Pronouncing foreign words

In his essay, England your England, George Orwell wrote of the English working class:

Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.

I’ve encountered attitudes like this among many English tourists who rate foreign places partly by the ability of the locals to speak English, and even if they know a few words of the local languages, they usually pronounce them with an English accent.

An article I found on this subject – Brits don’t border with local lingo – says that more than half of the British tourists surveyed cannot recognise even basic phrases in the language of their destination, that more than 80% of monolingual British tourists refuse to take a phrase book or dictionary abroad with them, and that a third rely on the locals speaking English. If the locals don’t speak English, then the Brits speak more loudly and slowly in English, use mime, and/or speak English with a foreign accent. Even those who know phrases in foreign languages often get them mixed up and pronounce them incorrectly.

Amusing examples of mispronunciation and misuse of foreign phrases can be found in the British television comedy Only Fools and Horses, in which the character of Del Boy uses “au revoir” to mean “hello”, “bonjour” for “goodbye”, and “bon appetit” for “I hope you choke on the potatoes” – there are more examples here. He pronounces all with a strong Cockney accent.


Forvo is a site I heard about recently which contains recordings of tens of thousands of words, phrases and names in over 70 languages. The site is free to use and anyone can submit recordings, which means that their quality varies quite a bit. It looks like it has potential to become a useful language learning tool.

Articulatory Phonetics

Today I came across an online collection of recorded exercises from W. Smalley’s Manual of Articulatory Phonetics. The exercises are design to help distinguish different types of sounds based on their point of articulation, articulators, manner of articulation, or point and manner of articulation. This looks useful if you have the book, and quite useful if you don’t.

Articulatory phonetics is a sub-field of phonetics which involves documenting how humans produce speech sounds. Specifically how our articulators (tongue, lips, jaw, palate, teeth etc), interact to create the specific sounds.

Dental fricatives

Continuing yesterday’s theme of sounds that can be challenging to pronounce, today we look at the voiceless dental fricative /θ/. This sound is usually written th in English and appears in such words as three [θriː], thought [θɔːt] and thin [θɪn]. In the Spanish of Spain it’s written c (when followed by i or e), as in cien [θien], and z, as in Zaragoza [θaragoθa]. It’s also used in a number of other languages, including Greek – the Greek letter θ (Θήτα/theta) represents this sound in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet).

The voiced version of this sound is represented in the IPA by the letter ð (eth), which comes from Old English. This sound is written th in English and appears in the [ðə] and though [ðoʊ]. In Welsh it’s written dd; in Icelandic ð; in Albanian, Cornish and Swahili dh, and in Greek δ (Δέλτα/delta). In Spanish d can be pronounced /ð/ when it comes between two vowels, as in nada [‘naða].

These sounds are fairly rare among the world’s languages and can be tricky for speakers of languages which don’t use them. They also tend to be the last sounds acquired by native speakers of English, according to this page.

There’s an explanation of how to pronounce the voiceless dental fricative here. You do the same and just let vocal folds vibrate to pronounce the voiced version.

I didn’t learn how to pronounce the voiceless dental fricative properly until the age of 23, when a Taiwanese friend who was studying English at university explained it to me. Before that, I wasn’t aware that there was a difference between three and free – I pronounced both with /f/ at the beginning. I still have to make a conscious effort to pronounce this sound sometimes and tend to slip back to the /f/ sound when not concentrating.

I often pronounce the voiced dental fricative as /v/ when it’s not at the beginning of a word, for example in brother. However, since starting to learn Welsh, which makes quite a lot of use of dental fricatives, my ability to pronounce them has improved. Combinations of /ð/ and /v/ can also trip me up, as in swyddfa [sʊɨðva].

Alveolar trills

One aspect of Spanish pronunciation that can be tricky to master is the trilled or rolled r, which is also known as an alveolar trill /r/. This sound is also used in Italian and many other languages. Some people seem convinced that if you can’t already make this sound, it’s impossible to learn.

If you are having trouble with the Spanish r, this blog post might help. It breaks it down into a four step process and explains clearly what to do at each stage. There’s another explanation of how to make this sound here.

Once you’re got those r’s rolling, here’s a tongue twister to practise with:

Erre con Erre Cigarro
Erre con Erre Barril
Rápido corre el carro
Repleto do ferro en el ferrocarril

It is possible, in fact, to learn to make any sound used in any language, even the rolled r, and other tricky sounds like the clicks used in some African languages and the back-of-the-throat sounds of Arabic. It takes a lot of listening and practise. An understanding of the mechanics of how the sounds are produced can help as well.

There are online introductions to phonetics and phonology here and here, and this site shows you the relative positions of the tongue, teeth, lips, etc when pronouncing various sounds.

I can usually manage alveolar trills, though sometimes find the double rr in the middle of words such as carro a bit tricky and I have to slow down to get it right.

Accents and the brain

A researcher at University College London who is looking into how we come by our accents, among other things, has found that more of the brain is involved in speech than previously thought.

An article in The Times explains how the brain of an impressionist was scanned while he was saying short phrases in a variety of accents, or as an impersonation of someone famous. The scan revealed that not only was he using the parts of the brain known to be involved with language, but also other parts involved with movement: one for visualising images and one for body movement. The conclusion was that he was “literally thinking himself into someone’s skin when he was adopting a different accent.”

It is suggested that this research could lead to new ways to help people with communication problems.

The question at the beginning of the article – “Why do some people hold on to their accents all their lives while others drop them overnight?” is no really discussed.

Do you still have the accent you had as a child? Or has it changed? Do you slip into other accents from time to time?

I used to have a bit of a Lancashire accent, but it now closer to RP and tends to vary depending on whom I’m talking to. I often slip into other accents, especially Scottish, Irish and Welsh ones.

Accents of English

A website I found today compares how people from many different regions and countries pronounce English words. It also gives the pronunciation of equivalent words in related languages, and in older forms of English and other Germanic languages. The pronunciations are all given in the IPA, and there are recordings of many of the modern words as well.

Language and rhythm

Language and rhythm are inextricably linked, according to a blog post I found the other day. The post is about reading scripts for theatrical performances, but much of it applies just as much to every day speech.

The main point is that language has inherent rhythms which are crucial because they are where the meaning is found. When you read a text in your mother tongue, you naturally break it up into meaningful chunks and adjust your rhythm as appropriate. If you apply unnatural rhythm to a text, it will be difficult to follow and you may not understand what you’re saying, neither will others.

When learning a foreign language, one of the things you need to acquire is that language’s natural rhythms. If you use the rhythm of your native language when speaking the foreign one, people might find you difficult or impossible to understand, unless they’re used to hearing non-natives speaking their language. Acquiring native-like rhythms takes a lot of listening and mimicery, and even then, you’ll might end up sounding slightly foreign, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Do you have any suggestions on how to acquire the rhythms of a foreign language?

Sounds familiar

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been learning the Polish version of Silent Night (Cicha Noc). While trying work out how to pronounce the Polish, I noticed that some of the the Polish consonants are similar to those found in Mandarin Chinese.

For example:

  • Polish c [ts] = Mandarin c, as in 次
  • Polish ć & c+i [ʨ] = Mandarin q, as in 七
  • Polish cz [tʂ] Mandarin ch, as in 吃
  • Polish sz [ʂ] = Mandarin sh, as in 十
  • Polish ś & s+i [ɕ] = Mandarin x, as in 西

Comparing the pronunciation of one language to another isn’t always helpful and can be misleading. In this case though, it gives me a better understanding Polish phonology.

Unintentional questions

In many languages a raising inflection at the end of a statement makes it into a question. A post I read the other day on Invading Holland discusses the authors’ struggles with the Dutch language. Particularly the way he adds a raising inflection to the ends of statements, not because he want to make them into questions, but because he’s unsure if he’s saying them correctly and seeks confirmation.

This is often misinterpreted because rather than answering the unspoken question, i.e. “Did I get that right?”, people tend to doubt his sanity when he appears to ask them questions like “I’ll have a coffee?” or “I’d like to go to the station?”. He calls it the ‘The Unintentional Question Effect’.

When speaking foreign, I’ve also been known to unleash unintended questions on unsuspecting interlocutors, and have noticed others doing the same thing.