I heard a delightful interview on NPR last week with Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herse, founders of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL). Deck and Herse explained that typos are often caused by the discrepancies between the way English words are spelled and the way they’re pronounced. Any student of American accent training can surely sympathize, if not from the spelling side of the equation, than from the pronunciation side.
Members of the TEAL team recognize that, unfortunately, a solid 14% of English words are not spelled phonetically. Yikes! How can a student of English pronunciation training possibly contend with this? Thankfully, the situation is less dire than it may seem.
Part of the Accent Reduction Institute’s methodology is to address this situation head on. Contrary to what we may think, non-phonetic spelling patterns often correspond to “mini” pronunciation rules. And there are many! Once we identify these rules, pronunciation becomes a far less daunting task.
For example, let’s take the letter ‘t’. It can be pronounced in the following ways: “t” (as in time, two, and test); “d” (as in party, sorted, and Carter); “sh” (as in fraction, nation, and solution); “ch” (as in nature, future and fracture), and the list goes on. It’s fascinating (if you’re an English aficionado like I am) to recognize that these different pronunciations consistently conform to hard-and-fast spelling rules. While I won’t bore you with the entire canon of English spelling-pronunciation law, I’ll share just one: When the letter ‘t’ is between an ‘r’ and a vowel, as in the word “mortar”, the ‘t’ is pronounced like a ‘d’. This is just one of many examples where seemingly non-phonetic spelling patterns are actually key pronunciation rules. With a little instruction, pronunciation patterns become easy as pie.
The process of learning pronunciation rules reminds me of the last time I bought a car. When I finally decided on a Ford Escape, suddenly parking lots and highways were full of them…it appeared they were everywhere! The same goes for pronunciation. Once you realize that the letter ‘t’ between two vowels is pronounced like a ‘d’ (as in the word “water”) you’ll notice this mini-rule popping up in every other sentence. Soon you’ll find yourself saying “liter” like “leader” and “atom” like “Adam”. English pronunciation doesn’t need to be as daunting as it first appears. To quote Shakespeare, one of our great English masters, “There really is a method to the madness!”
Fads and fashions come and go. What’s in vogue one day may be out the next. Hence the expression, “XXX is the old YYY.” For example, “the 70′s are the new 60′s” (for active seniors), “sushi is the new hotdog” (for cuisine), and “brown is the new black” (for fashion).
What if I want to reduce my accent? Definitely “listen and repeat” is passé. (For those of us who are former French students, does ‘ecouter and repeter’ sound hauntingly familiar?)
Twenty years ago, when I was learning French and desperately wanted to lose my accent, I learned the fundamental process for accurate pronunciation. I had my first phonology course and learned that making sounds that don’t exist in your native language is a process. And it’s one that requires a lot of focus and attention. The process involves becoming very aware of the position of your lips, tongue, teeth, jaw, etc. in relation to each other. For example, to make the ‘v’ sound, your top teeth should touch your lower lip. To make the ‘k’ sound, the mid-section of your tongue needs to touch the roof of your mouth. Of course we don’t bring together the two parts and then leave them there indefinitely; we quickly release them and move on to making the next sound in the word.
In order to help our students learn English pronunciation, our instructors demonstrate where one part of the mouth needs to make contact with another. Then our instructors hold the two parts together for three or four seconds. This is not to emphasize the sound. Rather, it’s to help our students become aware of what it FEELS like when, for example, the tongue touches the gum ridge (the ‘d’ sound) or the lips touch each other (the ‘p’ sound). Our instructors use this no-fail strategy in each and every one of our accent reduction courses. Being mindful of what it feels like to make a new sound is a key step in the language acquisition process.
Can you imagine an English speaking world without spellcheck?
Eoin O’Carroll of the Christian Science Monitor quotes George Bernard Shaw, an Irish playwright, in saying “the word ‘fish’ could legitimately be spelled ‘ghoti’, by using the ‘gh’ sound from ‘enough’, the ‘o’ sound from ‘women’, and the ‘ti’ sound from ‘action’.” (National Spelling Bee protests: Should we simplify English spelling?)
Unfortunately, this is reality. English is not a phonetic language. Often, a letter does not correspond to only one sound. As a result, it’s extremely challenging to learn the pronunciation of a word simply from its spelling. And, even in cases when a letter almost always corresponds with one sound, we must remember the rule of thumb we learned in elementary school Phonics, “There is an exception to every rule.”
To further complicate things, we have silent letters, such as the ‘b’ in “bomb”, “thumb”, and “climb”, or the ‘h’ in “honest”, “heir”, and “hour”. So what do we do about this phenomenon? When children learn to read, we think it’s cute when they make mistakes in pronunciation. We chuckle and calmly correct them, then tell all our friends about the adorable mistake little Johnny made. Yet, some people lack this patience and understanding when adult English learners make similar errors. They shake their heads and wonder why these speakers can’t just get it right. After all, they’ve taken classes about these rules, haven’t they? So, although a complete overhaul of our spelling system may loom somewhere in our future (see article referenced previously), for now, maybe we can begin by listening with compassionate ears. After all, true communication is a two-way effort; we’ll get there when this becomes everyone’s goal.