Lose your accent! English vowels and American diphthongs

Enjoy using your tongue to pronounce American English vowels correctly!
Enjoy using your tongue to pronounce American English vowels correctly!

You can sound like a native.

Non-native speakers often give themselves away with their vowels, as English tends to pronounce them as diphthongs. American English diphthongizes them in a unique way. (In fact, you can tell a lot about a variety of English by its diphthongs.)

In this video I explain the Standard American English diphthongs of /ey/, /ow/, and /uw/ of my native dialect, having grown up in a middle-class family in Nebraska and Colorado.

Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: Derek K. Miller via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Lose your accent! English “th” (with American English “r”)

Don't get frustrated! You can pronounce "th" like a native.
Don’t get frustrated! You can pronounce “th” like a native.

You can sound like a native.

This sound challenges most learners of American English because it requires the speaker to position the tongue with the tip slightly beyond the teeth. On its own, the sound is not so hard, but articulating it alongside other unique English sounds—like the American “r”—brings its own troubles. This video helps you put the sound into context with other difficult sounds, but thinking about where your tongue is and what it is touching will help you pronounce English better.

Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: ta||tim via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Lose your accent! American English “r”

Focus on your mouth and discover the right accent!
Focus on your mouth and discover the right accent!

You can sound like a native.

This sound challenges most learners of American English because it requires the speaker to point the tongue up while not quite touching the roof of the mouth. If you can say “t”, though, you can say “r.” Watch this video and you will learn to feel where your tongue is.

Even though speaking with a foreign accent seems like a normal state, you can learn how to make the sounds that sound easy in the mouths of natives. This video series increases your awareness of all the parts of your mouth you use for speaking. A language never felt so good!

Dr. Thomas Coates blew my mind. He taught me how my tongue, lips, jaw, and teeth create language. Like a Chinese calligrapher learns how each finger holds a brush, like a yogi breathes with specific depth and stretch of her diaphragm, I took the first steps towards mastering language: losing my accent.

Enjoy!

Photo credit: Tim Kirman Photography via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

People who speak poor English speak another language well

Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential
Our assumptions about people can hold back their potential

I recently tweeted this statement. A Saudi friend of mine responded with surprise at such an obvious assertion. I explained to him that in the US people often view people who speak poor English as stupid, lazy, or exclusive. In the workplace we often view those who speak “poor” English as deficient, inconvenient, or even dangerous. For teachers insufficient English is a huge challenge to overcome, for doctors it can be life-threatening, and in many workplaces it is at least an inconvenience. We have to hire translators and specialists and provide training in English, which is expensive. Overcoming the inconvenience of a lack of English skills is costly however you look at it–from this point of view. If we look at these people from a different point of view, we can see that they offer unique abilities to those around them.

This is the same way that many people talk about “disabled” people. They’re inconveniences. People who can’t see aren’t able to read documents. Those who can’t hear aren’t able to participate fully in meetings. Those who can’t walk are a dangerous liability is the case of a fire or other emergency. Businesses have to make costly accommodations for people with disabilities that we don’t have to make for others.

When it comes to physical disabilities, our society found a way of reversing this viewpoint by focusing on what the person is able to do, rather than unable to do. First, this is a human being with skills, not to be defined completely around one disability. Second, they bring unique abilities to the group. People develop heightened senses when they lack one. People can see the world from the point of view of being overlooked when they spend all day in a wheelchair literally having people look over them. All of them bring unique problem-solving skills because of the way they adapt to a society that doesn’t take them into consideration. When we see the “disabled” as “differently-abled” we all gain a new, indispensable viewpoint for approaching everyday tasks.

When I was recently at the Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) conference, I had the fortune to speak about this issue with a bilingual English speaker who moves around in a wheelchair. She informed me about how employers view disabled people as a problem needing accommodation rather than an individual offering different abilities. She works to educate employers of people’s different abilities, rather than their lack of certain abilities. They are not to be pitied or worked-around, but seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses.

Non-native English speakers–or those who speak no English at all–must be viewed as possessing unique abilities. They are not incompetent in English but highly competent in another language. They are differently-abled. We do not need to look upon them as people who are lacking in a language, but who offer another language to the workplace community.

People who speak poor English speak another language well.

For this reason, I am starting up language tables at my workplace. I want to highlight able, multilingual individuals who possess unique abilities so they can teach their knowledge to the rest of us. They speak a language that most people at work do not speak. Many of them are immigrants, so their life testifies to navigating different cultures and often overcoming adversity and a drastic change in life. Such a life offers important lessons to everyone. Thankfully, they offer knowledge and wisdom at work that others cannot. If people are willing to work at learning from their colleagues, work could help them become wiser and more knowledgable.

If we learn another language we enable higher morale and productivity at work. Those we work with overseas can feel at ease in participating with a foreign firm on equal terms without an atmosphere of imperialism. Domestically, we allow people to bring their whole selves to work. Thus our work environments improve significantly. In addition, we can act on this subtle discrimination (before it might become a legal matter).

Moreover, the individuals at the company can benefit personally. Everyone can learn another language and benefit from another way of life. Those whose communication skills were considered only in relation to their English proficiency will be seen as teachers no matter what their English level is. A deficiency will be considered an advantage for the company. Companies can win when they embrace loving language.

Photo credit: VinothChandar / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Bringing your language to work

Does language-love exclude us at work?
Does language-love exclude us at work?

Last week I attended a conference on workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I). D&I practioners repeat the mantra that people are happiest and most productive when they can bring their “whole selves” to work. The concept of bringing the whole self implies that there is no part of one’s self that one has to leave at the door when they come to work. Most of the discussion of “whole selves” revolved around race, gender, and sexual orientation, namely, one can be at work according to one’s race, gender, and sexual orientation, without shame, without hiding. We also discussed the topic of religion. D&I experts show that when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are happier and more productive, which hits the business’s bottom line in a positive way.

I noticed, however, that no one touched on a significant topic: linguistic inclusion. If people identify strongly with a language besides English, are they allowed to bring their whole self to work? I was amazed that the conference never addressed the issue of language even when the opportunity arose. I naturally put on my “loving language” hat and started asking around. I saw the problem clearly, but I’m still looking for an answer.

Language discrimination

This is a real issue. I met one man at the conference from Somalia who related to me about one place he worked. A monolingual English-speaking colleague of his said, “I don’t like Filipinos because they are always speaking their own language,” and added, “The same thing for Somalis.” Not only can one not bring one’s language to work, open disgust towards other languages is allowed.

Another woman I met works in health care. She said that in one hospital, Spanish-language interpreters are only allowed to speak Spanish on the job; during break they are told not to speak Spanish. Even those hired to speak another language are not allowed to bring their whole selves to work.

These are extreme cases, but I don’t know if they’re rare. In the US people can actively keep others from bringing their whole selves to work when those people identify with a language besides English. I don’t know if this is illegal; those discriminated against are often vulnerable immigrants and wouldn’t bring lawsuits.

In the vast majority of workplaces in the US, the only language spoken at work is English. Whether your native language is English or not, whether you speak English well or not, you will speak English at work and leave your other language(s) behind.

This means that if the whole self includes identification with a language besides or in addition to English, you cannot bring your whole self to work. Many workplaces do not accommodate other languages being spoken.

How will we communicate with each other, then?

Another gentleman responded to my questions by correctly asserting that people need a way to communicate at work. If everyone is speaking another language, it is neither fair nor reasonable to expect everyone to learn everyone else’s language. People do not need a single language for mutual communication, however. Hegemony of one language is not the only answer. Throughout human history, people mix languages and develop means of communication using multiple languages. For example, Singapore and India employ these multi-lingual means of communication today. A subset of a couple languages or a mix of languages have also been shown to function fine.

The problem only raises questions for me now; I don’t have an answer. Can we allow for a multiplicity of languages without turning into a Tower of Babel? Can we shift culture through force of will, or do we need to keep the system as it is? Our present culture shows that integration of gender and race and, more recently, sexual orientation, can work, though not without tension. How do we continue this trend to language? Or will it remain a tense subject, unspoken of in the workplace, like religion?

Do you see linguistic discrimination at your work? Is it justified in your workplace?

Photo credit: ROSS HONG KONG / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

To be American is to be multilingual

Languages will come to flourish in the US, not to die.

Historically, languages come to the US to die.  German once was spoken by half the US population, and is now nearly gone except among some Amish groups.  Huge populations of Jews, Swedes, and Dutch used to speak their language across the US, but not any more.  We could be the most multi-lingual population in world, except we lost this knowledge.  An assumption has trickled down that Americans are monolingual.  If we change this assumption, however, languages will thrive in the US.

When it comes to the Somali language in Minnesota, both Somalis and non-Somalis seem to agree on one idea: the Somali language is for Somalis.  This attitude will result in language death and we will see Somali go the way of Yiddish in the US.  Disappearance of this language is not inevitable, though, because once both sides recognize a new paradigm in which everyone will benefit if everyone knows Somali, then Somali will continue to thrive for generations; rather than die, this new language will flourish and enrich US culture.

I have been in dialogue with Somalis interested in Somali language education, but they are mostly concerned with ensuring their children do not forget the language.  This fear comes for good reason.  If we look at the Russian immigrants in this area, a good number have children who cannot speak Russian, which indicates that the grandchildren will have forgotten Russian altogether.  Russians work hard to keep their language alive, but it has taken a lot of effort and the effort is still losing ground.  Somalis should be aware, too, that simply offering their language, even if they manage high quality education in the schools, does not ensure victory in this losing battle.

Non-Somalis identify the Somali language with Somalis in a simple-minded way, not recognizing the advantage the non-Somalis are missing out on.  “This is the US–speak English,” people assume.  As immigrants come to our country, they need to assimilate and their assimilation is measured by their level of English, according to this view.  As a result of this assumption, those born in the US miss the advantage of learning another language.  (I’ve discussed these advantages in “Language, fear, and childishness,” “Language: Failure is Gain,” “Language deficiency,” “Are English-only speakers squeezed out?” among others.)

As the children of Somali immigrants grow up in the US, they see themselves as Americans, and adopt the attitude I just described.  The Somali language belongs to their parents–foreigners–but not them.  The US is their country, and they’ve been surrounded by the English language every day of their lives.  At best they may teach their children some phrases or songs out of nostalgia for their own childhood, but their children will be as American and monolingual as any Swedish-, German-, or Czech-American who can trace their family back three to four generations here in Minnesota.

“To be American is to be multilingual.”  This counter-intuitive, perhaps never-heard-before phrase represents a paradigm shift that will end language death.  Once native-born Americans see foreign-language study as a duty, a trait of a patriotic American to connect with neighbors and fellow-citizens from all over the world, then the next generation of Somali children will see that their Somali language is a benefit towards their being American, not a hindrance against it.  They would grow up as good Americans from the cradle.

The first step towards shifting this paradigm requires language-study for all–and not just basic knowledge; every American must learn to speak a language fluently.  In Minnesota, Spanish and Somali are obvious candidates, as fluency could be achieved in 3-4 years if the languages were taught in the schools with thorough community engagement.  Once non-Somalis are regularly learning the Somali language, it would follow logically that Somali kids would continue to learn Somali at home in order to succeed in school.

I am pursuing enriching language education so that new and native-born Americans can reap the benefits of multilingualism.  As multilingualism is the norm, each wave of immigrants would enrich our culture and language offerings rather than dooming their native language.  The US would cultivate the linguistic seed that these newcomers bring, helping the next generation of Americans, whatever their origin.

What do we need to do to implement this new paradigm, American as multilingual?