Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Pronunciation Challenge: 7 English Words to Pronounce Correctly

No matter how skilled of a linguist you are, there may be times when you just can’t figure out the most appropriate way to pronounce a word, albeit some words seem to have been created out of thin air and placed into the dictionary as a legitimate, influential word used in our society. Is it Option A or Option B? Both sound reasonable when considering English spelling and pronunciation rules.

In my own experience, hearing a mispronounced word during English class as read by one of my fantastic, attentive students automatically makes me vocalize what the word should sound like. However, the words that are analyzed below required me to do some extra research on the proper pronunciation, and thanks to, I can now confidently dictate the terms if asked.

ASK.  The typical pronunciation is [ask], but some people may pronounce this word [aks], as in: “Swing the axe to cut the wood.” This phenomenon is known in linguistics as metathesis, which refers to the switching of two continuing phoneme sounds. But is it wrong? Well, not necessarily. It was pronounced as [aks] by Chaucer when Middle English was spoken centuries ago, but the word became properly changed to [ask] due to English spelling standardization. And since we are no longer living in the past, we must adapt to the current spelling rules. Somewhat obvious I suppose...

MISCHIEVOUS.  Proper pronunciation is [mis-chuh-vuhs], while some people add another syllable to the word which becomes [mis-chee-vee-uhs].  The spelling mischievious was considered to be standard in the 16th to 18th centuries, but today it is regarded as non-standard.

GIF.  Have you seen this cute little word around in cyberspace? It actually stands for something more complex than it sounds: Graphics Interchange Format (thus, GIF). These are either animated or still bitmap images and are all the rage in today’s tech world.  There are two pronunciation options (no one will likely say G-I-F). Would you prefer [jif] or [gif]? The creator of this term encourages the pronunciation to be [jif], with a soft g, but both are legitimate to use. Choose wisely when talking to an expert GIFer or you risk being corrected.

HYPERBOLE.  My friend walks slower than a snail. If you ever watched a snail move, you’ll know that this statement is quite exaggerated to emphasize speed (or lack thereof). It’s a hyperbole! I think it’s the –bole part of the word that stumps people. There are three pronunciations that I’ve heard before: [hy-per-buh-lee], [hy-per-bowl-lee], and [hy-per-bowl]. One is more proper than the others: [hy-per-buh-lee]. But looking at English spelling rules, all might seem acceptable. An interesting idea behind uncertain English pronunciation is the confusion over which language rule to follow since English borrows from many other languages.

NICHE.  This word is used in many different contexts and thus changes in meaning accordingly. I have heard three pronunciations of this word used in conversations: [neesh], [neech], and [nich].  In fact, the ch still remains the [tsh] sound, unlike the word cache where it is pronounced [kash]. The preferred pronunciation in American English is [nich], while British English speakers prefer [neech]. The American English pronunciation was adapted from the French term.

SHERBET.  Now I can order one of my favorite desserts at an ice cream parlor with confidence without fear of being judged for incorrect pronunciation.  Sherbet is easy to eat, but not as easy to pronounce. I have heard this word pronounced in many flavorful ways: [shur-bert], [shur-bay], [shur-bit], and [shur-bet]. The syllable stress has been heard on sher- or –bet for each variation.  There should be no /r/ added to the second syllable as many English speakers are accused of doing, and the proper pronunciation is [shur-bit] or [shur-bet] with stress on the first syllable sher-.  

MEME.  Doe, a deer, a female deer… Ray, a drop of golden sun… Me, a name, I call myself… Far, a long long way to run (and the song continues back to doe).  Wow, these lyrics bring me back to my childhood days. But now is the tech age where we have words like meme that bring up images of the hugely popular Grumpy Cat with subtitles such as “My blood type? B negative” and “The problem with some people is that… they are still alive.” But how do you tell your friend about the awesome new meme that you came across when surfing the web? Do you say [mee-mee] as in “It’s all about me!” or [mem], the French pronunciation? Maybe you shouldn’t say either or you will just receive strange looks, since the proper pronunciation is [meem].  If you are curious, the word meme comes from the Greek word mīmeîsthai which means “to imitate, copy”.

So… have you been pronouncing these words correctly all along?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Need for Speed: The Trendy Evolution of Speed Reading and Language Acquisition

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I have been swamped by my work life in the past-few-months-that-felt-like-a-decade phase… is it the Year of the Horse already? Happy Chinese New Year!  Papers to grade, students to entertain, documents to edit, and hooray for technology, emails upon emails to send… and read of course!  

While watching one of the early morning shows on ABC in early March (with half-open eyes and a wandering mind) and finishing the remains of my breakfast, a demo of a new app snapped me back into the present moment.  One bold colored word at a time flashed onto the TV screen, starting rather slow but gradually (no wait, rapidly!) getting quicker… and quicker. The show’s host was speaking in a stunned tone but her words couldn’t grasp the attention of my mind that was transfixed with the flash of words which, surprisingly, made sense when strung together. I was speed reading without knowing it; perhaps my one wish to be a faster reader has come true?

Enter the most recent delivery for the future (of sorts) of reading: Spritz. Cute name for an app, huh? The concept is simple enough: A smart phone (specifically sprouting from Samsung) pops up one word at a time in a central location and wills the viewer to acknowledge the word and comprehend the lexical meaning within milliseconds. Then, repeat. It has been suggested that readers comprehend words by focusing on a single, left-of-center letter in each word, categorized by two events: the eye seeks the “Optimal Recognition Point” (ORP) represented by a single letter and is followed by eye movement, known as a “saccade”. Why waste time moving your eyes from left to right when all the words can just appear in front of you?

Many wonders will surely be displayed with the use of this app. Who would not want to read twice, if not three or four times the amount of books as allowed during a limited time frame filled with work, obligations, and socialization? The freedom to choose the WPM on the app is also reasonable, as some speed readers still need to read “slowly” to savor their personalized imaginations. And perhaps most impressively, the technological advances of Spritz has brought increased awareness to the mystery of reading – both fast and slow paced.

Despite having an undeniable bright future, there are three realms that remain to be analyzed in order to further capture the strong potential of a speed reading app.

The first realm being: language structure. By the sound of it, the current app offers speed reading in English, one of the many phonic-based languages in the world. I suppose this makes sense as English is still predominantly known as the universal language. But what about character-based languages, such as Chinese, Korean, and Arabic? Would reading these characters in “flash attack” mode also follow the same hypothesis that the eyes do less work and ultimately results in more words absorbed? There are no phonetic letters in these characters that the reader can sound out, as the sounds are ingrained in the character itself. Also, will readers have similar comprehension of words they read in isolated versus shared environments? 

Reading quickly does not always entail quick comprehension. The second realm relates to language acquisition for L2 (second language) learners. From my experience of teaching English to Chinese students (albeit the beginning level), translation is three-fold: search the vocabulary bank in Chinese for the corresponding word that is seen or heard, visualize the meaning (concept) as the know it, and translate back to the English definition in words they comprehend. How can the concept of speed reading be integrated more effectively in language learning settings to increase vocabulary retention and contextual understanding? Can students use a reading app to improve reading skills offline (i.e. good old fashioned hard copy textbooks)? This brings up the paradigm of lexical learning (phonics based) and contextual learning (also known as the whole language approach). Although debates have flourished between these two acquisition methods, it seems that each compliments the other, to varying degrees. Especially regarding English Language Learners (ELL’s), some students are highly proficient in writing and reading, less so in speaking and listening. Alternately, some students are highly proficient in speaking and listening, and less so in reading and writing. 

There must be more to gain from a speed reading app than literary pleasure. Despite the novelty and intrigue generated by a new technological add-on, the third realm deals with purpose. What is the purpose for reading at lightning speed? Is it a sign that some of us are getting so… lethargic (if I may) as to avoid eye strain in our momentary “saccade”? Is it just me, or is the flashing somewhat much to take in? Something about each word appearing and then “poofing” into thin air within a second (like the feisty rabbit pulled out of the magician’s top hat, except backwards) makes me a bit uneasy. I want to read that line again! Or as mentioned earlier, perhaps it will give busy bees more knowledge within the limited time frame? Maybe, just maybe it could be a way to determine our reading ability and learn to think quick. That seems to be the golden ticket to thriving in our society. 

I can sense this need for speed is gaining full steam in the area of reading, with great potential in the future for writing, listening, and even speaking. I can see elementary school students speed reading Dr. Suess’ “Green Eggs and Ham” on the bus, college-bound teenagers speed cramming for the GRE test in the house, and working professionals absorbing the data analysis before the important presentation in the office.  

If a speed reading app is able to offer more language options, encourage language learning students to expand their vocabulary comprehension, and define a more specific purpose for use, the possibilities will be limitless and effective for years to come.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Music to the Ears: Singing with a Speech Impediment

Another entertaining season of American Idol has come, and it has reappeared in the spotlight in full force.  Sure, it might have a little something to do with the awkward, usually explosive tension between the two judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj (likely leaving middle-man Keith Urban in a state of shock after each audition, but this is besides the point…). In fact, two contestants have made this quite a unique season to date.  Cuban-American Lazaro Arbos and Micah Johnson from Georgia have wowed the judges with their sultry voices, earning the highly-desired yellow ticket to move onto the next auditions in Hollywood.  Besides the golden voices that are worthy of generous praise, these two contestants have one other thing in common: speech impediments.

Lazaro Arbos is one of the millions of people who deal with stuttering, one of the most common speech impediments, otherwise known as speech disorders.  Stuttering is the involuntary repetition and lengthening of particular sounds, words, syllables, or phrases while speaking.  This impediment can be the result of developmental problems (beginning in childhood) or acquired in adulthood (due to a neurological disruption, such as head injury, tumor, or drug use).  Stuttering in younger individuals can be caused by nervousness, anxiety, or stress from a variety of events. 

Micah Johnson, however, suffers from a speech impediment caused by an unfortunate accident while getting his tonsils removed.  He indicated that one his nerves was affected in the vocal cords. This could be a devastating event for anyone, but Micah seems to appreciate the fact that he is still able to speak, nonetheless sing effortlessly, with the help of a speech therapist.

Here is the kicker. Speaking at normal pace with clear diction for individuals with speech impediments is incredibly difficult, but when the mode of verbal communication changes into singing, all words blend harmoniously together and can be understood with relative ease. 

So what could be attributing to this seemingly miraculous change in the singing voice? Here are a few ideas from The Stuttering Foundation:
  •  It is possible that we use our vocal cords, lips, and tongue differently when we talk.  This may cause the physiological effects of stuttering and sensations of a linguistic “brain freeze”.
  • There is much less time pressure and communicative pressure to deliver a specific message when singing.  
  • The brain functions differently when we sing and when we talk. Again, the communicative factors come into play – stress and nervousness can overlap the thinking and speaking process, causing us to think quicker than words can be spoken.

  • “Word retrieval” or the searching for words in our lexicon when we speak might contribute to some types of stuttering. When singing, we usually know the words by heart and rely on rhythm.
Having a speech impediment can make life challenging enough, but to throw yourself into the public spotlight takes respectable amounts of courage and self-confidence to fulfill lifelong dreams.  Singing is a sure way to brighten moods and in the case of Lazaro and Micah, singing is the obvious key to overcoming the struggles of daily communication through speech.