Learning how to pronounce English

One thing I wish I was better at is pronouncing English (and, consequently understanding spoken English, because these two are linked). It is fascinating that even after living 9 years in an English speaking country I sometimes completely blank out when I hear English speech. This occurred to me just last week when a new colleague wanted to chit chat with me in a kitchen. I was not in a mood and wanted to excuse myself and go back to work. So she briefly stated something I understood absolutely 0 of and I was too lazy to ask her to repeat. I just nodded, smiled and bugged off. I am sure had I insisted she repeat herself I would eventually get it, but I could not be arsed.

It got me thinking though how often this sort of situations happen for native speakers as well. Years of learning languages and reading blogs about language acquisition taught me one thing: most of speech recognition is Bayesian. If you are not familiar with the term, I mean that a lot of it is probabilistic. Our minds actively predict syllabuses/words or entire sentences when we speak to each other. There are several reasons why I think this is the case, and whilst each individual reason can be explained away by some other phenomena, taken together they compel me to believe this probabilistic hypothesis. First of all, speech is incredibly lossy. This is most evident in children who haven’t yet been taught how to read. They mispronounce A LOT and consistently. If speech were a perfect way to communicate kids would have noticed that they are mispronouncing things soon and self-corrected themselves. Even adults actually time to time realise that they have been mispronouncing a word ever since they learned it and, in mild disbelief, try to relearn it. Most often these words are quite obscure, but the surprise is even more interesting when the word is frequent. Another interesting observation supporting this hypothesis comes from me working at Starbucks. It was so difficult to engage people in a conversation because people paid almost no attention to what I was saying: their brains expected me to say what do you want/what would you like so much that sometimes my colleagues played practical jokes on them. They would randomly sneak in some nonsense or even speak their native language only to hear back “regular latte please”. Customers could not even be bothered with just trying to listen. (Of course some were in a rush and chose not to engage, the vast majority though didn’t seem to even acknowledge that something weird was going on). And finally, as a language learner (Spanish this time) I am often in a situation when I have to mentally replay the sounds that I just heard try and parse them into a grammatically valid sentence. It is fascinating how much guesswork this involves especially when you are not extremely familiar with the language. What I suspect is that native speakers aren’t so much better at actually hearing the sounds but they are miles ahead in guessing. Their brains effortlessly fill in the gaps for them and they don’t even notice.

Learners of English language typically love to bash how unphonetic it is compared their native language. I think that they don’t realise how unphonetic their language is to the ears of a language learner. Swallowing sounds is very common in most languages. Spanish, for example, often pronounce está as etá. Russians say пшёл instead of пошёл. There are many such little things in every language. Did you know that you can pronounce Saint Paul as SamPaul? N becomes M! The word because has two versions: one with o: (emphasised) and one with an a like the one in cut (rapid version). Most speakers use both. Another one of these: “I saw a film today” is often pronounced as “I sawRa film today”. Oh boy. With regards to English, philologists of course noticed the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation, and they invented a transcription alphabet that is present in every dictionary to rectify the situation. Look up the words weed and wheat and you will see /wiːd/ and /wiːt/ next to these words. These are guides how one ought to pronounce the words for foreigners. The problem? These transcriptions are inaccurate and languages learners (and teachers) generally don’t know it! From the transcriptions you would guess that the only difference between the two words is the trailing d/t sound. This is a fucking lie and I wish I was told not to trust the transcriptions when I started learning the language. The real, native English distinction is the duration of the sound i: in the middle. Weed is pronounced just like wheat with a slightly longer i in the middle. Appears the dictionary writers can’t themselves hear the speech particularly well, another piece of evidence towards this probabilistic hypothesis. I picked up this interesting tidbit after reading a book on accents and was shocked. Many things that I was taught about how to pronounce English were a lie. There you have it: people like me have been taught to mispronounce English for years. This is a classical error of amateur language learners by the way: to not listen enough. I became fluent in reading English way before I was comfortable listening to it. Reading was just more convenient: I could read in my own time and translate. It was easier to find content too: browsing Internet was less effort for me than hunting for spoken/filmed content. And that’s where I went wrong: by reading too much I solidified my own mispronunciations until it became hard to get rid of. My school was also over reliant on transcriptions. They would tell as that a: in car is just a longer version of a in cat. Boy they could not be more wrong: : does not stand for duration. It stands for a different sound altogether. The point is if you are interested in learning a language you should make sure your main input is audio. Lesson learned.

Anyway, I don’t read books on pronouncing English anymore. It just made me feel bad and self-aware of my accent. Two tips I took from it though are worth stating. 1 is to SLOW THE FUCK DOWN. Rapid speech is NOT a sign of fluency and just annoys the hell out of listeners. Of course slow speech makes the audience more likely to switch off, but nothing is worse than an accented rapid talk. Another one is to “mock” native speakers as much as possible. I have not adopted this piece of advice because it makes me cringe. I have heard numerous foreigners by now who actively deploy this trick. They tend to overcompensate for their accents. Russians, for example, say becooooose (because) with such a long o that I almost fall asleep whilst they are singing it. However linguists advice to just do it even if it makes you cringe, because it sounds better to natives. I am yet to overcome this mental barrier, to me it feels as though people are ashamed of their accents and they probably should not be. Especially given that there is little understanding of what aspects of the accent make it difficult for natives to parse. However I am even more annoyed by those foreigners who effortlessly pick up native accents. It is not just my jealousy that annoys me but their attitude towards foreigners who aren’t as fortunate in sounding so well. Whether on purpose or not I often get a wave of arrogance from those: it is as if they are looking down on people who speak with accents years after residing in an English speaking world. Talk about generalising from one example (oneself) on how difficult it is to become accent-free. Fine I am also quite jealous by all the praise they often get from native speakers: “your English is impeccable”. Is it though? Does accentless speech necessarily translate into rich vocabulary, advance grasp of grammar and extensive knowledge of idiomatic expressions? May be, but I would not jump into such conclusion after hearing a perfect “my name is… ” phrase.

Nevertheless I am very impressed when post-pubescent learners master accent-less English especially when they come from countries with a poor tradition of teaching English and/or when their native language is very phonetically distant from English. In practice it includes everyone but Scandinavians. Kudos to French, Italians, Spanish, Russian and, especially, Chinese. If you think these nations struggle with pronouncing English try learning their language. Gosh English speakers sounds the worst when they try to speak Russian. Borderline incomprehensible. My theory is that phonetic distance is almost always symmetric. Thus I don’t envy English speakers learning Chinese one bit.

Anyway this post has been inspired by the fact that I realised that I probably have been mispronouncing the word wonder as wander for quite some time. And I started thinking to myself when did I hear the word wonder for the first time: and did I hear wOnder or wAnder? And of course it was ABBA’s song. I started to play it in my head. And in my head it has always been the wrong version of wonder. Jesus Christ after 100’s of times of listening to that song my brain has been consistently filling in incorrect pronunciation of the word. Makes me wonder how many more basic words I keep getting wrong. It is also very interesting how as an adult language learner you can often trace the origin of the phrase to a particular movie/song. I often observe this in people who have just moved to England. Everyday phrases trigger goofy smiles in them because they have flashback to interesting movie scenes or favourite songs. The effect obviously wears off but it is an interesting state to be in.

Finally I would like to remark on troll words that are currently complicating my understanding of Spanish. Asking for directions is a nightmare. Word for right, derecha, is way too similar for the word for straight, derecho. It is if the two were invented to serve some kind of “are you a foreigner?” test. Reminded me of can and can’t in English, especially the British pronunciation of the latter with a t dropped. These two cause the world unnecessary amount of damage that I am in favour of changing the two completely.