One day my daughter was trying to tell me something but, as teenagers are prone to do, she was mumbling so badly, I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying. I said with a smile, “You should join my pronunciation class.” Her response was to speak with extreme clarity, enunciating every vowel and consonant with the utmost attention to detail, saying: “Mother, I do not have to speak like this all the time!”

This interaction made me understand, more clearly, how immigrants must feel when speaking English.

As native speakers, we learn from an early age the full range of the sound. This is in contrast to how we tend to speak most of the time – collapsing and blending sounds, reducing vowels, linking words, etc. But when we really emphasize something, we tend to use a lot of stress and intonation and clarity with key terms. When we speak to children, our speech tends to be like this, emphasized even more by constant repetition. So native speakers of any language have endless models and learn the full range of the sound from a young age.

In contrast, people who do not learn a language as children are often unclear about the full range of many consonants and vowels. In my pronunciation training, I emphasize two things; A – to clearly understand the full range of the sounds in a word as it sounds when we are stressing it; and B – to be able to pronounce it in context, with natural vowel reduction, linking, phrasing and intonation. Without this understanding, the speaker tends to be continuously unsure of his or her speech.

Now, I have observed one thing in the speech of people who come to Canada as teenagers. Most tend to speak English in a casual manner, with natural reduction, linking, intonation, phrasing and stress. In many ways, the speech sounds very native-like. But often, lack of clarity is a major concern. I believe the reason for this is the lack of education native-speakers all receive as children – the consistent repetition of the full range of the sounds.

Without learning and using the full range of English sounds, people who learn English after childhood run the risk of sounding like perpetual teenagers, mumbling like my daughter, but without the excuse to attend a pronunciation course!