Right Pronciation with Wrong Sounds!

It takes some pain, and sometimes a lot of time, to realize that ignorance hasn’t been bliss. As an English teacher at a high school in Butwal, about 15 years ago, I had a distinct identity due to my relative fluency in English, more specifically, due to the ‘correct’ pronunciation of—well—certain words! Anyway, the secret key to all the great impression I gave many colleagues and students was that I could look up the OALD, and, with the knowledge imparted to me years ago by my English teacher about how to articulate the English sounds represented by the phonetic symbols in the dictionary, pronounce them ‘correctly’. It worked like magic—or so I thought.

As it happens almost as a rule in Nepal, my ‘OALD’ pronunciation of English words elicited two kinds of responses: some admiration from some people and more criticism from others. The admirers were mainly students who wanted to speak better English, and a few math or science teachers who didn’t think they ever could. The criticizers were mainly stick-in-the-mud English teachers, intolerant of anything that is different, especially if they couldn’t do it themselves! They hated to hear me say /phƏli:s/ because they only felt comfortable, thought they should sound ‘natural’, but in reality only say /pu:l:s/. (To give a few other examples: /kΛp/ for /khɒp/, /hЗ:t/ for /ha:t/, /epƏl/ for /æphl/ with a dark /l/, /bΛl/ for /bɔ:l/, etc). Knowing that they were real ignoramus, I did not let their derision hurt my passion to improve my English. Or so I thought.

About five or seven years of being a high school English teacher, I started encountering ‘kids’ in higher secondary schools who had been taught by better trained teachers, native speakers of British/American English, and other speakers of better English. My OALD pronunciation (of now a good range) of English words turned out to be right but extremely funny, because I had been articulating all the basic consonant and vowel sounds of English with perfectly Nepali phonetic features myself! For example, the aspirated /ph/ sound in my ‘police’ sounded perfectly like the /ph/ of ‘phantus’ and the /ɒ/ sound of ‘cop’ made the word sound perfectly like /khɔ:p/ or ‘vaccine’ in Nepali!! It was painful to realize how my ninth grade English teacher, the OALD, books like Better English Pronunciation and Lingusitics for the Students of Literature had only reinforced the basically wrongheaded approach to speaking better English—learn the pronunciation of words in another language without learning to produce the sounds themselves right.

I do not believe that we should strive for ‘accent’ like that of ‘native’ English speakers (‘accent’ in the sense of vocal quirks) but it is absolutely necessary to teach and learn how to correctly produce basic sounds of any language with the unique combination of articulatory features. For example, if someone says the Nepalese word ‘khop’ as /gɔ:p/ it would be hard for us to understand. So, to the extent of intelligibility that Ganga Sir has rightly suggested, anyone who wants to learn Nepalese must try to first learn that plosive, voiceless, velar sound–and practice to produce Nepalese sounds in phonetically correct way, if not learn regional accents (eastern, western, etc), ethnicity or class-based accents (Gurung, Sherpa, Newar; as the former royal family or Rana families would speak, etc), or age or gender-based accents (like young boys in the streets of Kathmandu speak, or the way older women do). I wouldn’t care about speaking in the ‘standard’ South London accent, etc, but I must care to say ‘cop’ with correct ‘English’ basic sounds in it (where ‘English’ implies features that make my basic recognizable for other speakers of the language beyond my own school, city, or country. English is a trans-national language, and the purpose for which we teach in Nepal is only for local communication (in fact, this is not its primary purpose) but more importantly as a language of communication across national borders. That is why I fully agree with Shyam’s points in the earlier post as well.

If we want to save thousands of future teachers and other professionals who are now our students from the kind of humiliating realization that I had after years of confidence in my ‘ability’, we must teach sounds to our students.

2 thoughts on “Right Pronciation with Wrong Sounds!

  1. Dhruba makes some valuable comments here, but as both an English teacher and an English to speakers of Other Languages teacher, my main concern when dealing with pronunciation has always been comprehensibility. If someone mispronounces a word, and consequently changes the sense of their comment by using a legitimate minimal pair (‘ship’ instead of ‘sip’, or ‘thought’ instead of ‘taught’), that needs to be picked up upon and explained and practised appropriately. If, however, they mispronounce a word in a way that doesn’t produce a legitimate minimal pair (for instance, ‘sarp’ instead of ‘sharp’), I will mention the mispronunciation, but not push it.

    There is a delicate balance in this area of teaching, especially when it comes to disrupting otherwise valuable practice of the spoken language – even more precious in contexts such as Nepal where it is a ‘foreign’ language context.


  2. Dhruba’s observation and experience of his own learning makes a sense in the Nepalese context. While doing my undergraduate, I also tried to copy the OALD pronunciation, and tried to make my pronunciation similar to RP or standard British English. Later I found that no English speaking people pronounce exactly the same way that the dictionary gives in the real life connected speech. It is not necessary that we need to sound like the native speakers because we need not and cannot, but we must at least be ‘intelligible’ to the English speaking people around the world. One of the most important tasks we need to do is to expose the students with the real audio and video stimulus with words and speech that contain those ‘difficult to master’ words and sounds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *