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July 12, 2005 > Words, Words, Words, Words

Words, Words, Words, Words

An exasperated Eliza spits out this refrain as a rebuttal to Phonetics Professor Higgins in the 1964 musical, My Fair Lady. This adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's classic, Pygmalion, revolves around the attempt by the professor to transform a very Cockney Eliza Doolittle from a street flower girl into a refined lady in speech and manner.

Shaw commented, "The English have no respect for their language, and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like."

Alan Jay Lerner co-wrote the music and lyrics of the 1964 screenplay with Frederick (Fritz) Loewe. They extended Shaw's theme as Professor Henry Higgins notes, "There even are places where English completely disappears; in America they haven't used it for years." Higgins' challenge is revealed in the classic line used to test Eliza's mastery of proper English:

Eliza Doolittle: The rine in spine sties minely in the pline.
Professor Henry Higgins: The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain

Is the premise of Pygmalion simply an entertaining story or are there solutions to communication frustrations when confronted by a myriad of speech patterns and accents from across the globe?

The answer comes from Beth Von Till, a San Jose State University Lecturer, Professor of Communications Studies and Director of the Communications Study Laboratory. Her specialty is working with non-native speakers both on campus and through the consulting firm, WriteTalk, Inc.

Communication has become a top priority for students and businesses in the Bay Area. "We have such an influx of people coming to this area particularly after 1965 when there was a change in immigration laws and 1975 when so many people came to fill high tech jobs. We couldn't graduate enough engineers from U.S. schools so they were hiring from everywhere in the world." Von Till adds that a reflection of this intense immigration pattern is that there has been no ethnic majority at San Jose State University since 1992.

Although American English is the common language in corporate workgroups, personnel within these groups often represent many countries and ethnicities. For instance there might be a group composed of people from Italy, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia and Egypt. Although all speak English, they face difficulty understanding each other and advancing in the organization because of poor communication skills.

Von Till cites a client at a large high tech firm who recognized this barrier and said, "I have an MBA and Ph.D. in Engineering. No one ever told me that my future would depend on my ability to communicate effectively." Making presentations to clients and upper level management was a crucial component for his personal success. A common complaint is, "Why didn't someone tell me how important communication would be to advance in my career?"

Successful training can be done with groups of individuals from different areas of the world, says Von Till. She notes that the key to good communication is to "listen for the sounds of American English." As people listen carefully and adjust their hearing, they learn to change their own speech patterns. Problems abound when words are garbled by poor enunciation. For instance, someone going into a trial situation wants to make sure they make their statements clearly and are easily understood. In most cases, they will know in advance what they want to say so Von Till says she can help them in just a few minutes. Oral communications prepared in advance, such as a speech, allows a consultant to tape the presentation and play it back to the speaker noting where refinements such as speed, volume, projection, nonverbal aspects or organization are necessary for audience comprehension. Changing common or "habitual" usage of language however, takes much more practice.

When American English sounds are missing from the vocabulary of a foreign language, Von Till says that she teaches placement of tongue, teeth, lips and the alveolar ridge (the fleshy ridge behind the upper row of teeth) to form the sound or as close to it as possible. Practice comes through the pronunciation of words, word pairs and contrasting sounds. In Japanese, for instance, the "r" sounds very much like a "t" so the word "Gary" will be enunciated as "Gaty."

Clients often struggle with facial muscles to form words. "You can literally see the cheeks quiver," says Von Till. She adds that in American English there is quite a bit of lip movement and opening of the mouth that is considered "extraordinarily rude in some other languages." Children raised in a multilingual environment have an advantage since they learn muscle use quite early and easily shift between speech patterns. She notes, "Kids are hard-wired to learn language in the early years."

Adults who learn additional languages may find themselves in a quandary. Some are accused of speaking their native tongue "like an American" and are also told that they speak American English with a foreign accent; they are unsure of where they belong. One of Von Till's clients was caught between several worlds. Born in Puerto Rico and educated on the mainland of the United States, he became a Judo champion, training in Sweden and Japan. Following years of competition, he entered the business world and lamented, "I don't know where I belong," The answer given by Von Till was that, due to his confidence with language and customs around the world, he had achieved what many strive to become...a culturally competent world citizen.

Cadence and rhythm vary from culture to culture. Even the same language may diverge in different parts of a country as well as around the world (Professor Henry Higgins totally dismissed American English in My Fair Lady). The amount of emphasis on consonant and vowel sounds makes a huge difference in language. For most people trying to be understood in American English, holding the vowel sounds longer - up to three times longer - will make a big difference. If the native language uses consonant sounds heavily, American English will sound angry and abrupt. This takes some work, says Von Till, since "language is habit." She demonstrated by using the phrase, "Helloooo, how are youuuuu." Successful stage actors and those giving speeches have learned to speak like they are singing since voice carries strongly to the audience on vowel sounds. She says that Italian works well for opera because there are many vowel sounds, more than in some other languages. Many Asian languages present more difficulty since there is not as much shared vocabulary and each word is "encapsulated" so there is a pause which to an American English speaker represents the end of a thought and the listener stops listening.

Paul McCartney's song "Yesterday," recorded by The Beatles in 1965, is a good example of slowing speech and stretching out vowel sounds. The opening lyrics are, "Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away...." Although for the speaker, the pace may seem slow, a listener is able to easily understand what is being said. Von Till says that when it is easy to understand a speaker, listeners feel smart and they think the speaker is smart too. Broadcasters learn to do this because they must give large amounts of information in a relatively short period of time. Holding the vowel sounds longer does this.

Accents and speech patterns are subject to stereotypes which, although often baseless, lead to perceptions that may be harmful to the speaker. For instance, slow speech patterns are not an indicator of low intelligence just as a French accent will not guarantee expertise in wines or romance. An Asian accent does not signify an exceptional aptitude in mathematics. These perceptions become an issue when they create miscommunication - a "missed communication" - and something is not transmitted in the way it is intended to be understood. Von Till notes, "Everyone speaks with an accent. It seems like an accent when it is different than everyone around you."

"We learn most of our language by age 7 and by age 12, it is pretty much set," says Von Till. Each day, most of us use a relatively few number of words - several hundred - although there is a different language set for each contact group (i.e. family, friends, business associates, etc.). Typically, we use a "shorthand" or jargon that allows clear and quick communication within these groups. Adapting to new sounds or words is a process of recognizing consistent differences and being able to predict what the meaning will be in that situation. Immersion in a different speaking environment will often subconsciously move our speech patterns to mimic those around us.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel tells of a time when all mankind spoke the same language and decided to build a structure that would reach to the heavens above. Leery of the intentions of man, the Lord created many languages to separate peoples and dispersed them to points around the world. To this day, unintelligible noise of people talking is called "babble."

Most areas of the world now have significant contact with other cultures and languages. Effective communication - clear transmission of directions and intentions - is a critical component of peaceful joint efforts between groups, both large and small. The United States, termed a "nation of immigrants," has faced communication issues since its birth and continues to do so. Although English has become close to a universal language throughout the world, are we still a tower of Babel?

To stand above the babble, Von Till says that people often turn to schools and consultants to hone their language skills. Politicians and savvy business people understand the importance of communication although the need for clear speech is critical for all. From ordering at a restaurant to expounding ideas to a large audience, language coveys your ideas and desires; without clarity, frustration and failure are near certainties. "I would encourage students entering college to take additional course work to prepare themselves for professional development - strong writing and speaking skills. What we hear when guest speakers address our students about what helps advancement in the business world is the ability to communicate effectively with others... to be clear, understandable and purposeful."

Von Till says assistance with English as a Second Language (ESL) can be found at local schools, community colleges, universities, adult education and even speech therapy consultants. She believes it is best to find a native speaker with good credentials and a lot of experience. People need to find a group that is concentrating on the level of help they require. While some classes emphasize vocabulary, advanced English speakers may need to sharpen other skills. The bottom line is that at the heart of all interaction between people in any context - whether at work, school or home - communication skills are key ingredients to success.

For information about communication classes at San Jose State University:

Beth Von Till
San Josˇ State University
One Washington Square
San Jose, CA 94192-0112
(408) 924-5384

For information about consulting:

Beth Von Till
WriteTalk, Inc.
(510) 490-1100

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