A Language Divided by an Ocean

Great Britain and America: “Two Countries Separated by a Common Language”
-Oscar Wilde

Last month I spoke at the 2012 NATO eLearning Conference where delegates from member nations discussed ‘best practices’ for online learning. My presentation, “Delivering Training to Multinational Audiences” sparked an important question, germane to both online and onsite training: “What do you do when the same word has different meanings depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on?” For example, the word “boot” in British English describes what Americans would call the trunk of a car, the word “hire” means “to rent” in British English and “to employ” in American English, and while “to luck out” is a wonderful thing in America (where it means to have great luck) it’s an awful thing in Britain (where it means to run out of luck.) To get an appreciation for just how many words and phrases fall into this category (thousands upon thousands), whole books and anthologies have been written on the topic (see Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English by Davies Christopher and Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions: Making Sense of Transatlantic English, by Orin Hargraves).

This challenge isn’t limited to just British-to-American discourse or, for that matter, South African-to-American, Irish-to-American, Australian-to-American and, believe it or not, American-to-American communication. Hence, per the latter, the publication of D.A.R.E –the Dictionary of American Regional English, to help those of us living and working in the U.S. who might otherwise be lost in translation. DARE is a multi-volume reference work that documents words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another across the United States. It even includes a map of “regionalisms.”

Which leads us back to the original question…With so many people speaking correct, yet significantly different, English, how can we develop courseware so that learning is as easy and effective as possible? We like to recommend using what ARI has coined, “The Hover Solution.” It works like this… Comb through the material and cross reference each word, and especially all idiomatic phrases, to see if there are dialectical or regional differences. When you find them, indicate these words/phrases by either bolding or underlining them. Then allow the learner to hover over the marked word with his/her cursor until the “translation” appears on the screen. It’s an easy fix to a problem that causes communication disconnects day in and day out, all around the globe.

To learn more about creating instructional material for a diverse workforce, please contact us at info@lessaccent.com. To share your own “best practices,” please comment below. Communication is key, and we’re all in this together!

Language as Black or White: A Vote for Descriptivism

“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
~ Winston Churchill

In the United States, children in English class are taught a slew of rules about their language. Innumerable rules. Our English teachers tell us we’re not allowed to split our infinitives, dangle our prepositions, or ever take our eyes off those inscrutable gerunds, transitives, primary auxiliaries, modal auxiliaries, participles… you name it!

They tell us that “ain’t” ain’t a word and that the plural of “fish” is “fish” while the plural of “ox” is “oxen”. The value begins to break down, however, when grammarians insist that the rules of English are rigid and unchanging. In fact, strict grammarians claim that most of our language rules change little from generation to generation. English teachers of this camp are what linguistics call “prescriptivists,” a term for people who prescribe what the rules of language are and should continue to be.

On the other side of the spectrum is what linguists call “descriptivists,” people who describe the rules of language as they are spoken by the majority of its users. Descriptivists believe that language is a living thing. It evolves as people use it. (Psssst! We’re descriptivists.) Taking a descriptive view of language lets us talk about what people actually say instead of what we think they ought to be saying.

If we listened to prescriptivists, Elvis would have been hanged (or is it “hung”?) for singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” We couldn’t say that crews of sunken ships are “sleeping with the fishes.” The millions of native English speakers who say “I had drank some juice” would have to be sent back to 5th grade. We wouldn’t be able to warn someone that we’re about to “pass out”, “give up”, or “fall down”. And worst of all, we would never have been able “to boldly go where no one has gone before”.

While it may seem otherwise, we’re not actually in favor of linguistic anarchy. Heavens no! Rather, what we’d love to see is a slightly less rigid approach to linguistic rules. Unlike the laws of nature, language is man-made. Over the course of millennia, we created our family of languages to solve a universal problem: how to communicate essential information in order to navigate, together, the myriad challenges our environment posed. And still poses. Because our environments (and needs) change… so too must our language, rules and all.

In this regard, we can look at pronunciation rules much like grammar rules. They’re important; in fact, they’re vital. But they’re also fluid. One generation of American English speakers pronounce the ‘t’ in “water”, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. One generation pronounces the ‘al’ in specifically, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. So when do we know which pronunciation patterns are “right” and which are “wrong”? We think it all goes back to the question of why they’re rules in the first place. Is it because that’s the way Shakespeare spoke? (By the way, I reread Hamlet a little while back. It’s a far cry from positive, grammatical role modeling!) Is an accent right because of certain intrinsic, universally agreed upon values? Maybe not. We believe that when the vast majority of people use the same pronunciation patterns, this becomes, defacto, the “correct” accent. Why? Because chances are we’ll all have a better chance of getting our point across… of being understood. That’s why we teach Standard American Pronunciation. It’s not because it’s inherently correct. “Correct” changes over time. It’s because it works!

Echolalia: Everybody’s Doing It!

If you’ve never been to the website “Dr. Goodword” (goodword@lexiteria.com), I strongly recommend taking a look. I stumbled upon Dr. Goodword six years ago when I was looking for ways to help my son prepare for his SAT. Lo and behold, Dr. Goodword was it. Every morning he received a ‘word of the day’ – some uncommon jewel of the English language. The entry came replete with the word’s etymology, pronunciation, and examples of how it’s used today.

I continue to receive my daily dose from Dr. Goodword. It’s wonderful. …One entry (July 30) is too good to keep to myself and I just had to write about it! The word was Echolalia, and it’s profoundly important to anyone who’s trying to learn the American accent, or any speech pattern for that matter.

Echolalia is essential to one of the most critical stages of early language acquisition. Echolalia is the action of repeating the sounds and words spoken by our caregivers and, later on, by our teachers. For those of you who are parents, do you remember the days when your toddlers parroted your every syllable? While some of those early attempts were a little off the mark, in time those first words began to sound just like ours. Dr. Goodword, by the way, seems to feel that the “lalia” part of echolalia is probably onomatopoeic…meaning it sounds like the word it represents. In this case, “lalia” refers to the la-la-la of speech. Echolalia, then, means to repeat that which is spoken.

Interestingly enough, at about the same time Dr. Goodward hit ‘send’ on his echolalia entry, an article by David Robinson ran in New Scientist magazine entitled, Kiki or Bouba: In Search of Language’s Missing Link. Robinson suggests that humankind probably invented our first words using an onomatopoeic process called “sound symbolism”. Robinson proposes that our ancestors invented new words by shaping their mouths to mimic the shape of the objects they were trying to name. To prove this, Robinson cited the work of Vilayanur Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard who ran what’s now called ‘The Kiki/Bouba Experiment’. Here, people were given the two words, ‘kiki’ and ‘bouba’, and were asked to match them to two different objects. One of the objects was spiked, the other curved. Ninety-five percent of the people labeled the spiked object “kiki” and the curved one “bouba”. Interesting that our lips are horizontal (like the spikes of an object) when we say “kiki” and rounded (like a curved object) when we say “bouba”. To further support Robison’s theory, recent studies at the University of Maryland confirmed that the majority of children learn new words better if they are sound symbolic.

This is great news for our accent reduction specialists at ARI. We’ve known for quite some time that mimicry plays a key role in learning new pronunciation patterns. What’s exciting is the treasure trove of new data that continues to support ARI‘s methodology for teaching and learning the American accent. Core to the Ravin Method® is the idea that visual cues are critical when it comes to learning pronunciation. Our brains are hard-wired to mimic not just sounds, but the shapes that our tongue, teeth, lips, and jaw make when producing each sound of any given language. But beyond methodology, I love the way current research keeps going back to the basics: we all learn language the same way. We all can make every sound in the human family of languages. Whatever accent we bring to the table, humankind follows the basic patterns of communication. And isn’t that what language is all about?

A Rose By Any Other Name…

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

How Can I Speak with an American Accent? Seeing is Believing

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.

Will the Real English Accent Please Stand Up?

How many times have you heard that the British accent is “the real” accent? If we define ‘real’ as being first then, yes, the British accent is the real deal. However, let’s consider that the way American English is spoken today is actually much closer to the way it was pronounced long before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. That being the case, in strictly phonetic terms, the American accent may just be the ‘real’ English accent!

It all has to do with what we linguists call the “rhotic r”. American speakers of English pronounce the “r” at the end of a word, as in the word ‘doctor’. British speakers don’t. (It will sound more like ‘doctuh.’)

Until the early 1700’s, most English speakers referred to a person who practiced medicine as a doctor. Sometime thereafter, due to the changing socio-economic climate of southeastern England, the aristocracy made a concerted effort to change their speech pattern. They wanted to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. What did they do? They dropped their ‘r’s.

I’m not one to argue for right or wrong accents. In my book, an accent equals articulation which equals a speech pattern which equals an accent. So who has an accent? We all do!

At ARI, we provide American accent training not because it’s the real accent, but because it most closely corresponds to the way it’s most widely spoken today (in the US). The goal of American pronunciation training is not that we all include a ‘rhotic r’ each and every time, and certainly not that we all sound the same. Our goal is a simple one: eliminate language barriers by building bridges of communication.

Communication Disconnects: When Syllables Lead to Stress

This has been a week of interviews…with USA Today, followed by CBS-Radio National News, followed by Lucy Ann Lance Talk Radio. Wow!

From the boardroom to the locker room, most everyone knows that language barriers are the norm in today’s multinational settings. This is one challenge of globalization. But many people don’t know there are solutions to eliminate these communication disconnects. As such, we’re always grateful when the media gives us an opportunity to spread the word.

Reporters often ask me about typical mispronunciations, usually around consonant sounds that exist in English but don’t exist in other languages; “r” for example. Today, Lucy Ann Lance brought up an area of pronunciation that’s not often considered but, nonetheless, creates a lot of disconnects: syllable stress. This refers to the part of the word that’s pronounced louder, stronger, and harder. Syllable stress refers to emphasis.

There are many words in English that, when the syllable stress changes, so too does the meaning. Take, for example, the words

inVALid vs. INvalid     or…

obJECT vs. OBject     or…

conDUCT vs. CONduct     or…

death by comMITtee vs. death by COMmittee

The list goes on and on. If you find yourself having difficulty understanding the pronunciation of a colleague or friend, try switching around the syllable stress. The meaning just might click!

Learning a Language: Touch and Release is the New Listen and Repeat

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.

British and American English: More than just a difference in accent!

Even though the words accent and dialect are often used interchangeably, they actually mean two different things. An accent refers to pronunciation. A dialect refers to pronunciation and vocabulary, grammar, and idiomatic phrases. Think of it this way, the Midwestern preference for the vowel sound ‘a’ as in ‘bad’, the New York City penchant to change the ‘er’ sound to ‘oi’ (as in Murphy to Moify), and the West Virginian fondness for dropping the ‘i’ sound in Ryan, so that it sounds like Ron, are all examples of regional accents.

Dialect, on the other hand, refers to the Midwestern word ‘pop’ as a kind of soft-drink, the New York ‘soda’ for its counterpart, and the Southern ‘coke’ for its equivalent… regardless if the said ‘coke’ is Sprite, 7-Up, or Pepsi.

In addition to regions within the US, there are many words that are quite different between the English spoken on either side of the Atlantic. Why is this? One reason is that the newcomers to the Americas had to literally invent words to describe their new surroundings. One way they did this was to take two known English words and combine them to create a new word. Examples include ‘sagebrush’ and ‘rattlesnake’, typical enough to frontiersmen and women but not your everyday motif in Lancashire. Another way to expand the region’s repertoire of words was to ‘borrow’ them from speakers native to the area, like the words ‘canoe’ and ‘tobacco’. Eventually these words made it into the mainstream of ‘Americanisms’.

It’s estimated there are over 4,500 words used in American English that either don’t “exist” in British English or are used in an altogether different sense. The word ‘crib’, for example, is uniquely American; the word ‘cot’ is the British equivalent.

This begs the question… with different accents, and thousands of different words, are British and American English the same language or are they really two distinct dialects?

A Tiger By Any Other Accent: Heavy Accents and Endorsements

By now, the demise of Tiger Woods is a story well-known to the American public. Yet, why was Tiger able to earn (and lose) millions of dollars in endorsement deals? For one thing, his eloquence allowed him to communicate with his fan base. People felt as though they were able to connect with him, and they admired him as an athlete and as an individual. So why did Tiger succeed when other phenomenal athletes don’t get the same deals? I’m left thinking of another Tiger, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, an excellent baseball player whose endorsements lag far behind Woods’. Could it be Cabrera’s accent that differentiates these two sports stars? A recent study conducted by the University of Chicago (and funded by the National Science Foundation) found that native language speaking participants perceived people with heavy accents as difficult to understand and therefore interpreted their speech as being less truthful. So does this mean Tiger Woods became a huge celebrity largely because of his communication skills, and if so, what is the implication for the many athletes who have heavily accented speech?