The Quandary of Pronunciation

Mar 09,2012


I've just returned from a local preschool or kindergarten (neither word is really exact because the system doesn't quite match up with that of English-bloc countries) where I introduced the United States of America to a large quorum of littluns and played Fruits Basket in English. This was actually easier than I thought it would be. I taught them the category words 'animal', 'fruit', and 'vegetable' and, since they already knew the colour terms and the 'everybody move' command 'fruits basket', the only problem was getting them to hear what I was actually saying. Apparently my pronunciation isn't very clear no matter how much I enunciate and exaggerate my mouth movements, and in this case my efforts to be understood were hard fought against a ruckus of excited little chatterboxes, chairs drug across the gymnasium floor, and acoustics that operated on the same principle as the speech jammer recently developed by Kurihara and Tsukada.

Besides my personal verbal darkness, there's the problem of the inexact mismatch between what constitues a syllable or a phoneme in Japanese versus English. Japanese has five clear and distinct vowels, while English has fifteen, twenty or more, depending on dialect and which linguist is doing the counting. People who grew up speaking Japanese will naturally want to make every English vowel match one of the Japanese ones for simplification and easy of memorization. The problem with that approach is that the sound made my a native speaker next time it comes up won't exactly be the one you remembered. Japanese syllables for the most part consist either of a pure vowel or a preordained consonant-vowel combination, so that English consonant combinations are going to generate confusion for listeners trying in vain to figure out which vowel should be inserted between them. Finally, there is the lack of overt distinction between vowels and liquids, which if you think about it, is pretty arbitrary. Tongue interference is really quite minimal, which is why think 'apple' is 'ap-po' and 'purple' is 'pop-po'.

I once taught an adult conversation class in which the students were supposed to figure out what someone had ordered in a restaurant based on a recorded conversation. They got all but one part, and I repeated the CD over and over until one student repeated 'Tomato soup' in flawless imitation of the speaker's American accent. I was overjoyed and congratulated the student, who in response mumbled, 'Nanka wakaran'.

It turns out they weren't able to comprehend it until I wrote the word out, which in a unanimous paroxysm of satori, they all sighed, 'Ahhhh! Tomahhto suupu!'

Likewise when I was teaching the English pronunciation of words that are almost the same in English and Japanese katakana, such as the names of countries, at elementary school several years ago. 'Saudi Arabia!' I'd shout out. 'Sowjee Allah bia!' They'd shout back. 'New Zealand!' I'd shout. 'Nyuuji Rando!' they'd shout back. Noisy? A boiler room would have been a welcome respite from the sound after those exercises.

Theoretically, in elementary school, when kids' brains and mouths are actually still pliant enough that they'll get it right if they're around it a lot and if we drill it into them. The problem is that they're not, and we don't. The end result is that English spoken by natives sounds like mere noise, and the awaited reaction from listeners we expect to understand the vocabulary in advance, is so much golden silence.

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