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.”


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