Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Pronunciation and A relaxing cup of cafe con leche

Spain and maybe the rest of the world have probably finished laughing at the Mayor of Madrid’s Olympic proposal speech on Saturday by now. I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else, perhaps because I’ve been trained from years of EFL teaching not to laugh at attempts in another language, perhaps because I have no great linguistic ability myself so not about to throw stones at Ana Botella’s shortcomings.

For the mockers there are several points – and they’re hard to disagree with.

  1. It was a poor speech and would have been even in Spanish.
  2. Why did she not deliver it in Spanish and save her and the country’s embarrassment?
  3. Why are Spanish politicians not better at English since they need to communicate internationally? (Nevermind that either the UK nor USA has ever had leaders that speak any other languages since English is the one that’s needed for the job)

Of course the last two sound less arrogant when they come from Non Native Speakers and the people I’ve spoken to who ridicule the mangling of her speech are not perfect users of English themselves.

The other points they make are hard to disagree with for other reasons. These are points I tell my students are not true but deep down know they are.

1. A strong accent makes you sound less intelligent and you’ll be taken less seriously. Strong accent plus incorrect intonation and pronunciation, you’d have to be the latest Nobel prize winner to overcome – and even then it’s risky.

I want this not to be true because otherwise there’s almost no point in what we do in class to improve speaking, vocab, writing, grammar etc. Even if they get to an advanced level in those – and that’s hard enough – it will be half undone as soon as they deliver it orally. What language students need are trained elocutionists and voice coaches on top of their language lessons.

2. Language learners’ toughest critics will be Non Native Speakers of any level of English and Native Speakers who are not trained to support and applaud language efforts. So that’s almost everyone then except their teacher.

This starts at a very young age too. At summer school we had one eleven year old with almost no English and one ten year old, top of the class in an elementary/beginner group. The teacher did what  many might – paired them strong to weak for an activity for peer learning to occur. You know, that thing children love doing because it makes one inferior and the other can lord it over them. The stronger boy repeatedly called the weaker one stupid and, even when spoken to and explained to why that wasn’t nice and was bullying and upsetting, retained bewilderment at why the other boy didn’t know what he knew because he was older than him. In short, his lack of linguistic ability made him stupid in the other boy’s eyes even though he had presumably been at that stage himself once.

The derisory response to Ana Botella suggests adults haven’t moved on much. In class, teachers try to promote an atmosphere of support and encouragement, nurturing  delicate little language buds into glorious blooms of linguistic fullness. The real world must be like a harsh frost. Maybe students need some preparation for it.

Spaniards have also told me (there’s no way I want these words attributed to me!) that Spanish people will only have a good accent if they have their jaws or throats replaced. I really want to disagree and I can almost pull it off.  I could look no further than this lovely, cut glass reading from Begoña Martínez who’s spent short periods of time studying  and living in the UK and worked in English speaking companies in Spain and Greece.

I think maybe  the belief that it can’t be done means it can’t be done. Added to by not training the ear for the music of another language by dubbing all TV and film into Spanish (or other L1) and learning from teachers with strong accents themselves. I don’t think I’ve heard another English accent as good as Begoña’s in Spain. In fact, hers is better than mine – I have a much less high class accent – although luckily not to most non English citizens who, mercifully have as untrained an ear as anyone else.

What is true though is that, even if I didn’t have it on reliable information that Begoña is a master of English and highly literate (this is becoming a bit of a heroine worship…curb it…), I’d be completely unquestioning that she understands every nuance of the text and could converse on it and a million other intellectual subjects just because of her accent. It would never occur to me to think otherwise. But someone with equally good English and a strong accent…I’d assume with unconscious prejudice that they didn’t fully understand what they were reading.

A prejudice I’d never in a million years voice to students who I know, realistically, are not going to put the hours in nor have the ear for gaining that accent. I’ll tell them what I always tell them, that as long as they pronounce and intone clearly enough, they’ll be fine.

And I’ll try not to dwell on the fact I don’t have the speech therapist training to give them better guidance.

And they’ll carry on making the same negative judgements on people like Ana Botella.

And…er…you know that bit where I said I didn’t laugh…I didn’t… but I never fail to giggle at the Italian in Malta.

Ana Botella, Madrid's mayor, perhaps drinking a relaxing cup of cafe con leche but not in Plaza Mayor.

Ana Botella, Madrid’s mayor, perhaps drinking a relaxing cup of cafe con leche but not in Plaza Mayor.


5 comments on “Pronunciation and A relaxing cup of cafe con leche

  1. eflnotes
    September 13, 2013

    hmm if i was marking that in a presentation class, it would get a pretty good score; i don’t think that is just due to having an english language teacher’s ear.

    it is arguably true that a lot of language learners have an ideal speaker accent in mind, i wonder how much of the negative reaction is due more to politics than language use criticism per se?

    interesting report from spain, thanks


    • Nicola
      September 16, 2013

      I think I’d mark it well in a class too, assuming it was an intermediate student. But then I think how impressed I would be if I were in a real business context (or indeed on the Olympic Committee) and I wouldn’t be impressed at all, neither for content nor pronunciation. Which is what I mean about the unreality of the context. In class, we mark for effort and try to boost student’s confidence – in the real world we want to be moved, entertained, convinced, impressed. Take any good TED presentation for example. It’s true that a student could go from class to TED level if encouraged but some marker of what is their end goal would be worth bearing in mind.
      As for the politics, she’s certainly not liked by some of the people I spoke to that didn’t admire her speech but I think there’s enough wrong with it that this was not the only reason. Politics of having an ideal accent…not sure what you meant there. People do judge or at least classify people on accent in their own country – class, education, socio-economic background so it makes sense that non native speakers judge other non native speakers and that native speakers do but perhaps along different criteria. The “best” accent to have, I suppose, would be one that does not tell where you’re from but has some international flavour to it, showing how clever you must be that you’re this proficient but not so native speaker than no one realises you’ve come to this level through your own efforts.

  2. Hector Lahera
    September 30, 2013

    Having an accent, I find, is a valuable asset under many circumstances, when one speaks a language correctly. The accent itself generates interest in what is being said–as long as it is not an accent already associated with ignorance in the mind of the listener. Again, it is important to speak in complete well considered grammatical sentences. Here is the concept in action:

  3. Fernando Burguete
    November 16, 2013

    Well, I couldn´t agree more:
    1. It was a poor speech and would have been even in Spanish
    2. Why did she not deliver it in Spanish and save her and the country’s embarrassment?
    And it is a horrible teacher the one allowing this happen, as:

    —- A language teacher, whatever language it comes to, must recognize what poor language is and if the same is appropriated to the situation -“a relaxing cup of café con leche” is all you can offer?
    —- A language teacher settles realistic aims
    —- A language teacher doesn´t charge 200.000 euro for such a rubbish work, and jeopardizes to such an extent a candidature having costed 5.000.000 euro

    And, yes, there is a lot of politics involved as she is a politician waisting the money that honest Spanish workers have earned from tiny salaries.

    • Nicola
      November 16, 2013

      Do you mean Ana Botella had a teacher who helped her prepare for that speech? I could have done that for quarter of the money!

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This entry was posted on September 13, 2013 by in Learning English, Teaching English and tagged , , , .
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