by Oliver

Pronunciation, to me, has been a source of fascination, intimidation, and triumph. As a child I often pronounced words in many different ways, unwittingly so, and to this day I think about how many ways I pronounced “thanks” and made a fool of myself in front of my third grade classmates. It’s much easier for me to reflect on that now that my world of language has been so greatly amplified via time spent overseas and multilingual friends. Now that I live in Washington, D.C., I hear a variety of languages but often I can identify them. I’m perplexed by this; I probably give myself too much credit and am grateful for having watched so many European films. Yet, I wonder if I only notice the languages because I have heard them before. The sounds of Swedish are not so uncommon to me now that I have begun to admire the films of Ingmar Bergman. In fact, I am pretty sure that I had swedes standing next to me on a Metro platform the other day; it’s not because I understood at all what they were saying, but rather because the sounds and the rhythm of the language sounded weirdly familiar. And I heard the couple say jo (djo:) – the Swedish word for “yes”.

However, this recognition of other languages and my ability to produce the same sounds has reaffirmed my above mentioned perspective on pronunciation. It seems that the biggest reason that a lot of people I meet don’t speak foreign languages is not because they aren’t interested, but because pronouncing words is a source of anxiety. The loss of naïveté is a rough moment and in the past year I’ve had a couple of instances in which I have realized that, plainly, I don’t pronounce things as well as I think I do. This is not a bad thing. I know that French is a very hard language to speak and of the little French I speak, I thought that I was able to pronounce things decently well. After speaking French with two Frenchmen and having them correct my pronunciation errors, I realized that it’s difficult to judge one’s own pronunciation. Granted, I am critical of myself because I hold my pronunciation to high standards. Still, it was strange to realize that there is an interesting relationship between how I think I am pronouncing something and how it actually sounds to someone else. Case in point: Ikea.

When exiting Ikea it is hard to miss the sign that explains how to say “good-bye” in Swedish: hej . There’s a phonetic spelling on the wall that explains that the ‘e’ in hej is pronounced with a long a sound; yet, for the longest time I thought I was saying it correctly by saying something along the lines of haa dau. I didn’t realize that I had been pronouncing it wrong until recently, when a friend explained how to pronounce it. It occurred to me that I had fooled myself. The phonetic spelling on the wall reads ha: do: (or, better put, haa dau) and intends for English speakers to recognize that the way to pronounce the Swedish word hej closely mirrors the pronunciation of the English word hay (perhaps also hey). Thus, it incorporates a long (English) a sound.

To avoid completely losing my audience, I’ll digress for a moment.

The Spanish language has taught me a lot about vowel pronunciation. In Spanish, a phonetic language, the pronunciation of every word can be inferred by simply pronouncing every letter of the word. That said, the sounds of letters don’t change unless they are accented, in which case the sounds are made longer. I learned how to pronounce the vowels a, e, and i by teaching myself that the pronunciation of the Spanish a mirrors the way English speakers say the a in law. The Spanish e sounds very much like the a in bay, and the i sounds like the e in me. Or, rather, the pronunciation English vowel a has been split into two vowels in Spanish, a and e, and the pronunciation of the English e is the how one pronounces the Spanish i.

In Spanish:
a = a in ‘law’
e = a in ‘bay’
i = e in ‘me’

To return to the explanation of why I had been pronouncing hej wrong, I realized that I had been pronouncing this foreign word by unconsciously pronouncing the vowels as if I were speaking Spanish. When I saw the phonetic spelling ha: do: I said the a based upon how I would say the a in Spanish and thought that I was correct. I had been told previously that I pronounce most words in other languages with as if I were speaking Spanish, but it was really funny to me to finally realize how true that was. It has taught me a lot about how we judge our pronunciation; it deviates from our ability to recognize what we have convinced ourselves is right and that which actually is.