Addressing that Atrocious Accent


I’ve been thinking about the troubles I’ve been having with pronunciation, and I think I’ve managed to identify my two main problems. First, my ‘ch’ sound, that fricative sound down in the back of your throat, sounds far too much like the German version. In German the ‘ch’ in, for instance, ich, is a low drawn out sound. Sort of like a cat hissing. The Scottish ‘ch’ is, on the other hand, a harder, stronger, higher sound. It’s like a k with a bad throat cold. Loch sounds like lock for a reason. Ich is closer to ish.

And then there’s the rhythm of my sentences. Gaelic has a kind of sing-song, melodic flow to it which comes from the stress pattern of words. The accent is always on the first syllable. English, however, uses stress to mark case or importance, since we don’t have endings to do that for us. So our stress patterns are variable. When I read Gaelic sentences, I have a tendency to place the stresses where they would be in English, which makes me sound wrong. Especially because I’m also infecting improperly. Tonal inflection in many sentences is a reflection of the semantics. We change the pitch of our voices to indicate what type of statement we’re making, and we adjust our pitch at various points in the statement to identify important information. So, in a language with a subject-verb-object structure, pitch often starts high and lowers throughout the sentence, jumping up again at the end if it’s a question. This is because we’re marking the subject, the important thing. However, Gaelic doesn’t use that structure. So when my vocal intonation reflects that structure, the tones don’t match up with the proper words. I sound like a bad actor who doesn’t know what they’re supposed to be feeling. I have to start thinking in a verb-subject-object format. And the same order discrepancy has me putting pauses in the wrong places. You pause between constituent parts of a sentence to mark the words as part of a group. I keep pausing after nouns (because English puts nouns at the end of noun phrases), which makes the adjectives sound like they aren’t modifying anything. It sounds odd.

But now that I recognize where I’m going wrong, I can be more aware of my vocal patterns. And thanks to Simon over at Omniglot, who sent me a bunch of really helpful resources, I have some pronunciation guides and audio files to listen to. I should be sounding more Scottish in no time!

I think language teachers should pay more attention to this kind of thing. If my Japanese teacher had explained to me that I was inflecting improperly because I was using the rhythm of a language with a different structure, I might have stopped sounding like I was practicing my racist generic Asian accent. It also helps the structure of the language become more natural to you when your vocal patterns reflect it. It gets easier and faster to translate things when you say them with the right pattern. A little linguistic knowledge of the language you’re learning can really help sometimes.

Later on today I’ll put up the videos for Lesson 2 from TYG and we’ll see if my speaking has improved. Fingers crossed.

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