Archive for Tag: pronunciation

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!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sometimes Reform Can Spell Disaster!

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

Can you spell /pyu-sә-læ-nә-mәs/ the way it’s normally written? I can’t ― unless I look it up in a dictionary. I mean, why should I know how to spell it? I never use the word. Well, okay, it’s spelled pusillanimous, and it means “afraid to take even a small risk” or “cowardly.” Talk about a low-frequency word!

But what about /ne-bәr/ or /saI-ka-lә-ji/? Can you spell those the way they’re normally written? Oh, you feel better now, don’t you. You know I’m talking about neighbor and psychology, right? Did you have trouble spelling those two? I have a hunch you didn’t. They’re high-frequency words, so you’ve seen them and used them many, many times. That’s why you had no trouble spelling them.

So how would you feel if I told you that from now on they should be nebr and sykaluji? How would that grab you? (I think I can see you grimacing.) That first one looks like it could be a kind of phonetic transcription of an ancient Egyptian word, and the other looks like it belongs to some Turco-Mongolian language. They certainly don’t look like English anymore!

And that’s my point. For years and years there have been many people calling for a drastic reform of English spelling. They claim that the majority of even US high school students can’t spell well, and that too much time is spent trying to teach English speakers how to spell their language. I can’t argue with them about that; I’m sure it’s true. I’m also sure that we’re stuck with the spelling system ― if it is a system ― that we’ve got, but I don’t know if that’s such a bad thing.

True, if you look over the history of English spelling, you can’t help but laugh out loud at times when you find out what people did to make the system illogical, awkward, and somewhat inconsistent. Part of the problem comes from the fact that monastic scribes, and later on, printers, had a great deal of influence on how we spell words.

Do you know why so many words contain the combination ck? Some scribes decided that spelling could show it’s necessary to maintain a short vowel sound if that vowel is separated from another vowel by doubling a consonant. That’s why we know how to pronounce pinning vs. pining, or robbed vs. robed. But those scribes didn’t like the look of kk ― it just wasn’t esthetically pleasing to them, I guess ― so they arbitrarily decided to write ck instead. They thought that looked prettier. That’s why we now write picked instead of pikked and won’t confuse its pronunciation with piked. Hah!

And do you know why we spell the word lamb with that silent b? Well, those scribes kept the b in comb and tomb and climb as a reminder of their older forms in which the b was pronounced (camban, tumba, and climban). So when they wrote that word that means a baby sheep, they automatically added that b even though in its original form the word never had a b. We should still be writing it lam, not lamb! And the list of oddities like these goes on and on.

But let’s get serious for a moment. It’s all right ― or alright ― to scream for spelling reform, for a more phonetic way of writing English. But has anybody come up with a system that will work? Not the way I look at it. One big question I have to ask is, with so many variations in the pronunciation of English words, whose pronunciation will we choose to use as the standard for sound/symbol correspondence? If you want to make the system more or less phonetic like we find in Spanish or Russian or German, whose pronunciation will each vowel or consonant represent? Will it be that of the Australians, or New Englanders, or Cockneys, or the British who use “received pronunciation,” RP? Take the word path. If I’m American, I say [pæθ]. If I’m British using RP, I say [pa:θ]. And if I’m a Cockney, I say [pa:f]. So how can we be true to a phonetic way of writing when one word can be pronounced so differently by people who are all native speakers of English? I think you see my point. It just won’t work!

At any rate, we don’t learn to read and write one letter at a time, not after the very beginning. We learn sight recognition, looking at a whole word all at once and recognizing what it is. We don’t sound out each letter of a familiar word when we read it, not if we’re normal readers. To me that’s akin to how Chinese characters are read. They, too, are in a system that relies on reading by sight recognition. So this is one more reason I can’t take those spelling reformers seriously.

And one other thing ― a very important thing ― that they overlook is the personality and unique identification that our spelling system gives to the written language. Take a look again at how I suggested we spell neighbor and psychology. For me there’s something special, almost mysterious, about why those words are spelled as they are. And if I choose to, I can find out the reasons by learning more about the history of the language, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Neighbor comes from two Anglo-Saxon words, neah and gebor, which mean “near farmer.” I like seeing the remnants of those ancient words in the spelling. And psychology is really interesting, too. The p was pronounced in the original Greek word psychos, which means something like “soul.” The Romans incorporated that word into their own language, but they had a problem. Greek had a sound similar to the Scottish or German ch that didn’t exist in Latin, so the Romans chose to represent that sound as ch even though they pronounced it more like a k. Our one word is really from two Greek words, psychos and logos, which mean something like “the study of the soul.” I find there’s a romance in such spellings that I don’t want to lose. Is it impractical? Perhaps, but it adds a character, a personality, a charm to English that I think well worth keeping.

Of course, the most compelling argument for not reforming the English spelling system is this: What will happen to spelling bees? Would you want to take away the fun that so many children have competing in those contests? Would you want to be that spoil-sport? Not I!

Friday, July 25, 2008

If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right

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

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].

Saturday, March 22, 2008

What is Grammar?

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

Before I get into this week’s topic, I’d love to respond to the request that Rachel made in her wonderful observations and comments on my last piece, “It’s Just a Formality.” Rachel mentioned that perhaps I could guide her “… in the right direction about getting doctors to do the right thing” as far as how they address her as their patient. (And, by the way, Rachel, thank you for your terrific comments and observations!)

I’ve been in similar situations, and I’ve only found one tactful way to get my message across about not caring to be addressed by my first name when the person doing so is in a position that I feel could adversely affect my well being in one way or another. I just use that person’s first name, too. So if my doctor were to call me Richard, and I didn’t feel comfortable about him doing so, I’d simply start calling him by his first name, too, and avoid calling him “Doctor.” If my medical practitioner reacted negatively to that, I hope he’d get the message, subtle though it may be. But if he didn’t seem to mind, well, so be it. We’d both just keep addressing each other as if we were old pals. That would be fine with me ― as long as it were mutual.

I once had a principal who always called me “Firsten,” just “Firsten.” It used to drive me nuts. One day, out of total irritation, after he again addressed me as “Firsten,” I called him “Leyva” (his last name). He was quite taken aback and actually came right out and said to me, “You mean Mr. Leyva, don’t you?” I retorted, “Then you mean Mr. Firsten, right?” He got the message, although with somebody like him subtlety didn’t work. But from then on, he called me “Mr. Firsten” and I called him “Mr. Leyva.” So that’s my suggestion, Rachel.

Betty Azar posed a great question in her comments on my last piece. Betty wrote, “I have a question for you. People talk about there being a spoken grammar and a written grammar. When they say that, aren’t they really talking about register and style being different? Isn’t the underlying grammar the same no matter what the register or speaking/writing style?”

This question couldn’t have come at a better time. One of our wonderful members in the Azar Grammar Exchange, an EFL teacher in Saudi Arabia by the name of Ismael, posed a question to me that I told him would best be answered here on my blog. His question ties in perfectly with Betty’s. Ismael asked, “Is pronunciation a part of grammar?”

I smiled both when I read Ismael’s question and when I found Betty’s waiting for me, and here’s why. To begin, I’d like to quote a linguist’s definition of “grammar” to help answer these questions: The sounds and sound patterns, the basic units of meaning, such as words, and the rules to combine them to form new sentences constitute the grammar of a language. The grammar, then, is what we know; it represents our linguistic competence. To understand the nature of language we must understand the nature of this internalized, unconscious set of rules, which is part of every grammar of every language.*

We can tell immediately from this linguistic definition of grammar that pronunciation is indeed one of the integral parts of all the internalized rules that govern a language, and we certainly have “rules” that tell us which sounds are or are not acceptable in any given language. In fact, that’s what’s meant when we say that somebody has “an accent” in another language. It means that the speaker is imposing certain sounds of his native language onto the sound system of the other language he’s speaking. So, for example, if I use my rounded English /r/ when I speak Spanish, which has a trilled /r/, Spanish speakers will say to each other right away that I have “an accent,” an “English accent,” in their language. So that would be one part of the “grammar” of Spanish that I haven’t mastered. I hope that answers your question, Ismael.

As to what Betty has asked, I think the answer can get quite complicated. First, we probably don’t need to define what we mean by “spoken language,” but perhaps we need to do so for “written language.” I would venture to say that “written language” or “written grammar” refers to the standard, educated language and its rules used in writing and understood by all educated people who use the language in question in one specific country.

With that said, if we use the linguistic definition of a grammar, I imagine that we can say there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar, since the standard ― and I stress “standard” ― written language doesn’t need to take pronunciation, intonation, or dialectal variation into account. Here’s one case in point: In certain parts of New England, it’s perfectly correct for Person B to utter the following response in this mini-dialogue:

A: I like nothing better than watching football on Thanksgiving Day.
B: So don’t I.

Now the standard way of responding to that comment would be to say, “So do I,” and I daresay that in the written language, that would be the only acceptable sentence. But “So do I” certainly isn’t the only acceptable sentence in the spoken grammar in that part of the US. So can we say unequivocally that Person B’s response is ungrammatical? I don’t think so, not in the spoken grammar.

So I don’t thin
k those who claim there’s a spoken grammar and a written grammar are just talking about register and style. There seem to be some real differences that we can find if we look closely enough without even accounting for the areas of spoken grammar that don’t need to be dealt with in the written grammar. At least that’s my take on this topic.

I’d love to hear what others think about this issue. Have an opinion? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment. What you have to say is always most welcome!

*Victoria Fromkin & Robert Rodman. An Introduction to Language. 4th ed. Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1988