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Help Me to Trill the Spanish ‘R’ June 22, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Phonetics, Skype, Spanish.

The Spanish rolling ‘R’ (or trilled ‘R’) sound is always a fascinating sound to me. It is the most difficult sound I have ever encountered. I can make the sound alone, but I always find it difficult making it within a word, especially when it is at the middle of the word.

I looked up some phonetic websites (such as this one) and the way they teach to position the tongue is slightly different from the way I do it. Perhaps I should consult the native speakers and advanced learners.

Last night, just for the fun of it, I hosted a skpyecast called “Help me to trill the Spanish R”. There I met a Japanese lady, who lived in the vicinity of Tokyo. I asked if she could trill the ‘R’ sound, and she did not seem to understand what I meant. Her English was not very fluent, so I had to struggle to converse with her for a while.

I started to praise the Japanese language being a polite language, and the Japanese people are very polite in general. Then I ran out of topics…

Suddenly, she started to speak in Spanish!

I exchanged some simple sentences at the beginning, but couldn’t get very far. “No comprendo” (I don’t understand), and I had to switched back to English.

It turned out that she had lived in Spain for two years due to a job assignment of her father. She had not been to any Spanish language school, not before or during her stay. She learned the language mainly from a guitar teacher over there.

She then demonstrated the rolling ‘R’ to me in different words. It was perfect. I asked her how she learned it, and she said she couldn’t quite remember. It took her about a year to get used to it.

Then I asked how she dealt with verb conjugations in the Spanish language. She just did not know what the term meant.

Here is a language learner who has taken the natural approach. To this kind of learners, I just sound plain stupid with all the linguistic and grammatical jargons.


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.

Hypercorrection March 9, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Grammar, Phonetics.

Recently, to my surprise, I have found out that I have been mispronouncing a word for over 30 years, in my own native language!

The word is ‘愛’ (oi3) in Cantonese, meaning ‘love’. It is a commonly used word, and many people like myself, mispronounce it as ‘ngoi3’. It is usually not noticeable, but in terms of phonetics, it is a completely different sound.

To be exact, I am pronouncing the word in the ‘less correct’ way. The official Cantonese dictionary accepts this pronunciation as a variant. The wide spread of this ‘less correct’ pronunciation was an result of an unconscious rule of adding the initial ‘ng’ for all words that do not have an initial. The rule is not always correct.

In fact, there is a linguistic term for this kind of rules – hypercorrection. It describes the over-generalization of common usage by imposing artificial grammatical rules that are not necessarily correct in all cases. An example in English is the rule of not ending any clause with a preposition. After being hypercorrected, Winston Churchill made this famous quote:

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

To be honest, I am still having a hard time to convince myself that I am wrong (or ‘less correct’). Many people nowadays will not accept the original pronunciation, and would assume that it is incorrect. I don’t like its sound either. I find my pronunciation of the word more natural.

I have 2 choices now. I can either correct myself, or I can wait for the dictionary to be updated, which could happen one day.

Have you ever found yourself mispronouncing any word in your own language? What would you do about that?

Getting the Cantonese ‘z’ Sound Right December 21, 2006

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, English, Phonetics.
1 comment so far

There has been a discussion in a Cantonese learner’s forum about the pronunciation of the Cantonese Jyutping ‘z’ sound. There is indeed an obvious difference between this sound and the English ‘j’ sound.

To complicate things a bit more, there is yet another sound which kind of sits between the 2 sounds. This is the girlish accent which you can hear from many Cantonese-speaking teenagers.

I find it very difficult to explain the ways to pronounce these different sounds, so I might as well illustrate them. Lacking a better illustrator, I am going to volunteer. Listen carefully to the 6 sounds in the following audio clip:

  1. 租 (zou1) – correct pronunciation
  2. 租 (zou1) –still acceptable but sounds very girlish
  3. Joe – English
  4. 渣 (zaa1) – correct pronunciation
  5. 渣 (zaa1) – incorrect pronunciation. Even the girlish accent does not have this
  6. Jar – English (British non-rhotic ending)

It seems to me that in the correct Cantonese pronunciations (1 and 4), I use more of my tongue tip. In 2, 3, 5, and 6, my tongue is flatter and it sides stay closer to my side teeth. To pronounce the English ‘j’ sound (3 and 6), you would start vibrating the vocal cord slightly before releasing the air (voiced).

For those who are learning Cantonese, the differences might seem to be small, but at least you know there are differences. I believe if you get it right one day, you will surely impress the native speakers.