Wednesday, February 15, 2006


This week I've started tutoring S, an Egyptian who's been fluent in English for nearly a decade. She has a marked but unobtrusive accent-- a little like a brogue, honestly. Wants to eliminate her accent, or at least develop the ability to switch it on and off, because she's going into pharmacology and some of the older more ornery patients have a hard time understanding her.

Her worries are mostly strict pronunciation: the th/s distinction, and the ability to accurately say drug names. And with the exception of a few simple pronunciation errors (saying 'iron' /airon/ instead of /aiern/ [where 'e' is a schwa], for example) , s/th is the only consistent pronunciation problem.

But there is more, and after just one hour working with her here's how I'll describe it: her prosody isn't native. It's like she's mapping English pronunciation onto an inflexible pattern of stress and intonation. So sounds that shouldn't be emphasized will be emphasized, and important sounds will be de-emphasized. Makes for lovely, lilting speech, but not native-sounding American English. We subordinate prosodic features to semantic meaning: important sounds are louder, last longer, and have higher/lower pitch than less important sounds. Our speech can sound choppy and erratic because we're not mapping sounds onto a prosodic pattern: rather we're mapping a meaning-based prosodic pattern onto our sounds.

I have two 60-second sound files of S speaking-- one of her reading aloud from a technical article, and one of her chatting naturally. I need to spend some time analyzing these, see how well I can figure out exactly what she's doing re. stress & intonation. This is going to be a really tough nut to crack, and I've no idea to what extent I can actually help her. I want to say, "don't worry about it! Your English is fluent, your accent is gorgeous, and everybody loves you!" But for her job she does need to be able to switch off that pretty Coptic lilt at will.

At this point, though, I have no idea how to help her.


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