“Manamaskim“ the same as “My nay me eesh king“?

I was wondering what I was going to write about for this month’s post, when a conversation with a friend last Saturday made me think about my previous post, so here is a bit more about pronunciation and intelligibility. I hope you find it useful.

My friend was talking about his experience as an EFL student in New York City. As he put it, he has a “degree in beginners’ course first week”, and the course in New York had been no different – he’d quit soon after the first week. One of the reasons why he left, he said, had been the fact that the only person in class he could really understand was his teacher, whereas the English spoken by the other students – none Brazilian – he found totally incomprehensible. He gave me an example from his very first lesson. Here’s a sort of transcript of what the situation he described may have been:

Teacher (to my friend): Ask the student next to you what his name is.
My friend (to Korean student): What’s your name?
Korean student: My name is Kim.

When you look at the written words you can’t really see anything wrong with the exchanges. However, my friend said that the Korean student’s answer sounded more like “manamaskim”, which according to him would have been completely unintelligible, had he not been expecting the answer. But the best part of this story was what my friend said next. He said the teacher had accepted Kim’s answer without a flinch, which had made my friend rather uncomfortable. And he said to me, in Portuguese: How could the teacher say nothing, not correct him? “Manamaskim” is not the same as “my nay me eesh king”! At this point I had to control myself not to laugh – not at my friend or his pronunciation, but at the fact that he had no awareness that his own sentence might sound just as unintelligible to other nationalities as his Korean classmate’s had sounded to him!

And then, immediately after my urge to laugh passed, I started to think that maybe this lack of awareness of the degree of intelligibility of his own pronunciation could be a result of no one ever telling him what was essential to do or not to do – when pronouncing English – to make sure he’d be understood. Had any of his previous courses (and teachers) – so many, according to him – ever focused, for example, on improving his pronunciation of is, not allowing him to go on producing eesh? Or on stopping his addition of that final ee at the end of name? Or on showing him the importance of producing a clear sound /m/ at the end of Kim? I also thought that not all of these problems would necessarily render his sentence unintelligible. Maybe not, but we have to be careful anyway, because we are accustomed to hearing a large percentage of our students speaking just like that, and yet we can understand them. But can we assume that they would be understood everywhere, by everyone? Is it okay to let all of those errors go forever uncorrected, or uncared for? I think not. My friend is about 45, and has sort of been studying English since he was a kid. I believe some of his teachers must have tried to help him get a better pronunciation, but they themselves may have lacked awareness of why they were doing it, so they must have given up too soon. But we can’t give up – not when our students’ future intelligibility is at stake.

Ricardo Sili

I’ve been in ELT for longer than I can remember – teaching, training teachers, designing and managing courses, and writing for Learning Factory (Interlink / New Interlink series), then Richmond (English ID Starter) and a few others. I’m fascinated by pronunciation and grammar teaching. And I have an MA in ELT, and an RSA Diploma. rsili@msn.com

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