It's all in the pronunciation

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I had just started the second grade in Germany when we left for Canada. The day after we arrived in Richmond, my parents enrolled me in Sea Island Elementary School. I spoke no English. I understood no English. And since the school systems in Germany and Canada were very different, there was no familiar routine to guide me through those first bewildering days.

Every morning the teacher took roll call. I had no idea what roll call was, but I noticed that all children would say a word after their names had been called. When I heard my name, I imitated the word the children had spoken. Only the teacher managed to keep from giggling. Instead of "here", I came out with the German "hier", similar-sounding, but with a pronunciation as crisp as the other one is mellifluous.

My initial, slightly traumatic experience in pronouncing, or mispronouncing, English explains why a few pronunciation incidents are stuck firmly in my memory. I particularly relish one that happened when I was in Grade Three. It wasn't unusual for us to slip into sloppy speech every now and then, which the teacher was quick to correct. One day the whole class was uncontrollable. Our rambunctious behaviour so exasperated the teacher that he shrieked, "Oh, why can't you behave like human BEANS!" We roared.

In my first year at UBC I attended a course in art history taught by a Scot. Those were pre-computer days, so we still took notes by hand. During the introductory lecture, one particular word cropped up rather often. It had me puzzled me because it never made sense in the context. The word I'd written down was cavalry. There were so many cavalries in my notes that you'd think the course was about warfare or horses. But it wasn't. It was about Renaissance art. A few lectures later I asked the professor if he could explain why he kept referring to the cavalry. At first he was dumbfounded. When I showed him my notes, he burst out laughing. He had not said cavalry at all. The mysterious word was vocabulary.

In some circles, mispronunciation simply was not tolerated. Legend has it that Demosthenes, the famous Ancient Greek orator, devised an ingenious method for improving his enunciation. He practiced speaking with pebbles in his mouth while walking along the sea shore until he'd reached the point when his pronunciation was clear and his voice could be heard over the crashing waves. I wonder what his dentist thought of it all.

I certainly didn't take such drastic measures when I lived in Florence and realized that I was incapable of pronouncing the letter "r" as the Florentines do. People teased me about it. I became so self-conscious that whenever I went marketing and wanted to buy, for instance, three or four ("tre" or "quattro") of anything, I would first request two ("due") and then after an infinitesimal pause, ask them to please add another one ("uno") or two. The shopkeepers may have considered me the most indecisive person in Florence, but at least my way of dealing with the pronunciation problem didn't grind away at my teeth.

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This page last updated: November 25, 2011.