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Language and Life

Sounding Right
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

We all have our own self-image.  We may see ourselves in a certain way and then look for the best way to project that image to others.  Our self-concept and the image we wish to project involve the clothes we wear and the way we relate to others, including humor or the way we express sympathy or appreciation.

Yet we can never be sure that the impression others have of us is the same as the image we wish to project.  We may be trying to sound erudite, and it comes out silly or pedantic.  We may try to be funny, and only produce a moan in others.  Of course, how we sound when we speak has much to do with the image we project.  This is even more critical in a foreign country, in a foreign language.

Identity Crisis
The foreign language learner has an internal self-concept.  The newcomer knows herself to be capable, educated, interested, well-informed.  The social role attained in our home society is a part of our self-image.  An identity crisis is experienced when the newcomer is limited by language to a role much lower or much less “significant” than that to which he/she is accustomed.

There is a Master's or Doctor's level person inside that head trying to get out through a first-grade or pre-school language skill.  No wonder we go through culture shock!  But finally after humiliating weeks and months of trying to say things one can't, the learner finally passes the first level of language proficiency, and then the second.  Social competence may even now seem attainable!

But some foreignness always remains with the adult learner.  It is rare that one overcomes the total foreignness of speech.  This means that even if one is otherwise “normal,” sounding right still is a hard goal to achieve.  Pronunciation is the most difficult aspect of foreignness to overcome.

Discarded Sounds
We learned the patterns of speech we needed for our native language when we were too young to remember, then discarded the sounds we did not need.  These deeply ingrained sound patterns, established over three to four years, or even more, and reinforced all our life, are difficult to overcome.

They enable us to speak our home language flawlessly (hopefully), but they can become a liability when we need to learn a new language.  And the older we get, the harder it is to recover those patterns we discarded or to retrain our brains to allow our speech muscles to fit into new patterns of sound production.

The language learner looks for the sound in his or her native language which is closest to the sound in the new language.  But interference remains a problem.  People vary in their ability to distinguish the difference between the sounds they hear in the new language and the sounds they are actually producing

Differences involve stress and intonation, as well as consonants or vowels.  If a Yank or a Brit finds themselves in South Africa, even the word stress and sentence intonation of mother-tongue speakers of English may be confusing.  They will hear words like e-KON-o-mics (ecoNOMics) and DEM-o-CRASS-y (deMOC-racy).

But if the language of your host community is not English, the question to ask is how they sound in their mother tongue.  When you try to speak the mother tongue of your host community, you’ll want to sound as natural as possible.  You don’t want your speech to distract form what you are saying!

When learning another language, one can often get important clues by listening to speakers of your target language speaking English.

It is common, for instance, to hear Africans saying “hee-ah” in two syllables, for the English word spelled “here.” There are differences in English pronunciation of this word, but it is always one syllable:  [hir] or [hee-uh] (with only one syllable stress on the two vowels as a diphthong), or with a lower first vowel as [hihr] or [hih-uh], or even [hyah] or [hyeh] (high British).

Similarly, the word spelled power is understood by (most) native English speakers as one syllable.  This may be realized as [powr] in which the r is an additional “glide” on the vowel, making a triphthong, with still only one syllable stress.  For others it may be [powuh], in which the second glide is realized as an uncurled “uh” (called a schwa) as in “here.”  As heard from some BBC announcers, it is often a simple vowel, as [pah].

These differences may cause the Briton and North American to hear different endings on the same word, but the syllable stress will match.  But for African speakers this word usually comes out as two syllables.

This makes it difficult for the American or Briton to sing with the African a chorus like “There is pow-wah, pow-wah...” as the African puts two syllables where the English song has only one, as “po-wr, po-wr” or “pah, pah,” for the native speaker.  Native English speakers may even differ on whether this word has one or two syllables!

Vowel Groups
The English speaker needs to distinguish between the two high front vowels, [ee] as in beet and [ih] as in bit.  When trying to say an African name like “Lindi,” the tendency will be to pronounce the first vowel like in the English name Linda [ih] and the last one, more correctly, as [I].  In Swahili, and many other languages, both vowels should sound the same, similar to the vowel in beet.

But in Highland Bantu languages like Kikuyu or Kamba, there is a distinction.  But it does not match the English one.  For instance, the Kikuyu word for 10:  ĩkũmi.  The ĩ is a vowel somewhat like the English vowel in pit, but it may be almost like the vowel in English pet.  The last vowel I of ĩkũmi is close to the English vowel in peat or Pete, but it may be as low as the vowel in the English word pit.  The vowels I, ĩ and e don’t match the English ones.

Consonant Character
Other problems are implosive consonants, like in the Zulu word baba, in which the breath is drawn in when releasing the b, rather than released outward (explosive) as in English and other European languages.  In some African languages, all voiced stops (like d, g, j, and others) are implosive.

A common problem is the nasalization of consonants, in which a b, d, or g, for instance, has a nasal sound (m, n, or n,) which is not sounded as a separate consonant in sequence, but as part of the stop (called nasalized, or pre-nasalized).

How to Practice
For many languages of Africa, technical phonetic descriptions are available, often even when there are no text books designed for foreigners to learn the language.  The learner should carefully review the technical explanations of how sounds are made, while having a native speaker of the language demonstrate each sound.  It is not too much to actually look into the language helper's mouth to see exactly where the tongue is placed.

Then a list of words beginning with the sound in focus should be made, then drilled in repetition with the language helper.  The words and drill lists can be recorded for continuing practice by the learner.

Three skills are involved in this process.  First, understanding exactly how and where the sound is made in the mouth, nasal passages or throat.  Then training the ears to recognize it.  Finally, training the speech organs to move in the required manner to produce a recognizably similar sound.  Sounding right is important.

The foreigner must diminish the foreignness of the sound of his/her speech. Yet losing a foreign accent is the most difficult part of language learning and takes the longest time, in most cases.  The learner should accept this reality and set a long-term goal, refuse to be discouraged and work continually on pronunciation.

Also related:
[TXT] I'm Tone Deaf
[TXT] I'm Tone Deaf
[TXT] Stressful Words and Sentences


This topic originally published in Language and Life, (Communication Press, Limuru, Kenya) 1989
Also published in the "Language and Life" series in Afri-Com, September 1993
This version written and posted on Thoughts and Resources 6 October 2008

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1989, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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