The Hills are alive

One of the under-valued pleasures of the English language is the huge number of people who speak it badly.

Take a walk through the centre of most English-speaking cities and you will hear a range of variants from “newsreader English” through a hundred different second language pidgins. Perhaps I am spoiled by my experience as a teacher of English to foreigners, but I love listening to the trills and rumbles of the non-native spoken word.

It is seldom that foreign accents are considered outside the world of transformative comedians and Meryl Streep. But every mispronounced syllable, every inappropriate rhythm of speech is like a radar beep indicating the presence and the shape of the mother-tongue of the speaker.

Think about any foreign language that you might be interested in learning, then a native of that land speaking English. Whether you listen to Rafa Nadal, Chico Marx or Marlene Dietrich (OK some of these links aren’t real native speakers), you can hear the patterns and rhythms of their native tongues.

When I was teaching English to French speakers, I wondered why they struggled so much with English vowels, particularly the diphthongs (double vowels) like “vow” or “coat” or “bite”. From observing my students, I realised that their French pattern was to keep the lips pursed, to make the lovely short, simple French vowels. In fact, when I kept my lips pursed (I would check in my bathroom mirror) I could replicate a pretty convincing French accent (not as good as this). I would then use this exercise to practice my French, starting with English with a French accent as a kind of warm-up, before speaking French.

So now when I learn a foreign language, I don’t mind too much when the teacher speaks English, because this helps me to get that sense of rhythm and music of the new language.

Even if you are just thinking about learning a language, look out for opportunities to listen to those natives speak English and see if you can speak their English. It’s a first step to speaking their language.

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