Many things influence how what we say is perceived. (See our recent blog post entitled, 3 Things You Probably Haven’t Considered About Clear Communication.) In that post, I focused primarily on interpretation and cultural assumptions. In this post, I want to focus on eight technical aspects of pronunciation which can create speech that can be unclear to local people.
According to Dictionary.com, “pronunciation” can be defined as:
“The act or result of producing the sounds of speech, including articulation, stress, and intonation, often with reference to some standard of correctness or acceptability.”
With this definition in mind, let’s look at the eight aspects of pronunciation that can cause confusion if not produced in a manner commonly used by the local people or in a way that is not considered “standard English.”
The first six are related to variations in accent, examining how the native language influences the way we pronounce in English.
The last two are related to enunciation – how clearly and distinctly a particular individual forms the sounds that make up a word – and this can be an issue for both native and non-native speakers.
1 – CONSONANTS
We tend to make sounds in the same way as we do in our native language. So, for example, in many Indian and Eastern European languages, the W and the V are combined and not two separate sounds. Likewise, it is common for Spanish speakers to blend the B and V, for Filipinos and Koreans to confuse P and F, for East Asians to not differentiate between R and L, etc.
Such pronunciation issues are the source of much humour. They can also cause serious confusion for the listener and embarrassment for the speaker.
2 – VOWELS
As with consonants, vowels vary considerably across languages and English pronunciation is compounded by variations in spelling.
As an example, BEAT, BIT, BET, BAT, BOUGHT, BUT and BOOT – all have slight variations which native-born English speakers pick up on quickly while non-native speakers often cannot hear.
Vowel length is another issue – BEAT vs BEAD or LOCK vs LOG. Even most native speakers think the predominant issue is the pronunciation of the final consonant where, in reality, we pay more attention to the length of the vowel.
And, of course, we all know about our crazy spelling – COT, CAUGHT, BOUGHT, LAW – for most Canadians, the vowels in each of these words are pronounced simply as “AH.”
3 – DOMINANT SOUNDS
By dominant sound, I am referring to a sound that predominates in an individual’s pronunciation in a way that makes it stand out in English. An example of this is substituting the voiced TH (as in my name, HEATHER,) with Z, or pronouncing all Rs with a strong vibration. While this may not make it difficult to understand, it often has the effect of distracting the listener who might start to expect that sound, paying attention more to when it will come next rather than to what the speaker is saying.
4 – STRESS
We have two kinds of stress – syllable stress (such as the shifting stress in the words A-NA-LY-SIS vs A-NA-LY-TI-CAL) and sentence stress (referring to which words in a sentence we stress). Incorrect syllable stress is the most common pronunciation issue related to clarity. Incorrect sentence stress will commonly affect interpretation. (For example, “I CAN do it” may be heard as “I CAN’T do it” since we stress negatives but not modals.)
Intonation allows us to express both emotion and meaning. For example, “you are going to the party” said in a flat voice is a comment and with downward intonation is an order, whereas using upward intonation at the end turns the statement into a question.
Intonation is also an aspect of stress. We raise the pitch of most stressed words and this is not common across all languages. If I don’t hear that pitch variation, it complicates my understanding of which words are important and what I should pay attention to.
6 – PHRASING
This refers to how we group our words, which indicates our thought groups. The classic joke is indicated by how we use commas – “Let’s eat, Grandma” vs “Let’s eat Grandma.” Speaking without grouping our words correctly leaves the listener trying to figure out what is related to what. Then their attention is stuck and what follows can be lost.
7 – SPEED
If you speak quickly, the listener has less time to process what they hear. If certain aspects of the pronunciation are non-standard – different syllable stress, weak consonants, variations of the vowels, lack of intonation, etc. – it just takes time for us to figure out what you might be saying. So often, simply slowing down can immensely improve clarity.
8 – MUMBLING
This is a problem for both native and non-native speakers. I have found that people who have arrived here as teenagers, and consequently learned English from other teenagers, often don’t enunciate clearly; they mumble as teenagers are wont to do. So, they imitate and never really learn the full range of the movement of the sounds.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
If we consider different accents to be different forms of music, we can replace the terms “intonation, phrasing and speed” with “melody and timing.” In my opinion, while the individual sounds are very important, often it is the rhythm – this music of the language – which causes the most difficulty for local people. And music is an acquired taste, requiring exposure.
Even native English speakers from, for example, Northern Scotland or the deep south in the United States can be difficult to understand for many Canadians. And our own older Newfoundlanders (those living in Newfoundland, Canada’s eastern-most province) are often not easily understood by other Canadians – and they are both Canadian and native speakers of English.
The fact remains that our speech is influenced by our environment, and we attune our ears to what we commonly hear. I believe we should never be embarrassed by our accent. It is a sign that we have learned a different way of speaking, a different way of living and expressing and feeling. It is honourable. Simply, paying attention to why others may be having difficulty understanding us gives us a tool to grow with, to learn with, to adjust how we speak as we wish. It gives us more power to communicate with our fellow citizens and have more impact.