Speaking isn’t just about stringing words in a sentence. It’s also about pronouncing it right.
HOW can I quickly improve my English?”
This is a commonly asked question and the general response is usually “Focus on enhancing your personal macro English skills”.
The productive macro skills are Speaking, Writing and Interpreting, while the receptive ones are Reading, Listening and Viewing.
To raise one’s personal speaking prowess, it is important to improve one’s pronunciation knowledge and understand how English words are traditionally pronounced.
Another recommendation would be to focus on the spelling of the word.
Enhancing pronunciation is almost always the first and foremost imperative for a non-primary English language speaker because as soon as a person opens his or her mouth and begins to converse in English, listeners, intentionally and unintentionally, begin to make mental judgments about that person’s English language proficiency.
Sometimes, it doesn’t matter at all if a person makes grammatical mistakes or pronounces words wrongly but other times, particularly in situations where English is a communicative prerequisite, it does.
There are occasions when speaking errors made in grammar, pronunciation and stress can be quite embarrassing, not only for the speakers themselves but also for the people with them at the time or, occupationally, for the entity they represent or for whom they work.
For example, to ask, “Who are you attending the conference with?” will rarely “raise an eyebrow” even though in traditional English, one should ask, “With whom are you attending the conference?”
However, if someone was heard to say, “Me and me IT manager is going to the Expo,” then a few smiles and inner chuckles would probably be the reaction.
It is sometimes understandable why many people for whom English is an additional language have difficulty pronouncing certain English words.
Often, the reason is found when one researches the mother tongue.
The English pronunciation of the word “industry” is “industry”, with the stress or emphasis of the first syllable “in”.
In Bahasa Malaysia, the same word is “industri”, pronounced as “industri” with the stress on the second syllable “dus”.
Does it really matter? Often the answer is: No!
Listeners will still understand what is meant but the question comes back to whether one wants to be a competent and confident English language communicator.
If so, then the challenge is to take up the task of learning “Why English words say what they say.”
There are a number of influencing factors when it comes to the way English words are pronounced.
The first one is obvious — Accent. This accent difference is easily demonstrated by considering the way a Londoner or a person from Middle England or Scotland says “book”.
Another example is the different way Australians and New Zealanders say “six”.
From a nationalistic aspect, all renditions are correct and acceptable.
The second obvious pronunciation difference also involves a nationalistic comparison or what is sometimes called “British Speak versus the US of A”.
Common examples are the contrasting way that words such as “semi-trailer”, “semicolon”, “premature” and “premonition” are pronounced by those who follow British English pronunciation and by American speakers.
While the differences are nation-based, the variations occur because of the way traditional rules of pronunciation are applied.
It may surprise many readers that when it comes to the application of the century old, traditional rules of English pronunciation, in many instances, the Americans are more traditional than the British themselves.
One of the traditional English pronunciation rules that can be traced back over 300 years is: “Open syllables usually end in long vowels”.
This means that if the first syllable of a word ends in a vowel, then that final vowel normally says its own name, eg. pi/lot — ba/ker — re/turn — pre/pare — pro/mote, etc.
In the case of words such as “semi-trailer” and “semicolon”, those who follow the English pronunciation approach where the final “í” says “eee..” — as in “knee” — are really adopting the European “ee..” sound for “i” as heard in “piano” and “police”.
In contrast, the Americans apply the traditional English rule of saying the final “i” as a long vowel, that is, as “i…” as in “pie”.
The syllabic break-up of a word is another main reason why words can be pronounced differently and often incorrectly.
Words such as “premature” and “premonition” are also pronounced differently because of the “Open Syllable Rule” but they are initially affected because of the way speakers break them into syllables when speaking.
In these two examples, American speakers break the words as “pre/ma/ture” and “pre/mon/i/tion”.
In doing so, the first syllable in each word is “open”, thus requiring the final vowel to be long, saying its own name.
In the case of other pro-British speakers, the syllabic break-up is different, eg. “prem/a/ture” and “prem/on//ition”.
In doing this, the first syllable is “closed” by a consonant which introduces another valuable, traditional English rule that teaches: “Closed syllables end in consonants and the vowel is usually short”.
This syllabic break-up results in the “e” in “prem” being pronounced as its regular, short sound heard in “pet”.
In the next column, further consideration will be given to the importance of the syllabic break-up of words and also to when and what syllables should be stressed when speaking.
■ Keith Wright is the author and creator of the 4S Approach To Literacy and Language (4S) — a modern, innovative and proven method of accelerating the learning of English.
The 4S methodology and the associated Accelerated English Programme (AEP) mentioned in this fortnightly column are now being used internationally to enhance the English proficiency of people with different competency levels. E-mail contact@4Sliteracy.com.au for a free PDF copy of 4S Superior English Communications.