…And if English isn’t your first language, Anglophonic proficiency is no easy accomplishment. Like the more well known word, Francophone, an Anglophone is someone who speaks, in this case, English. “Anglo” comes from Latin and means ‘the English’; “phone” comes from Greek and means ‘sound’ or even ‘voice’. (Telephone, by the way, literally means ‘far away sound’.)
The challenge of pronouncing English sounds is vast and widely known. I’m the first to admit that an alphabet where no one letter is pronounced in only one way can drive a person certifiably crazy. Nonetheless, if you want to be absolutely awestruck by what people have managed to accomplish with sound, check out the masters of Tuvian and Mongolian throat singing. These experts, living in Southern Siberia and Mongolia, have cracked the code on how to produce more than one pitch at the same time. This is also called diaphonic voicing, or singing in overtones, and it’s a feat of incredulous proportion. As Bruce Miller describes for National Geographic Word Music in his article, Overtone Singing:
“While everyone has natural harmonics in his or her voice, the people of this remote region were able to hone in on one of these harmonics, or overtones, create a drone with one overtone and then, vocally, grab a higher pitch, which shapes a melody on top, allowing them to sing duets with themselves.”
While centuries old, this voicing technique is still alive and well. Thanks to the dedication of sociolinguists and anthropologists who’ve brought it global, throat singing still wows listeners around the world.
Perhaps it’s because we all have natural harmonics that music is the universal language of the soul. And, in like manner, everyone has an innate connection to the natural world.
Our very survival depends on it. Hmmmmmmm.
Voicing = a universal human ability = our universal connection to our environment.
I’d be hard pressed to find a clearer example than Tuvian and Mongolian throat singing of how singing reflects our link to the natural world. Tuvians divide overtone singing styles into three major types, all of which use aspects of nature to describe the sounds. Sygyt is an imitation of singing birds or gentle breezes. Xoomei implies stronger winds, and kargyraa warns of impending storms. Would you like to hear an example of throat singing? If you’re not used to it, it may seem a little SciFi’esque. I hope, as we consider the expertise of the master singers and the genre’s inherent and universal cultural/linguistic link, a sense of wonder and richness will transcend a possible, “Oh my goodness this is weird” reaction. To me, diaphonics puts my pronunciation competency to shame. Check out the music’s best known practitioner, Huun-Huur-Tu’s Kaigal-ool Khovalg, and prepare to be impressed!
“I just don’t get it. I’ve been here for 23 years and I still have a heavy accent. How come?” I heard this question last week when I was sitting next to a businessman on a flight. He was super smart, savvy, and an “in on the know” professional. His question didn’t surprise me. Probably because I’ve been asked it somewhere north of 200 times.
So why is it that mastering the American accent seems to be so agonizingly difficult? (It’s not… but we’ll get to that later.) Part of the reason has to do with how we learn language in the first place. Let’s begin at the beginning: infancy.
Newborns and babies have a pressing and exceptionally important task at hand. They need to figure out the difference between sounds, and the sounds of their “language”. They need to differentiate between the sound “s” makes in the word “measure”, and the sound a car motor makes. They’re similar, but certainly not the same. In other words, the first step to language learning is sound discrimination. Now over time, babies and toddlers master this critical step and their powerful little brains start weeding out random sounds from those spoken by their caregivers. This process is called NLNC, Native Language Neural Commitment.
The end result is that by the time we all reach adulthood, it’s painfully difficult to hear the fine nuances between certain foreign language sounds that don’t exist in our own language. See if you can hear the difference in pronunciation between the Zulu words “to whitewash” and “to fix”.
How about between the German words “to offer” and “to pray”?
Or between the words for “palace” and “dirt” in Gujarati? I’ve tried and tried, but I just can’t hear the difference.
Which takes us back to why, without instruction, it can be extraordinarily challenging to learn English pronunciation. Some adult learners simply may not have the context to hear the difference between sounds that are (frustratingly) similar. Kind-of like how the above words are for the American ear. And if you can’t “hear” a sound, it’s awfully difficult to produce it.
That’s one of the reasons why, for adult foreign language learners, pronunciation can be an extraordinary challenge. Yet our accent coaches have worked with upwards of 1,000 adult learners and not one person has ever failed to learn how to make each and every English vowel and consonant. Part of the trick is showing people how to “feel” sounds. While this may seem crazy, it means helping people become aware of how it feels when they accurately place their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw when pronouncing new sounds. There are other tricks of the trade too. If you’re interested, ask us for more. We’ll be happy to pass them along.
We’re all partial to names. The study of names is called onomastics and, for those of us in the field, it’s a branch of sociolinguistics of great interest, geeky though it may be. Historically speaking, the giving of surnames typically originated from one of four sources: place-names, “descriptive”, trade-names, and names indicating family relationships. Many of these surnames have survived through the centuries and passed the test of time. Place-names which crossed the Atlantic along with their English owners include Lincoln, Brooks, Churchill, and Atwood (“at” means near in Old English). Some common, old-age “descriptive” names are Goodman, Armstrong, White, and Small. Familial names, called patronymics, are found on nearly every corner in most major American cities: Johnson (son of John), Fitspatrick (fitz means “son” in Norman), and MacDonald (mac is “son” in Gaelic).
Trade-names are at the top of my personal ‘surname favorites’ list. This is probably because so many of them are carryovers from now obsolete medieval occupations: Archer, Bowman, Shepherd, and Forrester to name a few. Smith, by the way, is not only the most common surname in America and England, but is also the most common surname in nearly every other European language: Schmidt (German), Ferrier (French), Ferraro (Italian), Herrero (Spanish), Kovacs (Hungarian), and Kusnetzov (Russian).*
Names are important. They’re a central part of our heritage and unique cultural identity. That’s why, as part of ARI‘s corporate diversity and training program, Building Bridges: Tuning Your Ear to Accents, we teach people how to pronounce the names of clients and colleagues for whom English is a second language. Making the effort to say someone’s name correctly speaks volumes (no pun intended)! It says, “I appreciate you, and your culture.”
Here’s some advice on how to accurately pronounce non-English names:
- Pronounce the letter “a” like “ah” (As in cop)
- Pronounce the letter “e” like “ay” (As in cape)
- Pronounce the letter “i” like “eee” (As in keep)
- Pronounce the letter “o” like “oh” (As in cope)
- Pronounce the letter “u” like “uw” (As in coop)
- Pronounce the letter “s” like “s” (not z) (As in so)
- Pronounce the letters “Zh” like “si” (As in the word illusion)
- Pronounce the letters “Xi” like “sh” (As in the word shoe)
Now using the key above, try pronouncing the following names. Pay particular attention to the underlined letters, substituting the more authentic pronunciation (as above) for its American accent equivalent: Oscar, Susanna, Alex, Zhang, Xin, Isabella, and Shrinivas. Isn’t that so much easier?
If you have a good “name” anecdote to share…maybe you’ve also driven through Hell, MI or Wahoo, West Virginia, please let us know. We’d love to hear your stories!
*Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue
Many of us have heard that when a person, sadly, loses their vision, their hearing gets better. Sometimes their hearing gets extraordinarily better. Recently I came across an article in the New York Times that discussed a similar phenomenon, albeit with a twist. In this case, a woman who lost her hearing used her vision…to bring back her hearing. That’s phenomenal-in the true sense of the word!
There’s abundant research confirming that people can use areas of the brain designed for specific tasks in radically different ways. The woman who became deaf, for example, used lip reading to associate the shapes of the speaker’s mouth with sounds she once clearly heard. Over time, she could ‘hear’ when reading lips. When she saw a person put the tip of their tongue between their teeth, for example, she literally ‘heard’ a “th” sound. Her mind didn’t know the difference. Her doctor explained,
“…she was so adept at lip-reading that it was easy to forget she was deaf. Once, without thinking, I turned away from her as I was speaking. “I can no longer hear you,” she said sharply.
“You mean you can no longer see me,” I said.
“You may call it seeing,” she answered, “but I experience it as hearing.”
Lip-reading, seeing mouth movements, was immediately transformed for this patient into “hearing” the sounds of speech in her mind. Her brain was converting one mode of sensation to another.
This neural phenomenon also relates to the way we learn accurate pronunciation. While people sometimes tell me, “It’s impossible to reduce my accent”, it’s actually more than possible…it happens every day. But I understand their frustration.
For years these individuals, trying hard to learn the American accent, have been told, “Listen and repeat, listen and repeat.” However, it takes a whole lot more than a regiment of “listen and repeat”! It takes associating what things look like (the shape of the mouth) with what things sounds like (vowels and consonants). If you’d like to speak with an American accent, I recommend watching your listener’s mouth very carefully. Notice how they’re using their tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw to make a specific English sound. This is the critical first step; now it’s time to listen and repeat. Try this for one week and see how fast you’ll be on your way to speaking with less frustration and more clarity, ease, and confidence.
A word’s meaning is often shaped by the way it sounds. A few examples will make this obvious. Take, for example, the exclamations “Wow”, “Cool”, and “Yuck”. But did you know that the way words sound can actually influence our buying decisions?
This phenomenon was described, as an aside, in an Op-Ed article by Daniel Gilbert in the New York Times. Mr. Gilbert talked about the link between what linguists call ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels and how we subconsciously associate words with ‘smallness’ and ‘bigness’. Short vowels (like the ‘i’ in “thin”) tend to make us think of smallness and words with long vowels (like the ‘uw’ in “hoop”) connect us with a feeling of bigness. Here’s how it works in terms of how we choose what to purchase. According to Mr. Gilbert, prices that end with a short vowel will seem less expensive than prices that end with long vowels…even if their numerical value is larger. That’s phenomenal.
Gilbert describes a study where “one group was shown an ad for an ice-cream scoop that was priced at $7.66, while another was shown an ad for a $7.22 scoop. The lower price is the better deal, of course, but…shoppers who were offered the scoop at the higher price of $7.66 were more likely to buy it than those offered the price of $7.22 – but only if they’d been asked to say the price aloud.”
Isn’t it interesting that $7.66 ends with the ‘i’ sound associated with smallness and $7.22 ends with the ‘uw’ sound associated with bigness? We’ve known for sometime that colors, facial expressions, and ‘subliminals’ influence our purchasing decisions. But the fact that short and long vowels had a connection to the PayPal process? This was news to me. As a phonetician, here’s my advice: Read the price, silently, before hitting ‘submit’.