Daily Archives: January 26, 2018

Speech and Social Hierarchy

I recently ran across an article in which a highly-credentialed Mongolian professor was featured. The author explored social hierarchy in education. Apparently, the professor is good at what she does, but her students’ feedback revealed numerous issues with her accent. The students stated that she was a good teacher, but that they had a hard time understanding her because of her accent. After reading the article, one would presumably be more aware of issues facing minorities and individuals of various social standing in our communities; and a person’s acceptance into certain levels of the hierarchy would be based largely on one’s speaking abilities.

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Okay. I’m with you, and I get it.

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However, I also know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a person’s speech when they obviously have very little regard for pronunciation. It is like an atrocity is being committed. My insides shrivel up. My stomach turns into knots. My ears would bleed if they could. I get a headache trying to understand what on earth is the speaker trying to communicate to me.

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Now, it is one thing to experience this in social settings; but when you pay a hefty tuition fee and your GPA is on the line, you really want your professor to be more considerate of your needs. If you, as the student, are expected to learn the material, then it is not unreasonable to expect the teacher to communicate in such a way that they can be understood.

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My childhood was full of accents: Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Spanish, Irish, German, Jamaican, etc. There were also a variety of accents commonly embraced by native English speakers: southern, northern, mid-western, standard, British, valley girls, California surfers, etc. My ears have heard it all!

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And yet, I wonder about the use of the word ‘accent‘ particularly in academic settings. Sometimes there is an issue with a person’s accent and sometimes there is an issue with the person just using wrong sounds when speaking a language; in particular a foreign language.

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However, the word accent is universally accepted when describing both types of situations; wherein lies the point.

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Native speakers are much more likely to understand “accents” – a variation of an agreed-upon phoneme. But what happens when the phoneme itself barely resembles anything that native speakers are accustomed to hearing? What happens if the language speaker has been taught by non-native speakers of the foreign language, and what if they have been taught to use sounds from their native language in said foreign language?

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While there is absolutely a sense of hierarchy when it comes to accents (in any language), I do wonder if what is being labeled as an accent is actually a case of the speaker using sounds from one’s native language in the foreign language. In this case, it is more commonly not an accent. It just wrong.

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When I, as a native English speaker, tried to pronounce the Chinese word 人 (ren2) with an English “r,” and I coupled a schwa sound with the consonant “n,” the word sounded more like run, and it had more of a 4th tone as opposed to a 2nd tone. Was this the case of an accent or was my pronunciation just wrong? I think that it was just wrong.

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I have since attempted to learn to pronounce the sounds correctly. And at this point, I have an accent. People tend to understand me now, but they also easily comprehend that I am not a native speaker. But I acknowledged the phonemes that were giving me problems. And instead of continuing to use my native English sounds when attempting to pronounce these Chinese sounds, I began to embrace the uniqueness of the native Chinese pronunciation sounds. So, again, I now have an accent. What I had before was nothing less than incorrect speaking patterns.

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Another example. When I, as a native English speaker, tried to pronounce the Chinese word 水 (shui3) using “the oo sound” and “the long e sound” (both of which are native English sounds), and I completely neglected the 3rd tone, the word sounded more like shoo4-wee. Was this the case of me having an accent or was my pronunciation just wrong? Again, I think that it was an undeniable case of incorrect speech.

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In neither of these cases was there a valid argument to be made regarding bias due to social hierarchy, race, sex, religion, or anything else. The listeners legitimately did not understand my pronunciation because I had not yet learned the rules of producing Chinese sounds. In my head, there were only the rules that dictated what made English clear or unclear. However, English does not use tones and the English “r” is quite different from the Chinese “r.” And one sound after another, I had to embrace the pronunciation differences – that is, if there was ever going to be even a chance that I would be understood when speaking Chinese.

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So, what happens when speakers of foreign languages do not take the time to understand the pronunciation rules of the foreign languages that they wish to speak? What happens when they assume that the rules that dictate sounds in their native languages will also be accepted by and understood by native speakers of the foreign languages in which they (as foreigners) wish to communicate? What happens if I just disregard Chinese tones because they are not important in English? What happens if a Chinese speaker only attempts to use 7 vowel sounds when speaking English, although the English language has well over 19 vowel sounds?

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It seems to me that many times what is widely acknowledged as an accent in foreign language studies is actually incorrect speech.

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Don’t get me wrong. The issue of hierarchy is absolutely a valid topic to explore in speech. As a black kid growing up in the southern parts of the US, I learned quickly that if I sounded “black” I was much more likely to be treated negatively by my teachers and school staff. I learned as a kid to use “my white voice” in public and to use “my black voice” at home.

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The result was that I was never white enough for the white community and most of the time was nothing more than their token black; and the black community labeled me as a sell-out and thought that I hated being black because I was wanted to speak clearly. So, yes, I would agree that there is a valid point to be made regarding social hierarchy and speech. It is a complex issue that should continue to be explored.

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However, the issue of whether or not a foreign language speaker is even aware of the phonemes that make up the foreign language that they wish to speak, should also be considered.

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Are they using a variation of the phonemes in the foreign language, or are they simply using sounds from their own native language when speaking? Are we using the sounds from our native languages in foreign languages and thinking of our speech as merely having an accent? Are we even bothering to learn the phonemes of the foreign languages that we speak? If we knowingly disregard the pronunciation rules of foreign languages, or even if we just have not yet mastered those sounds, we cannot then place the blame on the listener.

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It is not the listener’s responsibility to learn to understand my speech patterns. It is my responsibility to speak in such a way that the listener can understand me. -Miracle L. Smith

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I believe that the issues of hierarchy and accuracy, as both pertain to speech, should be explored separately; for they are, indeed, two separate issues.