Pronunciation is as much good English as good grammar

Posted on Thu 09 Sep 2010 @ 9.00am UTC



THE MOMENT you open your mouth, you will stand or fall 99% of the time in the eyes of others on your pronunciation.

The remaining 1% is equally divided between your accent, phraseology, vocabulary and grammar.

It’s a galling fact of life, and it applies to any language, whether it be English, Chinese, Japanese, Bahasa, Pidgin English or whatever. We’re singling out English only for the purposes of this article, but the facts apply to all other languages.

Why is pronunciation so damned important?

“So, do you speak good English?”

With that one single question, whatever will be your answer, you will completely open yourself up to be judged by a native English speaker whether you actually speak good English or not. And the native speaker doesn’t have to be formally qualified in phonics (whatever the hell that is) or educated to tell if you can speak good English.

A lot of people in this gutter of a place we call Hong Kong (or anywhere else where English is not the main language) have a very, very strong tendency to try and find a shortcut answer that also disguises their pronunciation problems.

The long answer is there isn’t a template or routine or trick to do that.

The short answer is you’re an idiot to think that.

When you meet people, how you say your words is the first thing that immediately hits them. Literally immediately. You could go on to say a few more sentences, but your pronunciation has already made that all-important impact on the listener. Even if you should have perfect grammatical structure, advanced vocabulary and an eloquent speaking style, you are still undone regardless if your pronunciation is off.

The brute facts are these

FACT

People can’t understand what you’re saying if they can’t hear the words you say.

If you couldn’t be bothered to learn pronunciation early on, then you’re basically blown out of the water every time for the rest of your life.

Lots of people in Asia never learnt basic pronunciation of English words, never mind good pronunciation. The main reason is that the institutionalised culture of language learning in most Asian countries is to put written English as a matter of priority in educational policy. Basically, that totally kills off any teaching effort, motivation or incentive in pronunciation work.

Countless times I have literally seen foreigners in English-speaking countries go through a verbal Mexican standoff: one side (the foreigner) constantly repeating words and the other side (the native speaker) constantly asking “What? What?” It is extremely comical, but also extremely sad. In my experience, there’s mostly no problem with the foreigner’s use of the English words themselves. It’s just that the foreigner can’t get to grips with the pronouncing of those words.

FACT

‘I don’t need to learn pronunciation; I just want to communicate in English.’

Nearly all learners of English have this attitude. It is very strong among (you guessed it) the Chinese, the Japanese and the Koreans. Many of these people imagine that, just by being able to write in English (kind of), it automatically follows that speaking English won’t be a problem.

That attitude stems from the education policies of those countries, which institutionalises (i.e. confines) written English as the only kind of English worth learning for and by the population.

FACT

No problems in communicating with peers.

Learners make the fundamental, mistaken assumption that they could ‘communicate’ in English because they have had no problems communicating with their teachers or other students.

This is a brain-damaged assumption. Granted that it’s an easy mistake to make. Nonetheless, they fail to realise that their teachers have been listening to bad English for a long time and are able to understand things much more easily than the average person. Other students are usually from the same place where you came from, so they make roughly the same shitty mistakes as you do, and that makes it quite easy for them to understand you. The English saying It takes one to know one applies. By extension, it takes one to understand one. It’s like, deaf mutes understand deaf mutes perfectly. It’s the rest of us who have problems understanding them.

FACT

Many learners ignore pronunciation because this is usually the way English is taught everywhere on earth.

The teaching attitude of highlighting written English causes learners to take up the attitude that pronunciation is not very important.

The difference is great when we look at the way French is taught.

The French have a reputation for being arrogant and culturally self-centred. This might be a bad thing for the French people, and they probably don’t deserve this stereotype. But this arrogance and self-centredness bloody well works when it comes to learning the French language. In English, the routine is to teach grammar and composition first, and pronunciation almost like an afterthought. In French, it’s vocabulary and pronunciation, all day, every day, come ever-lastingly all the time. Parlez français, ou sortir! Speak French, or get out! Your French pronunciation has to be ‘there’ or we won’t teach you how to use that fantastic vocabulary you’ve built up in your head. Fin de la discussion.

I’ve known lots of people (from China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, etc, etc, etc) who have learnt and studied English, sometimes to quite an advanced level, and then they arrive in England or America (I’ve lived in both places before). Nobody bleeding understands them. They spend the next couple of months relearning their English, much to the dismay of these friends.

Personally, I find it extremely entertaining to see them in that verbal Mexican standoff almost the moment they come off the plane. For those who are a bit slow on the uptake, it takes them a full fortnight to realise no one’s understanding them.

FACT

A foreign accent is an unpleasant experience for most English speakers.

The less-urbanised the English speaker, the more unpleasant the reaction to the foreign accent or mispronunciation. The French are quite okay with this. The Germans secretly do not like it, but they’re disciplined of mind to put up with it. The Italians remain silent because, according to their glorious imperial Roman heritage, everyone else are animals and animals are naturally expected to have unlovely accents. But for the rest of us ‘normal’ people, bad pronunciations and heavy foreign accents are incredibly nerve-wracking.

Pronunciation is paramount: it makes your first impression, and it breaks it too. If you sound nice, everyone will enjoy talking with you. You get nice girls that way. You get nice boys that way. You just plain bloody get nice people that way. Nice people usually help others, sometimes job-wise or financially. If your accent or pronunciation is shite, everyone stays away from you one way or another. I know: I do it all the time.

Good pronunciation is pleasant and understandable English. First, you have to realise there is a problem with your pronunciation, otherwise there’s no point in continuing. Most English learners just don’t realise.

* * *

What to do?

Nearly all English learners go through the same motions when trying to fix their (mis)pronunciations.

The first port of call is nearly always try and watch (and hopefully listen) to English-language TV or radio programmes, maybe a movie or two, read a little bit about phonics or phonetics, and try to speak to a native speaker if they can get hold of one.

It is the read a little bit about phonics or phonetics that wastes valuable time and actually goes against the whole idea of trying to fix pronunciation problems.

FACT

The English-language programmes on TV or radio are not always produced for non-English speakers.

You have to be very careful here. Most people I know in Hong Kong say they “always listen to the BBC World Service” and “watch BBC programmes” — all fine in themselves. These are also the people who show absolutely nothing BBC-like in their speech. Either they aren’t absorbing or they’re lying (or both).

The problem with the BBC approach is that quite a lot of BBC programmes are in regional British dialects. The BBC proclaims to be doing a public service — but whose public service? It ain’t ours, that’s for sure.

Reality check: the BBC, like all other enterprises, ultimately is in it to make money. The pressures of making the bottom line means that some programmes are sold more on the basis of marketability and entertainment appeal, and less on language correctness.

Indeed, the BBC stopped putting out correct RP English in the middle of WW2, when it made greater use of regional British dialects because every Brit understands them — but not the Germans or the Japanese. It’s one small way to thwart the training of Axis spies.

Movies are a dead loss, too. Most are American, and they speak American with lots of americanisms (some of which are not necessarily slang) so the English learner can be totally thrown off by that. Ask your students about House for proof.

The only recourse is to watch B-movies: black-and-white flicks from the 1950s and ’60s, which at least had actors who had the grace to speak properly. Trouble is, B-movies are dead-dead-dead boring to the younger set weaned on music videos, blogs, thar Intarwebz, Facecrook, YooToob and phone texting. They won’t understand the lingo because they don’t understand the values the B-movies are expressing because they (and probably their parents) never lived those times.

Another starter. Try recordings of correct pronunciation. That sort of helps, and every little bit helps. Trouble is, recordings make the whole learning experience completely artificial. It gives almost every learner I know a sense of detachment and unnecessary formality that nearly ranks equal with a classroom setting. People hate classrooms. So that’s another dead-end.

* * *

Dammit, what to do?

Basically back to square one: teachers who speak the lingo and speak it well. There’s a fine line between speaking well and speaking correctly. The two are not quite the same, although they are so from an everyday point of view.

I’m running 2,000 or more words and just over two hours writing this piece of nonsense already, so I’ll cut to the chase.

One action is to get the education policy in your locale changed. What??! That’s a major, major effort. We can’t possibly hope to do that!

Well, I’m sorry, but there it is. Let’s not pretend, because there’s not point otherwise. Unless the education policy in your place switches from prioritising on written language rather than on vocabulary and pronunciation a la française (above), the problems of the old days will just continue unabated in the future.

REALITY CHECK

If you cannot pronounce, you cannot speak.

If you can’t speak, you can’t read or write.

If you can’t read or write, you can’t understand properly.

If you can’t understand, you won’t realise the nuances.

If you don’t realise the nuances, you can’t communicate enough to make money or make a success of yourself.

Here’s a small proof. Take Hong Kong kids as an example. Ever noticed they could blog their brainless stuff to no end in Chinese, but can’t string two sentences in English without running into trouble? It’s because they could speak Chinese. You could rationalise that they are doing things in their own native tongue. True enough. Now go over to Singapore. Singaporeans are quite bad in their English, in absolute terms, but not nearly as bad as Hongkongers or the Japanese. Why? Because they could speak English and Chinese. English is decidedly not the first language for an absolute majority of Singaporeans. Singapore didn’t have universally applied English-language tuition until the 1970s. Hong Kong stole the march in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Lee Kuan Yew made sure the Singapore he took out of the Malayan Federation in 1965 was redesigned to have English speaking as the operating priority for society there. The powers-that-be in Hong Kong never made the jump from keeping English an elitist language; it just left things to the private sector in the hopes that it would universalise English on the notion that it’s good for trade and commerce. In a place where the population is 95% Chinese, an even stronger policy force than Singapore’s is needed to even get the population to do reasonably satisfactorily (i.e. barely acceptably) in English.

Another action is to look at yourself in the mirror. Are you changing your own attitude and learn this language to communicate? Or are you just learning it ultimately with a view to ‘dissing’ your fellow countrymen via another language so that you could feel special and important?

Unless you get to grips with these two actions, it’s a bit of a moot point to talk about ways to improve pronunciation. That’s because every other thing you do will only be a stopgap measure, and a long-running stopgap measure at that.

Fact is, the two actions feed off and fuel one another. Policy change leads to attitude change, but attitude change leads to policy change. You have to decide on the chicken or the egg. Sometimes and for some places, one is more doable than the other. Which is it for your place? Your mileage may vary.

* * *

That’s easy for you to say. You grew up abroad or in the UK and spoke English there.

Yes, it truly is easy for me to say. But I also have a 61-year-old Chinese guy in the office who’s never been to school in his life (apart from just three or four years in pseudo-kindergarten and then disrupted by warfare), and he speaks and writes better English than some of our better-educated colleagues. He’s self-taught in everything. All things being equal, he speaks better than most university graduates. Frankly, his luncheonmeat sandwiches speak better English than most English teachers in Hong Kong.

You’re useless. You’re not telling us how to fix our pronunciation.

Yes, I have. And you happen to know the whats and the hows for fixing things as well. The methods and order, the means, the resources and everything else are known by nearly everyone. It isn’t that there’s a lack of motivation to do better. It’s wholly a problem of attitude, on your part as much as on the part of the educational authorities. Unless you yourselves turn that attitude into something constructive, nothing is going to go forward.

I don’t buy this. At the end of the day, we’ll always have a Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Indian/etc. accent in our pronunciation. Why bother?

You should bother because you don’t want your own accent to completely overwhelm and mask the minimum required pronunciation that regular users of English (or any other language) have. No one is going to blame you for having a Chinese/Japanese/Korean/yada/yada/yada accent if that’s what you are. What people don’t want to see/hear is your gooky, nooky, wooky, ringalingdingdong accent at the expense of the English words you’re trying to pronounce. I mean, would you like to hear me yakking in your native language with an super-overly Georgian-era RP English accent? You wouldn’t, would you? I mean, you can accept some degree of Englishness in pronunciation, but not much more. No one is saying you could possibly remove any trace of your inborn accent, or want to, at your age now.

* * *

This article was brought to you by the LEOS Grammar Control Committee.

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