Friday, 5 July 2013

I Can't Say That

I was reminded today of the wonderful journey I've had through the study of language, thanks to my son getting it wrong many years ago.

When James was in Grade 6 or 7, or thereabouts, I got a call from his teacher telling me he was having a problem with rhyming words. He didn't seem to able to tell that two words rhymed, and after giving him extra help, she had decided he suffered from poor phonemic awareness. Apparently this is a known issue, along the lines of how being tone-deaf will hamper you in music class.

I didn't know what she meant, so I hit the internet. It was really very different 10 years ago. To get information like that I had to go to University websites, linguistics departments, and it was heavy, heavy going, as it was something I had not studied formally before. (You can look it all up on Wikipedia now).

But I got it, eventually, and was able to formulate my own theory, which was that because James was listening to two different accents, his parents' English at home, and a local accent at school, he had basically opted (possibly subconsciously) to ignore the difference.

I reported back to his teacher a long diatribe on accents and the shape of vowels, and she said "If you'd asked, I could have told you what a phoneme was". But she'd have given me the simple version and that's not how I get to the bottom of things.

Anyway, having really looked hard at it, I understood it at a level that was more to my tastes. Over the next few years, I continued to study phonology (which is what this was) and it just got more and more interesting.

One thing I have gleaned from all of this, is that people fall into four categories.

1. Linguistics experts. Annoying people who will pick out a rise in tone in the middle of a speech lasting an hour, and dissect it with their colleagues as if it were a slightly flat note by the 73rd violin in a symphony orchestra.

2. Linguistic enthusiasts. Me. We would gloss over the above, but we DO notice when an American actor makes just ONE error in a movie, where he's playing an English character.

3. Normal people. Might notice a bad English accent, but could ignore it, and probably couldn't really discuss it.

4. What?

The latter category are those with poor phonemic awareness. We can think of it as a sort of hearing impairment, but it's not the ears that are faulty. Same as dyslexic people have nothing wrong with their eyes. It lies somewhere else, presumably in the brain, but it's not a learning disability as such. Just a variation within the range of ability to listen to speech...accurately, I guess.

They hear the words just fine. They understand what was said. They may in fact be at genius level in comprehension. But if you ask them about the speaker's accent they may not be able to identify it, OR EVEN NOTICE IT.

Somehow the words arrive in the comprehension area of their brain without being filtered in any way through a sort of musical net.

As a result of this, if you ask them to repeat something back, they will not say it the way you did. They say it the way they always pronounce that word.

THIS is why some people fail at doing other accents.
THIS is why some people fail at pronouncing other languages correctly
THIS is why some people have what appear to have speech impediments but in fact they are not listening correctly

Note I said "correctly", because it's not lack of effort, it's a genuine fubar in the wiring.

It is possible to learn to speak without being able to hear, however. Many deaf people manage this. It requires an awareness of what the mouth is doing.

So this is how wrong pronunciation is corrected. It's a laborious thing to do, both for student and teacher, but if for example you are trying to learn the Greek letter gamma, you have to be aware of what your tongue is doing. I want you to do this with me.

First, make the sound of the letter G. Don't say the letter, make the sound. A hard g as in good. G G G. Go on, do it now. If the dog looks at you funny, look at him funny back. He barks, after all.

Now FEEL where your tongue is when you say G. Flat against the roof of your mouth to begin with, then it pulls away to let the air go through. Feel that a few times.

Now, try this. Instead of it being held hard against the roof of your mouth, let it just sort of sit just below it, so that air can get through all the time, but not freely. It's a bit like gargling, but dryer. Try that. You sound like you are being strangled. That, dear reader, is the sound of gamma in modern Greek.

I had to explain it to you that way because I'm not with you, to let you hear the noise I'm making. But in any case, you may need that specific instruction as to know what to do with your tongue to be sure you are getting it right. Most importantly, I can't just give you an example of the sound in a word, because we don't have that letter in English. We don't have gamma. We don't have that sound; we don't have that phoneme.

It is hard, at least at first, for a native English speaker to pronounce gamma. It is just as hard for a non-native English speaker to pronounce some of our sounds, the notoriously difficult one being TH. For us, pronouncing th is simple, we don't even think about it. But if your first language, your mother tongue, does not include th (and most don't) then you have to learn it as laboriously as English speakers learning gamma.

Some never quite master th. Despite being very fluent in English, even after decades of constant use. I bet everyone reading this knows somebody who says "dere and dat" or "zere and zat" instead, depending on what their first language is.

Well, I gave birth to one. Tom, despite having English as a first language needed 8 years of speech therapy to get his th together, and he still slips up if he's speaking very fast, or is excited/upset.

If I had French or Spanish as a first language they'd probably have put me in speech therapy. I can't roll an r with a gun in my back. It means my French accent is horribly flawed, even though I have worked very hard on the vowels and I actually got 100% on my French oral exam in school. We were given special dispensation for the letter r, because it's a known block.

But I'm GOOD at vowels. And accents are made up mostly of vowel differences, after all. Remember, an accent is the set of sounds you use to speak.

Certainly, consonant variations as we've mentioned above can be an issue, and there is the famous Russian L, and a few others. But on the whole what we're talking about when we talk about different accents is the vowels.

When we are describing the pronunciation of vowels, it's all about the shape of the mouth. I want you to say these words for me (YES, OUT LOUD), and FEEL the shape of your mouth when pronouncing the vowel (marked in bold).


I'm not going to describe it though. Because depending on where you come from, you will pronounce all of those vowels in your own, local, distinct way. That is - your mouth shape depends on your accent (because your mouth shape creates your accent). Spelling gives an approximation, a guide, but English accents vary so much that spelling is completely useless in accurately describing the expected sound.

I won't dwell on this right now, but just to give you one example. In the word Hot there, the vowel used by most North Americans could be written "ah". This would not be the case in parts of New Jersey however, in most of Britain and Australia, and so on. And in India even the following t would be different, which would in turn "colour" the vowel.

For people learning English as a second language the most important thing then is to get the vowels right. English learners overseas get to pick an accent. Most will choose English RP or Standard American. You are not going to find somebody learning a Glaswegian accent in Argentina. (Well, I suppose you might if a teacher is from Scotland, but English teachers are SUPPOSED to use a less provincial accent). So books are mostly written with their phonetic tables geared to one of those two.

The idea is that most people will understand them if they are "plain" in one of these accents.

But it's hard. Some of the vowels we take for granted are brand new to those from other parts of the world. It's fairly easy for a German speaker to adapt to English vowels. It's REALLY hard if your first language is Japanese.

The Japanese (and others) have a hurdle to overcome in the syllables we use too. Their language does not place stress on syllables, which is why it sounds "choppy" to us. We are so used to stress on syllables, that we find it hard to speak without it. You've all heard the argument:

"It's Hi - ro - SHI - ma."

"No, it's Hi - RO - shi -ma."

It's neither. It's Hi-ro-shi-ma, no stress anywhere. Virtually impossible for us to say. Well it works the other way around. When you are not used to stressed syllables, it's a pain in the bum trying to remember where the stress goes. It's hard when you are used to a language like Spanish, where the stress is regular and predictable, and diacritical marks are used if it varies. I've been listening to lectures by an esteemed Mexican professor who insists on saying "de - vel - OPE - ment", because in Spanish you would expect the stress to be on the penultimate syllable. His English accent is otherwise fantastic, but that one just leaps right out at you.

But there's yet another hurdle for speakers of some languages, such as Chinese. Their language is tonal, so the same word can be said 4 different ways, depending on tone. My attempts at learning Chinese are thwarted by the difficulty here, and I really need to go to China and be immersed to "get it". Well, that also works the other way around. Just as we have to remember to add tone, they have to try not to, and it's hard. Furthermore, because English has its own version of tone in the way our speech rises and falls within a whole sentence, it is very confusing to a tonal speaker.

So, imagine if you are learning a language very different to your own, be it the vowels, the stress, the tone, or whatever, AND you have poor phonemic awareness. It's rather like being a drummer being expected to play the violin, AND you are tone-deaf.

Bless their hearts, they keep on trying.


  1. This blog post is so interactive today, Mel, that maybe you need to start doing videos or something. LOL

    I totally get the inability to process sound, and it does seem to vary from person to person. Awareness is a key factor, as you have pointed out early on. My two boys had issues with "comprehension" in their early grades, which was undoubtedly due to their language skills starting so far behind their peers.

    The connection between language in its various forms (spoken and written, mostly) can be tricky for each person to balance. It may depend on learning styles and (as you have pointed out) exposure to certain influences. That still does not guarantee clear communication, unfortunately.

    I suppose teachers and those other experts you mentioned must be concerned with who gets it and who does not, but for most of us, I think we feel we are understood or are able to understand what we say to each other. If not, the frustration leads us toward clearing it up, or walking away with a shrug...? ~ Blessings! :)

    1. That's another area altogether, caring. If I get into one of my rants on spelling and grammar, there's always one person who says "who cares?" Certainly there are far more important things to concern ourselves with, and in most sutuations, we can get by without perfect communication.

      At some point however, it matters. Air traffic controllers and surgeons notwithstanding, miscommunication does cause all sorts of problems, so somebody, somewhere has to care. There have to be pedants, at one extreme, to keep the general, shrugging population at a level where we don't a) resort to pointing and grunting, or b) kill one another over a misunderstanding.

      For me it's just interesting. Fun. Yes, I admit to saying ARGH! out loud when I see "than" written as "then", but that's purely caused by repetition. I don't get all bent out of shape over a single oopsie. I know some do. They have their place too. In just about any situation, extremists are actually useful for equilibrium :)

  2. It would explain why I didn't know the actor who played Dr. Who was English. Might also be the reason I can only learn written foreign language.

    1. There's a perfect example Amy, thank you for offering that up. It's a very difficult thing to overcome, if it can be overcome. There are those who think it can't. At the very least it's a major problem if you do want to learn another language.

    2. Here's a bit more:

  3. This is one reason why I cringe when I listen to badly dubbed Japanese anime. Proper names are particularly noticeable because even if the Japanese word is spelled out in roman letters (referred to as romaji) it is often not pronounced correctly by the English voice actors. Especially if they haven't had the opportunity to see and hear the original Japanese voice track.

    And of course there are the regional differences as you've described. I've had differences of opinion with my daughter as to how certain French words ought to be pronounced. Her teacher is Quebecois French while I was taught Continental French (and 30 years ago at that). If I were to listen to a French conversation in the street I wouldn't understand half of it.

    1. Rhiannon called me one day complained about Brennan's teacher's pronunciation of Août. At first we assumed it was the Quebecois version, but after a bit of resrach we found it was an "old" pronunciation, which has pretty died out but can be heard among eldely people in rural France. We assume his teacher's teacher was of that generation. Anyway, it was a useful opprtunity to teach him about variations and dialect.

    2. *pretty much*

      I type too fast.

    3. It goes into the pronunciation briefly here:

  4. I can sympathize with Rhiannon about Brennans teacher. My dad was Quebecois, having been born and raised in Montreal, he grew up bilingual and as a result, I grew up with quite a bit of Quebecois french. In Grade 9, having already had 4 years of french instruction from a woman well versed in Continental French, we ended up with a teacher from South Carolina, who tried to teach and speak french with a very thick South Carolina accent.. To say my poor brain was confused and overwhelmed would be an understatement. I knew nothing about phonemic awareness but I was aware my brain was about to short circuit in trying to pass her class..

    1. An interesting situation. Should a person with a poor French accent be permitted to teach French?