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Peter McGuire

"Un American"

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Has anyone else noticed the pronunciation of the article "an" by Korean speakers of English? It seems they are taught in public school to pronounce it like an "un" not with the an"d" way that Native Speakers of English do. They seem to know it is "wrong" , but continue to do so.

Any thought or experiences?

Edited by Peter McGuire

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Actually, they're about right. If we could use phonetic characters on a forum like this, you'd be looking at /[schwa]n/ for 'an' most of the time, rather than /æn/, which is the 'a' sound in the word 'pat'. 'and' is also typically pronounced with the schwa and only exceptionally with æ. (Schwa, by the way, is the phonetic 'upside-down e', and represents the vowel sound most English-speakers make in the very centre of the mouth - it's the commonest vowel sound in English).

What happens when people speak a stress-timed language like English is that the 'information words' are pronounced 'properly' and the 'grammar words' in between (like 'a', 'an', 'are', 'to' and 'for') have their consonant and vowel sounds 'squashed' to retain an even rhythm of stressed syllables, with more or less the same amount of time between them. This 'squashing' ranges from the reduction of vowel sounds from, say, /æ/ to /[schwa]/ as in 'an' to the complete elision of both vowel and consonant sounds. Take this exchange, for example:

Ju wanna go out tunight

Well, DO you?

The 'ju' is actually 'do you', and it's a 'grammar' expression (the 'information' is 'want', 'go out' and 'tonight' - we know this because if you were saying this on a bad cellphone connection and your listener heard only this bit, she'd understand the question, whereas if this bit was lost, she wouldn't know what you were saying). In the check question, though, the auxiliary 'do' comes back with its 'proper' pronunciation, because it's suddenly become an important 'information' word.

This is why my students face the painful realisation that looking up the phonetic transcription of a word in a dictionary doesn't always help them to transcribe - it's how the word functions in an entire sentence that's important.

This has nothing to do with 'sloppiness' - it's a natural function of a stress-timed language like English. Native speakers are also notoriously self-deluding about the sound of their own speech. There's a famous story about Denmark where the word for 'I' is 'jeg'. 'Jeg' has two pronunciations: the 'street' /jay/ and the posh /jeg/. 99% of respondents said '/jay/ sæg /jeg/ (I say /jeg/)!

George Mason University has a fascinating site called the Speech Accent Archive (http://accent.gmu.edu/). Check out the English native speakers and look at the phonetic transcriptions of their contributions.

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Actually, they're about right. If we could use phonetic characters on a forum like this, you'd be looking at /[schwa]n/ for 'an' most of the time, rather than /æn/, which is the 'a' sound in the word 'pat'. 'and' is also typically pronounced with the schwa and only exceptionally with æ. (Schwa, by the way, is the phonetic 'upside-down e', and represents the vowel sound most English-speakers make in the very centre of the mouth - it's the commonest vowel sound in English).

What happens when people speak a stress-timed language like English is that the 'information words' are pronounced 'properly' and the 'grammar words' in between (like 'a', 'an', 'are', 'to' and 'for') have their consonant and vowel sounds 'squashed' to retain an even rhythm of stressed syllables, with more or less the same amount of time between them. This 'squashing' ranges from the reduction of vowel sounds from, say, /æ/ to /[schwa]/ as in 'an' to the complete elision of both vowel and consonant sounds. Take this exchange, for example:

Ju wanna go out tunight

Well, DO you?

The 'ju' is actually 'do you', and it's a 'grammar' expression (the 'information' is 'want', 'go out' and 'tonight' - we know this because if you were saying this on a bad cellphone connection and your listener heard only this bit, she'd understand the question, whereas if this bit was lost, she wouldn't know what you were saying). In the check question, though, the auxiliary 'do' comes back with its 'proper' pronunciation, because it's suddenly become an important 'information' word.

This is why my students face the painful realisation that looking up the phonetic transcription of a word in a dictionary doesn't always help them to transcribe - it's how the word functions in an entire sentence that's important.

This has nothing to do with 'sloppiness' - it's a natural function of a stress-timed language like English. Native speakers are also notoriously self-deluding about the sound of their own speech. There's a famous story about Denmark where the word for 'I' is 'jeg'. 'Jeg' has two pronunciations: the 'street' /jay/ and the posh /jeg/. 99% of respondents said '/jay/ sæg /jeg/ (I say /jeg/)!

George Mason University has a fascinating site called the Speech Accent Archive (http://accent.gmu.edu/). Check out the English native speakers and look at the phonetic transcriptions of their contributions.

Thanks for the reply, David. I will certainly take a look at George Mason University's archive on the subject. Peter

I hate to admit that I spent a lot of time in Korea as a "conversational English Teacher". You certainly reinforce the notion that proper training in that area is needed by someone pursuing this profession.

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Excellent informative reply, David. I agree with your explanation.

I was fascinated to find on my first visit to Portugal that I could understand a good deal of written Portuguese, because of its similarity to Spanish, but I could hardly grasp a word of spoken Portuguese. Although the two languages are closely related they differ insofar as Spanish is syllable-timed whereas Portuguese is stress-timed and so, as in English, unstressed vowels in Portuguese are reduced to schwa. It makes a huge difference to the way the language sounds. I understand that Korean is syllable-timed, which probably explains why Korean students of English are trained to weaken unstressed vowels in English. I believe that speakers of syllable-timed languages generally have greater problems with English intonation patterns than speakers of stress-timed languages, e.g German, Dutch and Swedish speakers usually manage to sound "more English" than French, Spanish or Italian speakers.

Hungarian was an eye-opener for me when I had to pick up a bit of the language. You hit the first syllable of each word quite hard but you have to resist the tendency to weaken the following syllables too much and to make a clear disitinction between long and short vowels regardless of where they occur in a word.

I had a look at the GMU Speech Accent Archive some time ago. It's interesting to hear such a range of native speakers of different languages pronouncing English. However, I found the English dialects section a bit watered down. The Belfast speaker sounds quite "posh" to me (my wife is from Belfast). Try BBC Northern Ireland' "Give My Head Peace" pages if you want a "quare gunk":

http://www.bbc.co.uk/northernireland/gmhp/

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Another addictive site is:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/voices/

Well, at least if you're interested in UK English. I found it when my daughter had to do a presentation at school about Northern English (I'm a northerner myself).

One of the reasons why English-speaking people often find French accents in English sexy is that the French are tending to pronounce each syllable with more or less equal weight … which makes them speak more slowly and distinctly … which makes their listeners think that the French person is really interested in them! There's a famous Cointreau advert in the UK in which a French man in a restaurant just reads the back of the Cointreau label … and every woman in the place hangs on his every word.

Training certainly helps if you're going to do a lot of EFL, Peter, but don't underestimate the power of example. People like me who've been doing it a long time have to fight to gain the freshness and enthusiasm that you probably had in Korea! One thing I've had to learn painfully is that just because I'm quite passionately interested in the way you can use English to send all sorts of messages to each other - especially ones you didn't intend to send - not everyone is!

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