Thoughts on the relationship between “tone deafness” and learning pronunciation 

Many years ago, I taught a course for adults called “Everyone Can Sing: For people who were told they couldn’t sing, shouldn’t sing and wouldn’t sing.” By the end of that course, every single person got up to sing in front of the class –– every one. While it’s true that there’s a tiny 4% of human beings who have a genuine condition called “amusia,” a congenital musical disability, it’s been shown that for everyone else who claims to be, or has been accused of being, tone deaf, the issue is emotional. I’m not saying everyone can become a professional singer –– just that everyone can learn to make changes, build their self-confidence and sing in tune with other people.

So what does that have to do with English pronunciation?

Well some people pick up accents more quickly than others just as there are people who are able to sing “in tune” more quickly than others. But just as “everyone can sing,” everyone can learn to make changes to their accent through hard work and patience. It’s not about replacing one accent with another. It’s simply about making adjustments to make an accent more intelligible – decreasing misunderstandings, increasing listener comfort so that they’re focusing on the content.

But making changes to one’s accent is a very public statement, and there’s tremendous vulnerability attached.

An accent can express many things about ourselves, not just our country of birth, but also our culture, our family background, the friends we hang out with, our general sense of self-confidence, etc. An accent can help us feel a sense of belonging or a sense of alienation. It’s no surprise that changing aspects of one’s accent can make us feel so vulnerable. Just as getting up to sing when you’ve had a lifetime of criticism can feel intolerable,  going out into the world with a changed accent can feel intimidating. But just as “everyone can sing” –– some more quickly than others, yes –– everyone can make adjustments to their accent for increased intelligibility and social connections.

Patience with one’s self and studying in a trusted and trusting environment are key.

Don’t forget to check out The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel for my latest weekly video, One-Minute Words, and videos on English pronunciation.

Thoughts on the Right Way to Speak English 

Sometimes I find myself struggling with whether I should correct pronunciation or not? When I was young, my teachers would correct me for pronouncing the silent [t] in often. Yet now I hear native English speakers use it “ofTen.” I understand what they’re saying. So what’s the problem? Why do we care whether the [t] is pronounced or not?

Then there’s the big one –– for me, at least. I remember sitting in public school when my teacher asked the class “How do you pronounce this word?” The word was “advertisement.” I had a question about something else that I wanted to ask the teacher. So my hand shot up and the teacher said “Okay, Phyllis? What’s this word?” I quickly replied “ADvertisement” and immediately tried to ask my question. My teacher curtely replied, “Wrong!! Sit down!” “adVERtisement!” Now seriously, these days, how ofTen do we hear people say “adVERtisement”? You hear /ADvertIyzment/ almost all the time––in daily speech, on the radio, the internet, TV. After all, the verb is “to advertise:” stress on the first syllable, long vowel letter (diphthong) [i] and the voiced consonant form of the letter [s] (/z/). So heck, who am I to argue? I mean language is always changing.

I’ve started to keep a little list of “do not touch” words. If I hear that the traditional pronunciation (which is to say, the pronunciation that I grew up with here in Canada) is clearly changing in popular speech, I point out the previous traditional pronunciation to my clients, but I don’t insist on a correction. For me, it’s a process of “letting go.”

But if I hear a client say a word that is clearly a mispronunciation resulting from a native accent, and a pronunciation that I don’t hear native English speakers using on a regular basis, I’ll make the correction.

If someone says “lisTen,” I correct them. I don’t hear native English speakers pronouncing the [t] in “listen”. Maybe it’s because we have the common word “list,” so a silent [t] distinguishes that word from “listen.” Or maybe it’s just that that [t] doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as easily as it does in the word “often,” which has that lovely the-doctor-says-open-wide-and-say-/ah/ sound, not to mention the gentle whispered /f/.

If someone says “bomb,” well it’s not the way we say it, but frankly, I’ve heard it pronounced that way so often on air by speakers of ESL that it doesn’t bother me one bit. I mean, why not “bomb”? It’s almost onomatopoeic––it sounds like the noise it refers to. I point out the actual pronunciation, but I don’t make a big deal of it if they don’t correct it.

Traditionalists might scold me, but the fact is language is constantly changing and we need to change with it.

What’s your experience as a teacher, coach or speaker of ESL?

Don’t forget to checkout the latest video in my weekly series, “One-Minute Words.”

Thoughts on the Music of English

I’ve been listening to one of my favorite American podcasts. It’s called “Twenty Thousand Hertz.” The title comes from the fact that human beings are born with the ability to hear up to 20,000 Hz (hertz being the unit of measurement for sound). As a former musician who’s always fascinated by sound, I love this podcast because it explores sound “design” –– sounds we take for granted, like notification sounds on the laptop or smartphone, the emergency warning system, music for slot machines, gaming, news shows. But I was really excited to listen to an episode devoted to the Music in Speech.

Music is the universal language. I often post music and musical videos and dance and music videos on my Facebook FP. There’s virtually no culture in the world that doesn’t include music. By capturing the music of a language, we can help increase intelligibility. In this episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz, you get to hear words converted to music pure and simple, electronically, and by a drummer who plays along with the speech of certain actors, converting the words into pure rhythm and dynamics (gradations of loud and soft).

There’s an interview with Dr. Ani Patel, professor of psychology at Tufts University, who makes a very interesting observation at the end. He reminds us that over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution human beings have become very attuned to the sounds of each others’ voices. We listen for and respond to the emotional signals that pitch, rhythm and dynamics provide for understanding intention. Dr. Patel says that “when we communicate through texts or through email, we’re … cutting off that rich part of how we read each other’s emotions, feelings, intentions, thoughts, mood…”

So true. So true. It’s as if we’re always looking for “shortcuts” to avoid the depth of the English language. That can be particularly difficult for ESL speakers looking to improve language skills. That’s why I keep urging clients to take the time to listen with attention to the pitch, rhythm and dynamics of spoken English in every medium. Close your eyes and feel the sounds of English all around you.

If you aren’t already, listen to some great podcasts like Twenty Thousand Hertz on ITunes. Learn about the sounds that shape us – their history, their evolution and, sometimes, their disappearance. For the episode I’ve referred to in this blog,  go to https://www.20k.org/episodes/themusicinspeech.

And check out The Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube channel for episodes on pronunciation challenges and my newest video series One-Minute Words https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtLnMIqmYW9uRCi_Kx48AaQ

If you have any thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear from you.

Thoughts on How to Listen

I’m always thinking about how to communicate ongoing listening practice to ESL speakers.

I find they (or you, if you’re an ESL speaker reading this) frequently focus on how, exactly, to pronounce a consonant or vowel, or how on earth to remember which syllable to stress in any word. I think learning how to slow down to listen is just as, if not more, important. “Slowing down to listen“: not “slowing down to speak.” And more importantly, to “listen with attention” to speakers of English as a native language. Conversing with other speakers of ESL, especially those with the same native language, habitual errors remain ingrained.

Very often, ESL speakers listening to each other, even if their native languages are different, understand each other perfectly well. It’s we native English speakers who seem not to “get it.” We’re easily thrown when we don’t hear recognizable patterns.

While it’s important to listen to the radio, the internet, to films, etc., I’m also a big fan of discreetly “eavesdropping” on anglophones speaking to each other. Heck, these days, with people having loud conversations on their cellphones, we don’t even need to “eavesdrop.”  But don’t listen so much to what they’re saying. Listen to how they’re saying it. Listen carefully to the form, not the content, of what’s being said when you’re not engaged in the conversation.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not telling anyone to be rude. I’m saying look for opportunities to detach – slow down – and listen in a different way. Practising correct pronunciation is really useful and important, of course. But listening calmly and closely, you suddenly become aware of different sounds in the words that you’ve been using regularly. You begin to hear in a new way.

Out of nowhere, you become conscious of the syllable stress in a particular word that you were pronouncing differently. A single consonant or vowel that you could never distinguish before suddenly pops out. Or you suddenly realize that those crazy reductions, like “gotta,” “hafta,” “dunno,” aren’t just for informal speech. Hey, that’s the way we native speakers actually speak. That awareness of something “different” creates a little shift in the body and the brain that speeds up the rate of change in your own pronunciation. You open up to new sounds and rhythms in the music of English. It’s especially hard for advanced speakers. Habitual patterns are sooo hard to break, but simple awareness can make all the difference.

That’s something I often emphasize in my videos the Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube Channel.

If you have any thoughts on the subject, I’d love to hear from you.

Thoughts on this Blog

For most of last year, I was posting blogs directly related to the videos on my YouTube channel, The Canadian Pronunciation Coach. (My videos will be continuing, though I’m moving into a new series called One-Minute Words). But as time has passed and I continue coaching clients, so many different thoughts have been swirling around in my head. Sometimes they’re directly related to the mechanics of English pronunciation, sometimes to the idiosyncrasies of our crazy English language, sometimes to podcasts I’ve been listening to, shows I’ve watched, books and articles I’ve read or conversations I’ve had. Questions pop up out of nowhere about the theory of practice, the psychology of coaching and the mindset behind learning. And sometimes, they’re just about the changing nature of language. At times, I feel like I’m reaching out to speakers of English as a Second Language directly. Other times I feel like I’m reaching out to my fellow coaches and teachers. So I thought I’d step out of that little box I’d created for myself so many months ago and start throwing ideas out into cyberspace, with the hope that whoever comes across this blog would take a moment to add their thoughts.

It would be great to hear from you.

By the way, if you want to check out my videos, click on Canadian Pronunciation Coach YouTube