Beyond Words, ESL Pronunciation & Canadian English

Heather Chetwynd


By Heather Chetwynd, president of Voice to Word Consulting Inc., a Toronto-based company which offers customized training and seminars to support the needs of clients who are not native English speakers.


“Let’s swing over to the mall and pick up a two-four. Then we can go hang out with the hosers and watch the Leafs.”

“I need a double double. I’ve got a brutal day ahead of me working with all those keeners. I’m gonna pick up a mickey and knock a few back after this.”

 As if knowing how to pronounce English words wasn’t hard enough with its ridiculous spelling! Now we have to be concerned with idioms, slang, cultural references, phrasal verbs and other aspects of speech, such as intonation and stress, which can totally change the meaning! No wonder non-native speakers of English have such a hard time.

Idioms, slang and cultural references

During Barak Obama’s election campaign, he repeated over and over “Yes we can! Yes we can!” Even without his campaign song that immortalized the phrase, it was clear that “Yes we can” would remain as a reminder of this particular election and carry an added symbolism for a long time.

Another example is “They always get their man,” a slogan used to refer to the “Mounties,” a popular term for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP.) It accounts for the title of a New York Times article, “Will they always get their man, hats or no?” referring to the debate about allowing RCMP officers to wear turbans. And a Halifax Chronicle Herald article entitled “Mounties always get their man,” referring to the RCMP’s first publicly gay marriage. Newspaper titles often play with cultural references and double meanings.

Canadian Flag - ESL pronunciation

Slang and idioms are often culturally based. A “two-four” refers to a case of 24 beers — reminding us of the stereotypical image of a beer-drinking, hockey-loving Canadian “hoser” watching the Toronto Maple Leafs (the Leafs). Newfoundland is referred to as “the Rock,” Toronto as Hogtown from its early muddy days and Calgary as Cowtown due to the annual Calgary Stampede or rodeo. An “Ex” refers to Export beer or one of your previous intimate partners, “the Ex” refers to the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) or a divorced spouse and the “Y” refers to the YMCA.

And then there’s vocabulary which changes by generation. “Sick” used to mean ill, then it meant gross or disgusting; now among young people it often means awesome. “Gay” originally meant happy, then it meant homosexual and now it is used by young people as a generic insult. Using on-line resources such as Wikipedia (,) the Urban Dictionary ( and the Free Dictionary ( can help clarify such meanings if you can identify the word or phrase in question.


Phrasal verbs

These two-word verbs use prepositions (or, more technically, participles) to change the meaning. Note the use of “pick up,” “hang out” and “knock back” in the opening quotes.

I can say “He ran a race,” “She ran for president” or “I ran a company” – three meanings for this common verb. But then I can add “I ran into my cousin;” “She ran away from home;” “He ran down a cat;” “They ran us off their property;” “We ran out of milk;” and many more. Each of these has a completely different meaning.

So how do we know it’s a phrasal verb and not just a verb followed by a preposition? For example, is the example “look out the window” using the simple verb or a phrasal verb? We can tell from the stress:
“Look OUT!” The WINdow!”
“LOOK out the WINdow.”

This is happily one of the few fairly consistent rules in English. So when we look at the example “She ran for president,” since we don’t stress the word “for,” we know it is a simple verb which has the same meaning as “She ran in the election.” On the other hand, the preposition in the example “She turned ON the light” needs much more stress than in “She TURNED on a dime,” which is an idiom meaning “changing direction very quickly!”


Intonation and stress

Stressing a word can change the meaning in other ways. I would normally say the following sentence stressing the capitalized syllables: “You can FINish the JOB now.” But if I had been doing the work and was getting tired, I might say: “YOU can finish the job now.” Or if you were taking a long time to get down to work, I might say: “You can finish the job NOW.” Learning to listen to stress is important if you want to get some of the nuances of the language.

Intonation is another key element which influences meaning. “Got a minute?” may not be grammatically correct but we say it all the time. The oral question mark is the upward intonation which we use for questions that need a yes or no answer. In another example, if I say “Come in” with a higher pitch on “in” and using an up-down-up intonation pattern, it sounds like an invitation. If I say it with no intonation, I sound bored or irritated. If I say “Sit down” with the word “down” starting with a higher pitch and sliding down, it sounds very polite. But if I start high on “sit” and lower the pitch a lot on the word “down,” it seems like an order.

Intonation also indicates a variety of things. For example, when we end a sentence, we generally drop the pitch lower than the rest of the sentence. This lets the other person know that we have completed our idea, signaling an appropriate time for them to speak without interrupting. When we are listing things, the pitch moves up at the end of each item and down on the last. Observing these movements in pitch help us to listen and better predict what’s coming.


So, open your ears to pitch and volume shifts in the voice. And if you haven’t understood something, try to isolate the term or phrase which is causing confusion – don’t be afraid to ask if someone has used an idiom or cultural reference – and use the internet to explore Canadian language. It will take time, but the rewards are an enriched understanding of Canadian culture and improved comprehension.

So, let’s get goin’, eh?