Thursday 25 June 2009

The Syllabic Nasal in Japanese

The syllabic nasal /N/ () in Japanese is a well-known source of negative transfer for the Japanese learner of English. It is normally represented as ‘n’ in Roman orthography, but its actual place of articulation is entirely dependent on that of the following sound. Thus, for example, sanpo /saNpo/, sontoku /soNtoku/, and onkai /oNkai/ are pronounced [sam:po], [son:toku], and [oŋ:kai] respectively, the place of articulation of /N/ assimilating to that of the following consonant. Since this type of regressive assimilation occurs for English /n/ too, things may not appear to be much of a problem so far.

When a vowel or semi-vowel follows it, it becomes a centralised close vowel [i] or [ʉ] with complete nasalisation, i.e. honya /hoNja/ → [hoi~ ya], hon’i /hoNi/ → [hoi~ i], kanwa /kaNwa/ → [kaʉ~ wa], etc. The problem is that the Japanese learner of English tends to substitute these nasal vowels for the English /n/ in syllable-final positions when they pronounce phrases like an apple /ən æpl/, can you /kæn ju:/, and and even /ən i:vn/: they are typically pronounced [əʉ~ apl], [kjai~ ju:] and [əʉ~ i:vn].

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Saturday 13 June 2009

Stressed weak forms!!

When it comes to learning a foreign language, it is always the case that what is given little attention by the native speaker is the hardest nut to crack for the foreign learner. The native speaker of Japanese, for example, wouldn’t pay much attention to his/her use of particles like wa and ga when speaking (as well as writing), while for someone who learns Japanese as a foreign language Japanese particles are always troublesome and confusing.

In the pronunciation of English, weak forms of grammatical words are considered to be a stepping stone for the learner aspiring to acquire a nativelike accent. The learner is therefore told to learn to be able to pronounce to write and for all as tə ˈraɪt and fər ˈɔːl, rather than tuː ˈraɪt and fɔːr ˈɔːl. This is very important in order to acquire the rhythm of a stress-timed language such as English. A weak form occurs as a result of the speaker paying very little attention to the grammatical word in question and therefore trying to quickly move to the semantically important content word that follows it: in uttering to write the speaker naturally places more emphasis on write than on to because the former is supposed to be semantically more important. Weak forms are, as it were, a product of the speaker’s unconsciousness.

Here is the difficulty.

I have long been teaching my students the importance of weak forms, but I sometimes doubt if this approach of mine is ever appropriate. That I emphasize the importance of weak forms means that my students get more conscious of and consequently put more emphasis on the pronunciation of grammatical words. Very often this brings about a bizarre consequence: grammatical words tend to get stressed even though they are pronounced in their weak forms. So, for example, to write is pronounced ˈtə raɪt, or sometimes even ˈta raɪt.

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Saturday 6 June 2009

The ghost of R

Years of giving accent correction to my students have demonstrated that many Japanese learners of English are exceedingly obsessed with the English “r” sound. They make much effort to correctly produce what we technically call the alveolar approximant (frictionless continuant). However, many of them tend to believe, quite mistakenly, that English pronunciation is characterised by nothing but this sound.

The trouble is that their obsession with /r/ is so strong that, when speaking English or reading English text, they tend to awkwardly retract the tongue root, with the tongue tip slightly curled up, throughout the whole of articulation. As a result, all the vowels are r-coloured regardless of the spelling and all the alveolar consonants are somewhat retroflex-like. I always try to make them realise that they don't have to pay too much attention to /r/ in post-vocalic positions (whichever accent of English they are aiming at), but their obsession with this particular sound won't let my advice ring in their ears.

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From conTROVersy to CONtroversy

What Professor John Wells wrote in his phonetic blog on 4 June reminded me of what my father (aged 85 now) told me some time ago. He said that when he was a university student in Japan, kən'trɒvəsi (or maybe -sɪ in those days) was the only pronunciation taught for controversy. When I was a university student (about 30 years ago), 'kɒntrəvɜ:si was referred to as American. Today, I always tell my students the former is on the way out.

In my father’s days, teachers of English in Japan got delighted when they found an English word whose pronunciation was difficult to guess from the spelling. Thus forehead, for example, was always their source of happiness, because the knowledge that it was pronounced 'fɒrɪd was a kind of scholarly privilege they were proud to have. They chuckled with satisfaction when a learner of English pronounced the word 'fɔ:hed. They would lament the fact that what they proudly pointed out as an example of layman’s mispronunciation is now preferred by the majority of the native speakers of English. But, like it or not, language is constantly changing. That’s why it is interesting to study.

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