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Subject: helping someone with English pronunciation
Question: Hello,

I am a musician and college music professor. At the parish at which I attend church, our priest is Nigerian and speaks with a heavy accent, to the point where his English is sometimes unintelligible. This is frustrating for parishioners, as they cannot understand parts of his sermons.

I have offered to help him with his pronunciation of certain English sounds. He has agreed to accept my help.

I have no formal experience with linguistics; however, I grew up in a bi-lingual (German/English) family, and am gifted with communicating with and therefore helping international students. I taught Ear Training for 15+ years, and have an acute ability to recognize what creates sounds. Therefore, I believe that, with God's help, progress can be made.

Can you please give recommendations as to how I could get started on working with our priest on improving his accent when speaking English? For example, some helpful text we could work out of, or ways in which I could help, would be of great help to me.

Thank you very much for your service, and for your kind consideration.

Best wishes,

Francesca Tanksley

Reply: Hi, Francesca,

As a musician (knowing German should also be of some help here)
you should know about the importance for pronunciation (for
example, when singing in other languages) of the position of the
tongue and jaw, especially, when pronouncing different languages
(or, as here, dialects). If you have any problems with this
concept, just pay careful attention to how you pronounce similar
sounds in German and English. One especially important idea here
is the 'base position' for a given language. For English in
general (though I know very little about Nigerian English), the
base position is for the vowel shwa (phonetic symbol: an upside-
down 'e', or 'turned e'), the last vowel in sofA, the first in
About, Escape, Upon, Obscure, etc. (when checking these out, just
don't get 'prissy' {that is, too careful} with your
pronunciation). Other examples of shwa (the capitalized letters):
mOsquito, phYsiciAn, judgmEnt, etc.

Now, it may be difficult for you to figure out what your priest's
base position is for his variety of English, but just try to get
across to him what yours is (once you figure that out for
yourself). I *think* the base position for German is also shwa,
but the German version (for example, the last sound of 'bitte'),
which, depending on the variety you speak, is likely to be
similar to the sound in English. If you can figure out your
priest's base position, you could perhaps give him some pointers
on changing the position of his articulators to produce a more
American English-type vowel (I'm assuming you're American--if
not, the same basic advice could work, but you might have to
tweak a couple of points).

Once you have sorted out the points about the base position,
there may be some differences between his and your pronunciations
for some consonants (and vowels) as well. Try to figure out what
those differences are (maybe tape-record him reading a paragraph,
or just talking, and play it over and over, trying to pronounce
the words as he does, until you can approximate his pronunciation
(optimally, with his help), so you can see in your own vocal
tract what the differences are. This is not necessarily trivial,
but a bit of practice and you will be surprised how well you can
do (again, being bilingual here will prove a help, even though
this is not one of your 'languages'). Don't, by the way,
necessarily shoot for eliminating all traces of his 'accent'. If
you can give him pointers for getting closer to the local
pronunciation of English, and get rid of some of the 'sharp
edges' of his pronunciation, you probably won't need to get him
to where people won't know he's a foreign English speaker.

Another, concurrent, tactic you could try would be to get him to
speak a little more slowly. This might work (or it could just
take longer for people to misunderstand him), but you might try

If I haven't been clear on some points, or if you have any other
questions, feel free to write me back. I hope this has been of
some help, but I'd be happy to answer any further questions you
might have. Your experience and personal situation (bilingual),
however, make me optimistic that you will figure out a way to get
your priest talkin' like a native! Good luck.


James L. Fidelholtz
Graduate Program in Language Sciences
Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades
Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO
Reply From: James L Fidelholtz      click here to access email
Date: 07-Dec-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: helping someone with English pronunciation    Anthea Fraser Gupta     (07-Dec-2013)
  2. Re: helping someone with English pronunciation    Madalena Cruz-Ferreira     (08-Dec-2013)
  3. Re: helping someone with English pronunciation    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (08-Dec-2013)
  4. Re: helping someone with English pronunciation    Susan D Fischer     (07-Dec-2013)
  5. Re: helping someone with English pronunciation    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (09-Dec-2013)

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