Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pronunciation Matters

When you're teaching a foreign language, explaining why pronouncing a word correctly is important is often a rather abstract concept for students. Often, they think you're being overly fussy or pedantic. The truth is that this impression is not always a false one. I've heard teachers who are from other countries go out of their way to correct an accent because it represents the pronunciation of native speakers from another country. Particularly, a lot of British people want to "correct" North American accents when the student's speech patterns would be comprehended just fine anywhere in the world.

My feeling has always been that, as long as what you say can be understood, it doesn't matter if its the pronunciation a native speaker would use. However, sometimes it's very important to get it straight so that you are not a laughing stock. If one ever needed a more perfect example of this, one need only turn to the very well known (amongst expatriates) Japanese Self Defense Force Navy commercial:

The words on the screen are telling you what they mean to say, but what you hear if you're not reading along is "semen sip for love." Seeing a bunch of dancing, prancing sailors say "semen sip for love," does not conjure up the intended image of peace-loving protectors so much as gay sailors who enjoy nothing more than some round robin acts of fellatio.

So, if you ever need to prove how important it is to get the pronunciation of words correct, you can just show this video to the students and explain the meaning a native speaker is going to get.


Wally Wood said...

If you cannot pronounce a word, it is brutally difficult to learn/memorize it. Not to mention the problems of comprehension. I've found that most native Japanese speakers cannot understand the sentences, "Do you walk to work?" or "Turn right at the light."

And of course native English speakers can have real trouble with word pairs like "shujin" and "shuujin."

Orchid64 said...

What you say is certainly true, Wally. That being said, "sh" and "si" are sounds that exist in Japanese so they are definitely possible. "R" and "L" are another issue, but it's just lazy mouths and tongues that often lead to problems with some sounds. My students just don't like to move their mouths in certain ways because they find it embarrassing or unnatural.

Thanks for your comment. :-)

Kelly said...

My husband still pronounces "city" as "shity", so when he tells my mum he is "going to the shity" she in fact thinks he's going to the toilet!

No matter how many times we try to practice pronounciation, he still can't get it off the top of his head.