By Jagath Asoka –
An extensive knowledge of English can open more doors than a college degree. How well you speak and write is governed by your understanding of grammar, syntax, diction, punctuation, and pronunciation.
I have to tell two stories, one from my childhood and another from my youth. When I was around eleven-years old, I was invited to a birthday party. I do not know what kids do nowadays in Sri Lanka at birthday parties, but when we were kids we played different games. One of the games that I played on this particular evening made a big impact on my life. My friend’s sister brought a tray full of trinkets and asked us to look at them for thirty seconds; then she took away the tray and asked us to write down the items that were on the tray—people of my neighborhood spoke English at home. I could remember almost all the items, but I struggled because I did not know how to name them in English. Of course, I did not win, but it triggered something in me. From that day onwards, I started learning new words in English. Now, I begin my day with learning new words. I always consult a dictionary, and try to use the new words as often as I can, until they become a part of my active vocabulary.
The second story is related to the first story because it happened with the same childhood friend. I had returned after earning my MS from Ukraine. Before I left Sri Lanka again in 1986 to pursue my PhD studies, I was teaching chemistry, first at Kelaniya and then at the University of Ruhuna. One day, I was in Fort, Colombo, and I walked into my friend’s office building; he owned the building and had his office there. As we talked, he mentioned about an interview that he had conducted just a few minutes prior to my arrival. I still remember his words: “This guy I interviewed today has a science degree from Kelaniya, but he could not speak English at all.” I tried my best to defend the hapless graduate; but my friend was looking for a science graduate who was fluent in English.
In Sri Lanka, the elite use English as a weapon to intimidate the hoi-polloi. I know some Sri Lankans, who failed all the subjects except English, but they think college graduates are idiots if they are not fluent in English. In my neighborhood, all the kids were fluent in English; I was an exception; but I read more books in English than some kids from my neighborhood. When I left Sri Lanka to pursue my education in the former USSR, I realized that my English was much better than other foreign students; so it gave me some confidence to articulate my thoughts in English. I also read books in English as often as I could. I have never met a foreigner—British, Americans, Canadians, etc— who would denigrate, mock, or ridicule you for speaking broken English or for mispronouncing words; but they are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka. Here is a fact: Even the elite Sri Lankans and those who are very fluent in English do not know how to pronounce properly. Think about this: English is taught as a subject in Sri Lanka; we have TV channels, Radio stations, newspapers, books, and a plethora of other ways to learn English, yet only around 3% speak English fluently in Sri Lanka: If I am wrong please correct me and give me the actual number. How come? All of you know the answer: the fear of making grammatical mistakes and the fear of mispronouncing words; this fear is tangible and real because there are people who are waiting to ridicule and denigrate you. The funny thing to me is that those who ridicule and denigrate others, they, too, make beastly mistakes and mispronounce more words than the words they utter. When I returned to Sri Lanka in 1984, I was somewhat nervous when I got my first teaching job at the University of Kelaniya, because I was under the impression that those who graduated from Sri Lankan universities were fluent in English: That was one of my worst assumptions.
Like everything else that I cherish in my life, my fascination with English started with a daily ritual. When I was a child, my father would teach us English while my mother prepared dinner for us. My father would correct our pronunciation and explain the definitions of the words that we did not understand. He always encouraged us to consult our English-Sinhalese dictionary, and that was the beginning of my fascination with English and my never-ending journey toward learning English. When I was a teenager, one of our family friends, Merrick, gave me an English-English dictionary. I was curious about this precious gift. So, I started looking up the words that I did not know. It was very difficult at the beginning, because my vocabulary was not powerful enough, and I could not understand the definitions that were given in English. After becoming a professional writer in 2001, I started paying more attention to my grammar, syntax, diction, and punctuation.
This article is not a pronouncement about pronunciation, but now I struggle with pronunciation. Have you ever been in a situation where others could not understand what you had said because of the way you pronounced a particular word or a phrase? For the last 26 years, I have been in many situations where I had to paraphrase to avoid confusion due to my beastly mispronunciations. As recently as last week, my son corrected me when I said the word “abominable.” I pronounced it as “abo-mi-na-bel” instead of “uh-bom-uh-nuh-buhl.” You don’t have to be a language maven to recognize mispronunciations, even a ten-year-old child like my son—my Pronunciation Guru—can do it. Is it worth worrying about pronunciation? Does anyone care about it anymore? Is distinct and careful pronunciation desirable? What is more troublesome, inarticulateness or mispronunciation? Most of us are not smitten by the bug of correct pronunciation. But most of us would say that our diction and how we pronounce the words that we have chosen is a mark of refinement.
Of course, my origin of mispronunciation goes back to my childhood; I have been trying to unlearn what I was taught in my childhood. In Sinhala, as far as I know, there is no difference between the way you spell a word and the way you pronounce it. For example, if your native language is Sinhala, then you would probably think that there is “dip” sound in diphthong, and “pronoun” in pronunciation, but these two words are pronounced as “dif—thong” and “pruh-nuhn-see-ey-shuhn.” In Sri Lanka, it was almost ubiquitous to pronounce the word “zoology” as a word with two syllables, first syllable being “zoo” [zoo-logy], instead of [zoh-ol-uh-jee]; “geometry” as [geo- metri] instead of [jee-om-i-tree]. It took me a while to realize that there is no “zoo” sound in the word “zoology” and no “geo” sound in geometry. The most common mispronunciation in Sri Lanka is “flim,” for “film.”
Over the years, I have made a constant attempt to pronounce words such as geology [jee-ol-uh-jee], mythology [mi-thol-uh-jee], and biology [bahy-ol-uh-jee] correctly by paying more attention to each syllable. I used to pronounce the ending of these words as “logy.” I think I still pronounce it as “logy” when I am not somewhat conscious.
Now, I have realized why people could not understand when I said vegetable [ve-gi-ta-bel] instead of “vej-tuh-buh l,” or vehicle [vey-hi-cal] instead of [vee-i-kuh- l’], and spaghetti [spa-ge-tee] instead of [spuh-get-ee]. Mispronunciation and “two-ways-to-pronounce” are not the same issue. For example, the word aunt is pronounced as [ant] or [ahnt], but when you say “new-kyuh-lur, instead of “n(y)-oo-klee-ur” you are mispronouncing it.
Even though I have lived in this country for 26 years, taught college students, worked as a writer, and often mingled with native speakers, I still have a distinct accent and mispronounce words almost in every sentence that I utter, and mispronunciation invokes a visceral reaction. Even though I mispronounce words, I, too, unconsciously judge others when they mispronounce words; for example, “nuclear” and “realtor” are often mispronounced even by the native speakers. Every time, when an American says “new-kill-lur” it makes my skin crawl.
Once, I called an anchor of a popular Sri Lankan news program and asked him not to mispronounce the name Achilles—the anchor kept saying “a- chil-ees” instead of “uh-kil-eez”—because I firmly believe that people who watch his program would repeat his mispronunciation, and soon all Sri Lankans would mispronounce the word Achilles. So, it is not hypocritical to say that mispronunciation is one of my pet peeves.
Whether you like it or not, people will judge you by the words that you use and the way you pronounce them. So, is there a “cow” is “Moscow”? Most dictionaries give us two options: mos-koh or mos-kou. Any dictionary will tell you how to pronounce a word and its preferred pronunciations, but often will not discuss mispronunciations, historical precedents, and trends. When I am ambivalent, I always consult an online dictionary (for example, dictionary.com) with sound capabilities as a guide for accepted or standard pronunciation. Often, I am unaware of my own mispronunciations until someone points them out to me. It is better to be ambivalent than adamant; however, I have also noticed that there are pronunciation discrepancies among major dictionaries. When dictionaries cannot agree, it is very troublesome.
I have never told my son or my students, “Don’t worry about grammar, diction, syntax, spelling, punctuation, and pronunciation because all these stuff are useless and boring.” Like most of us, I am embarrassed when I mispronounce words. Of course, you can live a comfortable life, make money, have friends, and even become President of the United States—George W. Bush did it—even if your pronunciation is beastly, but you will be judged by your diction and the way you pronounce them.
My constant struggle with pronunciation continues; as I am writing this article, I mispronounced the word “fascination” while having a conversation with my son about the English language. I know one thing: My son cares about my choice of words and the way I pronounce my chosen words.
Do not let others intimidate you with English. Do not ruin your career and suffer because of bad communication skills and pronunciation. Spend a few minutes a day to improve your English. Read voraciously and indiscriminately; read great novels, and read books on philosophy, politics, religion, history, mythology, and any other subject that you do not have earned a degree. I have left school, but my learning still continues.
I am not Professor Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, but I, too, can identify origins by accents. I think not only English people must learn to speak properly but also Sri Lankans and Americans because this is what truly separates social classes, not your looks or money.