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Pronunciation-Wrestling June 24, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English.

In my last project at work, we dealt with a US telecommunication company. We had a team consisted of about 6-7 colleagues from the US and 4 of us from Canada, all ‘locked’ in a conference room somewhere in the vicinity of Seattle.

Since our client was a telecommunication company, the word ‘Mobile’ came up extremely frequently during our discussions. It was very interesting to notice how different people pronounced the word differently. In brief, people from the US pronounce the word as ‘Moble’ (rhymes with ‘Noble’). The rest of the world pronounce it as ‘Mobile’ (rhymes with ‘File’).

This means all the representatives from our client said ‘Moble’, as for most of our US colleagues. The only exception was a colleague with an Indian heritage. On the Canadian side, 3 out of 4 of us actually spoke English as a second language. Somehow, we naturally adopted to ‘Moble’ right from the beginning of the project. We just follow how the client said it with no complaint. The only person insisted on saying ‘Mobile’ was a native Canadian (meaning born and raised in Canada).

I came back to Toronto afterwards and talked with my boss about the project. She was another native Canadian, so she said ‘Mobile’. But then I found myself kept on saying ‘Moble’ and couldn’t switch it back!

I remember I was in another project many years ago. The team consisted of mostly Americans, with only a few of us from Canada. There was an issue with a database flag ‘Z’. Our US colleagues would say ‘zee’, but our Canadian colleagues, in attempt to keep up with our Canadian pride, would say ‘zed’. Somehow, everyone insisted on pronouncing it his own way and no one bothered to suggest to unify the pronunciations at least in the discussions. At one point, I was shocked to hear my team lead, a native Canadian, began to say ‘zee’. From then on, I knew we had lost the wrestling.

As a matter of fact, the ‘Z’ alphabet was once used as a Shibboleth. It was
known in American history and popular culture for distinguishing American males who fled to Canada from the US to escape the military draft in the 1960s. But thanks to the American cultural influences in the past few decades, such as Sesame Street and the Alphabet song (American version), ‘zee’ is now adopted more and more by many young Canadians.


O Canada November 15, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English, French.
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Last week, I was compiling a collection of more than 25 different versions of the Canadian nation anthem “O Canada” for my daughter. The anthem is her favourite song besides, of course, the Alphabet song. I had been singing the anthem to her since she was 3-months old. Somehow, the tune worked great for a lullaby when sung with my dull voice. Now she is almost 2 years and a half, and she can sing the complete anthem by herself.

A few quick facts about “O Canada”:

  1. The song officially became the nation anthem only very recently, in 1980.
  2. The French and English lyrics of the anthem have nothing to do with each other. Their meanings are completely unrelated.
  3. In fact, the French lyrics came out first.
  4. The anthem is often sung by mixing the lyrics of the 2 languages. One reason for doing this is to demonstrate the bilingualism of the country. Another reason, rather more subtle, is to avoid some ‘sensitive’ words. So, if there is a sensitive word in one language, they would switch that line to the other language. How ridiculous!

In one version of the anthem, I found the pure English French-accent perfectly rendered. When I first heard it, I thought it was sung by some folks from the US (for it was from an NBA game). But then I found out it was sung by the Canadian A Capella-turned-rock-band (then disbanded) group – the Moffatts.

I was amazed how well the parts were harmonized. These 4 brothers had been singing A Capella since they were kids. I was more amazed that even their English French-accents were so harmonized too!

Out of the many versions of the anthem I have collected, the most beautifully sung French version I find is one posted by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary on YouTube. In my opinion, it was sung better than the Celion Dion’s version.

Scarier Than Halloween November 3, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Speaking, Toastmasters.

I just delivered a Toastmasters speech on the past Wednesday, right on the Halloween. No, this was not the scary part. It was my first speech in 11 months. This was not that scary either. The real scary moment was when I received the recording afterwards, and I watched myself delivering my speech.

Many people, including myself, find it very uncomfortable watching ourselves or listening to our own voices. A while ago, I posted in the language forum, asking why so many forum members claimed to speak multiple languages but yet not many members have recorded their own audio clips. I only got 3 or 4 answers back, saying that they were afraid of listening to their own voices.

Indeed, I have realized that this is a severe problem for myself. This past week, my company had a major upgrade to its telephony system, and all of us had to reset their voice mailboxes and record their greetings again. It took me 5-6 takes to record a short greeting that was acceptable to me.

Ever since I had taken the “Accent reduction course“, I would occasionally sit beside my laptop and record myself reading some short passages in English. Listening to them simply makes me shiver. Lately, I had installed Pamela for Skype and had tried recording my Skpye conversations a few times. My own voice just sounds so weird to me when I play back the recordings.

Perhaps it is time to fix the problem once and for all. It seems that I am the only person that rarely listen to my own voice. So here is something I am going to try. I will carry a portable recorder with me and record my own voice everyday. I will then listen to all the recordings afterwards. I will try it out for a week or so and see how it goes.

More on Accent Reduction Course July 13, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English.
1 comment so far

In a recent comment from my previous post on “Accent Reduction Course”, Max asks if anyone knows a good course to help his friend on his English accent. His friend comes from Mainland China. Both Max and his friend are currently living in Hong Kong.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any reference in Hong Kong, but I am sure courses like this are very common around the world. The challenge is to identify which ones are good.

Perhaps what I can do instead is to share some important concepts I have learned from my course, which have since become extremely beneficial to my English skills. Remember, here we are not just talking about learning a language, but changing your accent.

1) Pronunciation
Unlike many Romantic languages, you simply cannot figure out for sure how an English word is pronounced by merely looking at its spelling. This fact is probably well-known to a lot of English learners, but many ignore its magnitude.

You basically have to get rid of the mindset of figuring out English pronunciations by spellings. You can guess but you can never be sure. I would even boldly go to the extreme to visualize that the correlation is as weak as figuring out how a Chinese character is pronounced. There are patterns for guessing the pronunciation by looking at the radicals, but they are not rules.

This means whenever you encounter a new English word, you must find out how it sounds. You can listen to how native speakers pronounce it, or simply look it up from a dictionary (or better still, an on-line dictionary with sounds). But never assume its pronunciation. I have personally made this mistake many times in the past. In one occasion, I was making a speech but getting the pronunciation of a simple word wrong. How embarrassed!

2) Phonetics
An English ‘j’ is different from a Spanish ‘j’, a French ‘j’, or even a Chinese Pinyin ‘j’. Getting all these sounds sorted out right from the beginning is crucial. It is very easy for typical English learners to omit this, especially those who have been learning the language for many years.

For example, it was my first time to come across the concepts of reduced vowels and ‘schwa’ in the course. Although I have been using them subconsciously, I was never aware of their existence. I have also learned a few IPA notations in the course.

You don’t have to get the sounds perfect right from the beginning. But at least you should have a foreknowledge of how they should sound, and strike to imitate them until you have reached some kind of perfection.

3) Intonation
English is a non-tonal language, but it does not mean the English words are toneless and you can pick any tone you like. They still have tones, but the tones vary depending on the contexts. It is typically the learners coming from tonal-language backgrounds who find difficulty in grasping this concept. They usually assign fixed tones to the words, and they do this subconsciously.

However, it is also not unusual for learners coming from non-tonal language backgrounds to have difficulty too. For example, English intonation is different from those of other European languages. I remember seeing my Polish and Ukrainian classmates struggling with the English intonation. There is a tendency for them to simply adopt their own sets of intonations and ignore that fact that English has different intonation. In fact, if you pay closer attention, even British English and America English have slightly different intonations.

4) Effort
No language course can help you if you don’t help yourself. In fact, it was pointed out to me right at the beginning of the course, that each student should find himself an individual native English-speaking buddy, and spent at least a certain amount of time per day to study the language.

One clear message I got from the course is that the course itself is just the beginning. It taught me the basic concepts, but after that I would be on my own. What needs to follow is a lot of hard work and effort.

Without effort, you can go nowhere. “Effortless success” is an oxymoron.

Hong Kong English Accent June 8, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Phonetics.

A few days ago I was watching some Youtube video clips from the website 英文由F字學起 (Learn English starting from the ‘F’ word). The series is for getting rid of the Hong Kong English accent. Unlike other typical accent reduction courses, the tutor specifically pinpoints the Hong Kong accent and talks about a lot of its flaws. He does so very thoroughly.

In one episode, the tutor talks about the pronunciation of the alphabets. He points out that the typical Hong Kong pronunciations get about half of the alphabets wrong. This is shocking but certainly very true!

As I was reflecting on the English education in Hong Kong, I feel very sad. Most English teachers are inadequately equipped. Look at the fruit they produce! Another sad thing I feel is that most Hong Kong people would rather spend a huge amount of time on grammar correction, but they rarely think about improving their pronunciations.

Hamburger April 3, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Speaking.

Here is the hilarious ‘hamburger’ screen from the movie ‘Pink Panther’.

It might seem ridiculous to most of us. How could it take so long for someone to learn to say such a simple sentence! But I am sure if you are a serious language learner, you must have experienced the same frustration before. It might be pronouncing a word or a sentence. You have tried so long and so hard, but you just cannot get the pronunciation right.

If you are experiencing the same frustration right now, who not take a break and relax? Watch this clip again … and again … and again … Remember, perfection takes time!

Spoiler: if you have watched the movie, you would remember that at the end Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Steve Martin) actually turned out to be a great linguist!

Accent Switching March 20, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Speaking.

I had never believed this could be done. A non-native speaker switches accents!

The other day I joined a skypecast, and I threw in one of the most commonly discussed topic on language learning: can a person become fluently in a foreign language without leaving his own country?

A person from the Philippines jumped in and started speaking. He did not think this was necessary. In fact, he himself was a counter-example. He spoke nearly-fluent English, which was his second language, and he claimed that he never lived in a foreign country before.

I personally have met many Filipinos who can speak fluent English, but they usually have a thick Filipino accent. On contrary, this guy did not. Rather, I recognized a slight American accent when he spoke. He claimed he had never lived in the US before. He must be watching a lot of American movies, I thought.

He then explained how he managed to attain his level of fluency. He worked in a remote call-center. For those who do not know the world is flat, today people set up remote call-centers (in India for example) to service customers from their own countries, usually English-speaking ones. They would train the employees in the remote countries to ‘speak like’ their customers. Hence, they would provide these so-called ‘accent’ courses. Usually there is an American accent course and a UK one. The Filipino told me that there was an Australian accent course for them because they had customers in Australia.

Suddenly I heard someone speaking with an Australian/British accent. Then I found out it was the same person! The accent was far from native, but I could clearly distinguish it from his previous American accent.

The Filipino told me that he had been working in the call center for 2 years. He worked 8 hours a day taking calls from the customers. The key was to imitate how their customers speak. It took him about 6 months to get used to the American way of speaking and communicate well with the American customers.

There is no short-cut to improve your speaking skills. You really have to speak a lot! I have heard of incidents when professional immigrants would look for a job in the call centers to improve their language skills.

A side note. Many people think they can do accent jokes. My advise is, record yourself and listen to it, see if you are satisfied with your accents. Otherwise, don’t let other people suffer.

In Search of RP Speakers February 12, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English, Skype.

It was Friday night, the time to host my ad-hoc skypecast again. In the past two weeks, I hosted the ‘Learn a Language Now’ skypecasts to talk about all kinds of languages. This time, I wanted to do something different. I created a skypecast called ‘In Search of RP English Speakers’, with the following description:

“I don’t speak RP (BBC/Queen’s) English, but I would love to chat with anyone who does. In fact, I wonder if they still exist outside the BBC studio and the Buckingham Palace.”

Received Pronunciation (RP) is a form of pronunciation of the English language which has been long perceived as uniquely prestigious among British accents and is the usual accent taught to non-native speakers learning British English.

Most people joining the skypecast did not have a clue what ‘RP English’ was. Some got the idea when I mentioned the Queen’s English or the BBC English. I managed to get hold of four people from the UK altogether, which was a bit over my expectation since it was very early in the morning in their time zone. Three of them were British natives but none of them speak RP. In fact, they told me that if they hear someone speaking RP on the streets, they would think the person is trying to be ‘classy’ or something.

Although RP is still commonly used in foreign English schools, people in Britain hardly speak the accent anymore. I have read reports claiming that only about 3% of the British population speaks it today. Even BBC itself claims to be losing its speakers:

“If nothing else, it is simply no longer the case that most of the voices that come out of our TV sets are speaking RP. Perhaps the last bastion of RP on the BBC is the news, which still requires maximum clarity and the widest possible range of comprehension.”

Even the Queen herself has recently been identified of her accent change, as well as other members in the Royal family. Personally, I find the report ridiculous. It compared the Queen’s speeches which were five decades apart. Everyone changes the way he speaks over such a long period of time.

I often bring up the subject of English accents when I have chance to talk to people who are learning English. Most of them give me the impression that at their levels, they don’t care about adopting which accent, as long as it is not their own foreign accents. They also admit that although they love to hear the BBC English, they would rather go with the American accent.

In the skypecast, I expressed my sadness about seeing RP go extinct, as it is likely to be the case in the near future. Well, I guess all languages change through time. There is nothing much we can do about it, except to accept the fact and go with the trend.

Accent Reduction Course January 5, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Accents, English.

Everyone thinks he speaks his native language without any accent. Ask around and you will see how true this statement really is.

A few years ago, I took an English improvement course offered in my company which was provided by an external language consultant company. The course was called the “Accent Reduction Course”. Its purpose was to help non-native English speaking employees to ‘reduce’ their accents when speaking English.

I actually asked the representative on the phone, “What do you mean by ‘reducing’ my accent? What can it be reduced to?” I cannot remember exactly how she replied, but I remember she felt a bit embarrassed. I think she kind of got what I meant.

As expected, the course turned out to be a “Speak English with a North-American accent” course, or more precisely Canadian accent. But overall, it was a useful course. One important thing I learned from the class is the importance of intonation and stress in English.

I also observed a few interesting things from my classmates, too. For examples, Mandarin speakers tend to have problem pronouncing the ‘ng’ at the end of the word. They tend to stress the nasal sound too much. Eastern Europeans tend to have difficulty pronouncing the ‘h’ sound, which somehow comes from too far back of the mouth.

As for me, I feel unnatural to pronounce the rhotic ‘r’ sound and flapping the double ‘t’. English speakers in most parts of the world don’t do these things.