negatively to it whatever it is, it becomes “acceptable.” That certainly doesn’t make our jobs as English teachers any easier, but what can you do? So even though I lowly recommend it, we may find ourselves having to teach our students these odd alternatives to what we traditionally cons
idered “correct logic,” “correct English” or “correct pronunciation.” And, by the way, this piece has been pre-written.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I’ve been asked to mention some more of the sounds that I think make the biggest difference in our students producing more native-like pronunciation (“If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right”), and I don’t have to think very hard to come up with the ones I think most important. Actually, I was very glad to be asked, and I’m happy to accommodate. If you focus your teaching on these sounds, I’m sure you’ll see a marked improvement in your students’ ability to understand the spoken language because, as I keep saying, if you say it right, you hear it right.

Let’s start off with the North American flapped d [D], but I should add a disclaimer here. I can’t escape the fact that I’m North American and that I teach American English, so this is a sound that’s found in North American pronunciation. If you happen to teach another variety of English, please understand this.

The flapped d is the sound of /t/ when it’s in medial position in an unstressed syllable. The funny thing is, many ELL’s tend to think they hear a trilled r when they’re not familiar with this sound in North American English. It’s produced by quickly flapping the tip of the tongue up against the hard palette (the front of the roof of the mouth). For example, when I say butter, it sounds like [bә-Dәr], not [bә-tәr]. (Unfortunately I can’t find the correct IPA symbol for the stressed schwa, which looks like a triangle without the bottom line, so I’ll have to settle for the schwa. Sorry about that.) Other words that contain the flapped d are party [par-Di], atom [æ-Dәm], and cattle [kæ-Dәl].

A sound in all varieties of English that I think is very important to accomplish better listening comprehension is the schwa /ә/. Many teachers don’t realize that it’s the most common vowel sound in the English language. In fact, when many vowel sounds are unstressed, they reduce to schwa. Here are some examples: America [ә-me-rә-kә], banana [bә-næ-nә], and giraffe [jә-ræf]. Get your students to reduce unstressed vowel sounds properly to schwa, and you’ll be helping them a lot towards better recognition of the words they hear and therefore towards better listening skills.

Moving right along, one that comes up more often than you might expect is the pronunciation of the final –ate in nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Take the word alternate. As a noun or adjective, that final –ate is pronounced [әt] or even [It], but when it’s a verb, the pronunciation changes to [et]. The same is true with words like associate and intimate. When used as nouns or adjectives, the final syllable is pronounced [әt] or [It], but when they’re used as verbs, the final syllable is pronounced [et]. Such a change in sound can really throw students who aren’t aware of this phenomenon.

And speaking of language phenomena, another gem that really improves students’ listening skills is when they’re made aware of the phenomenon we call juncture, which I discussed at length in my last blog entry (“A Cheap Present of Reef Fish for Ronny”). So make it a point to teach your students about juncture, and their listening skills should definitely improve.

That’s it, folks. Between this piece and Part 1, I’ve now covered the sounds that I think go a long way to giving our students better listening skills. I strongly believe that if you say it right, you’ll hear it right. Am I right? I’d love for you to share your thoughts on this topic and any anecdotes you might have from your own teaching experiences, so feel free to write in.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Cheap Present of Reef Fish for Ronny

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Can you figure out by looking carefully at the title of this piece what my topic is this week? (I’ll give you a hint: It’s something to do with pronunciation.) Go ahead . . . Say the title out loud a few times and see if you can figure out the topic.

Have you got it? Are you still clueless? Okay, I’ll let the cat out of the bag. The topic of this piece is a little something that I think is often overlooked when pronunciation lessons are planned, much to my chagrin. It’s called juncture, the joining point of two sounds. This is an area of pronunciation that’s problematic for people learning English. It happens when the final consonant sound of one word and the initial consonant sound of the following word are identical or closely related. When you have this situation, native speakers basically connect or join the two sounds, creating what sounds like one word instead of two.

Take, for example, the phrase a sad dog. Most English language learners will try to pronounce sad and dog as separate words like this: a sad dog, but native speakers will join the final sound of sad and the initial sound of dog and say a saddog. When native speakers do this, they hold on to the conjoined sound just a fraction longer than they normally would. That’s juncture!

To get you into the swing of things, here are more examples to demonstrate juncture at work when we’re dealing with either voiced or voiceless sounds in both words. Say each pair out loud and you’ll see what I mean:

Bob_Barker / half_full / a big_girl / pick_cotton / clean nails / a ripe_pear /
the bus_stop / sweet_tomatoes / both_thumbs / bathe_the dog / too much_sugar

Did you hear juncture at work in each of these pairs when you said them out loud? And did you notice how you held on to the conjoined sounds just a little bit longer than normal? Now you’re cookin’!

Ah, but what about the words first and student? The final sound in one word and initial sound in the other word is the combination [st]. How does this work, you ask? Well, when we combine such sounds, it’s the [s] that’s held and the [t] in the first word is dropped, so we end up with She’s the firs_student to win that award. The same disappearing act happens with words like past and dances: I’ve enjoyed all the pas_dances at our school.

English has exceptions to lots of its rules, so why should juncture be any exception? Yep, there are a couple of exceptions to the rules that deal with juncture. The first exception is when we have the sound [ch]. If one word ends with [ch] and the next word begins with [ch] or [j], we have no juncture: a rich chowder, a rich janitor. Interestingly enough, this doesn’t happen when the first word ends with [ch] and the next word begins with [sh]. We saw that earlier in the phrase too much_sugar.

The other exception to our rules is when we’re dealing with the sound [j] in both words, as in orange juice. Once again, there’s no juncture.

But we’re not quite finished yet! There’s one more thing to mention. What happens if the two words have closely related sounds, but one ends in a voiced sound and the other begins in a voiceless sound, or vice versa? For example, what about if we have rob and Peter? Both [b] and [p] are related because they’re both bilabials produced by quickly closing and opening the lips. So what happens in this case since the final sound of rob is voiced, while the initial sound of Peter is voiceless? In this case, instead of combining the two sounds into one and holding the sound for a split second longer, the two sounds actually remain independent. The final sound of the first word is held a little longer, and then it glides into the initial sound of the next word. So getting back to rob and Peter, we say They’re going to rob_Peter.

Here are a few more examples of this neat little phonological trick:

a bad_temper / big_cats / a great_decision /
pick_grapefruit / a tough_vampire / his_slacks

So there you have it. As you can see, there’s quite a bit to say about this neat occurrence called juncture and why it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked in teaching English pronunciation. I rest my case. Oh! Just to get back to the title of this piece for a moment, how should we say it out loud? This is how: A cheap_present of reef_fish for_Ronny. That’s how!