Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Jerome K Jerome (2) and phonetics

In my previous blog I quoted a few sentences from JKJ's novel Three Men on the Bummel. For your convenience, I repeat just the first sentence: "I also think pronunciation of a foreign tongue could be better taught than by demanding from the pupil those internal acrobatic feats that are generally impossible and always useless." Is JKJ right? If you try to press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx, this should prove impossible. The more serious question is: Are articulatory descriptions always useless? You probably guess what my answer will be - of course, not!
For the phonetically uninitiated they are almost a waste of time. For those who want or have to learn to pronounce English a few articulatory descriptions may be of help every now and then - less helpful with English vowels than with most consonants. But other things are important as well, if not more important. You must be able to hear the difference(s) between the sounds, rhythms, (non-lexical) tones, gradations, etc. of English and your respective mother tongue; and you must be able not only to discriminate these phonetic features when used by native speakers of English but also when YOU speak English.

Moreover, you must be prepared and willing to integrate these phonetic features into your personality; in other words, you must be ready to expand your articulatory personality and say: "Yes - when I speak English that's me as well!" How can you persuade your 'inner horse' to drink? How do you convince yourself to add a new wrinkle to your articulatory repertoire? Even if you're willing to surpass yourself how can you coax yourself into sounding pretty much like a native speaker of English?
Here are two suggestions:
  1. Fraternise with a native speaker of the opposite sex - or the same sex to be seemingly politically correct!
  2. Monitor English natives speaking your mother language (= L1) with a moderate to strong English accent. As soon as they can no longer attack you verbally or physically, try to imitate their way of speaking your L1 with an English accent! It's revealing! And when you manage to do this, use this very same accent when YOU speak English.
There's, of course, more to it than just boosting your motivation. I assume that you are capable of pronouncing your L1 perfectly (well - almost perfectly unless you are an elocutionist). You have been pronouncing those sounds since you started to talk. Your articulatory organs and the brain regions controlling them are well trained for this job. When you speak English as a foreign language there's every chance that your brain, your ears and your articulators have to get used to producing and controlling new movements for sounds that do not exist in your L1. English is also most likely to have sounds that are similar but not identical to your L1 sounds. I think the similar sounds are the most difficult ones to master. More on this in a future blog entry. (See my blog of the 25th of September)

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