Tuesday, March 11, 2008

CA Learns English Pronunciation (Part II)

“She sells sea shells by the seashore.” Oh, yeah, repeating that nonsensical tongue twister is going to be really valuable in helping members of the chorus improve their pronunciation for the opera “Peter Grimes” that we're doing in September.

Or how about, “Enter sir [sic] Ferdinand; his face is stern, his words are terse, his nerves are worse, he speak in verse.” How is that supposed to help with a line from the opera such as, “Yet only such contemptuous springtide can tickle the virile impotence of man.”?

Minimal Pairs - Certainly there's a place for minimal pairs, and I use them in my pronunciation classes. It's not exactly a new concept. But rather than perfectly useless pairs such as “easy/weasy” and “earl/whirl,” a much more effective use of minimal pair practice would have been to use words from the actual lyrics such as “ship/sheep,” “slip/sleep,” and so on.

And while explaining that the spelling of Japanese words using “si” is invariable mispronounced as “shi” (there being no “si” sound in Japanese), why not apply that to a word such as “gossip,” where the S's convey a sense of gossip, especially in the full sentence, “When women gossip, the result is someone doesn't sleep at night” (the first line sung by the chorus in the opera), which is full of sibilants.

OK, so once again, I'm fuming that, as a native speaker of English, I had to sit through a pronunciation lesson from a Japanese speaker. [See CA Learns English Pronunciation (Part I) for details on the first time.]

This time the sensei's credentials are that he teaches Shakespeare at Fuji Women's University. Well, how about someone who has a Master of Arts in Theatre, has performed Shakespeare, has an M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and has been teaching pronunciation to non-native speakers for some 25 years. I suppose there's no comparison.

I hope you notice that my comments on this evening's pronunciation lesson are dripping with sarcasm. Once again, it was humiliating for me to sit through a lesson in English pronunciation, especially since I could have taught it just as well but in a more dynamic way than simply lecturing and having people parroting my words.

The point where I really felt the absurdity of it all is when someone was consulting a dictionary to help the “sensei” check on the pronunciation for the first vowel sound in “languishes” as I, as native speaker, sat there silently mouthing the word.

Let's reverse the situation. A native Japanese speaker is participating in an American chorus that is rehearsing a song in Japanese. An American who has studied in Japan in brought in to teach Japanese pronunciation. The Japanese person sits there with absolutely no one checking with him/her on how to pronounce the words. I simply can't fathom such a situation.

My biggest gripe is that anything I say doesn't seem to be taken seriously. The Sapporo Symphony Chorus conductor barely acknowledges that I speak English, and I feel dismissed whenever I attempt to bring up a point about pronunciation. People were crowding around the “sensei” after the lesson with all sorts of questions, whereas only a few people have asked me a question now and then. I feel as though my authority has been undermined. And if the conductor won't even acknowledge me as a professional in the field, who else is going to?

My rant will probably continue, but I'm going to publish this much. YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME!


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Dennis said...

Hi again, CA.

I understand the use of the Japanese sensei even less than I understood the use of the young Japanese chorus member. Incredible! There must be something operating here other than fluency in English.

I'll be interested to read further posts on this aggravating situation.

All the best—