Friday’s article ‘How to improve your Italian accent, Part 1 (why bother?)‘ generated some interesting emails and comments. Club members responded to the ‘why bother?’ in a range of ways – some are like me, and don’t mind having a ‘loud’ foreign accent, as long as they can make themselves understood, while others aim to sound as Italian as possible.
One person, I forget who it was now, metioned that they are so good at pronunciation in their various languages that they are often mistaken for a native-speaker at first. Well… I suppose that’s not impossible, though it is extremely uncommon. There’s plenty of evidence to show that if you don’t pick up the sounds of a foreign language as a child, you’re unlikely to do so as an adult. Not that you shouldn’t try, of course, if ‘sounding more Italian’ matters to you.
At the end of Friday’s article, I said I’d be writing today “about ‘benchmarking’ your accent, so you know just how bad it is, and what the problems are, before you go about trying to improve it.”
And I mentioned that
“I’m planning to ask all my teachers and conversation partners these questions, starting with Turkish in just a few moments time:
1. Just how bad, on a scale from 1-10, is my accent when I speak your language?
2. What is it about the way I speak that makes me sound ‘English’?
3. How do you think I could improve my accent?
Let’s see what they say…”
But so far I’ve only asked the Turkish teacher. I forgot to mention it to the Spanish teacher as I was having a rant about something, and the weekly French and Swedish conversation lessons haven’t rolled around yet. So, a change of plan.
Sunday afternoon I ventured out onto the Internet to see if I could find any useful guides to Italian pronunciation, with the idea of saving myself masses of work. I figured that I could just provide you with a link or two and be done with it.
But no, sadly, much of what’s out there is banal, unhelpful or useless, often all three. Virtually everything I read that promised to help me fix my Italian accent was INCOMPLETE, in that it covered some of the basics of how certain letters or combinations of letters are to be uttered but skipped over or ignored completely the more difficult aspects, the elements that actually make, say, someone from Napoli sound different from someone from Bologna.
Which reminds me of Monty Python’s Italian Class sketch (sadly no longer easily findable online) which, wildly stereotypical that it is, is basically a joke about how up-themselves teachers can be (I daresay I’m no exception.)
Most of the pronunciation advice out there is basically a regurgitation of what Italians learn about their own language in elementary school, when they’re learning to read and write. Basically, Italian is written phonetically most of the time, and the exceptions are… Other than that, it’s all easy. End of article.
Reading reams of this nonsense, it occured to me that the writers are coming at the problem FROM COMPLETELY THE WRONG DIRECTION. Let me explain.
Hai presente (a very useful expression, by the way – it means something like ‘Think of…’, or ‘Can you picture…), for example, a Japanese person speaking English? I’ve taught hundreds of Japanese adults and children over the years, and it’s usual that they sound, well, very Japanese. Sometimes to the point that you really can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. An uncle of mine was in Japan and was advised to take the ‘boat train’ to his next destination, which puzzled him because it was a land journey. He got it in the end, though: “Ah! You mean the ‘bullet train!”
English is like this, their teachers ‘explain’ (I hate that word), you say it like this, no not like that, like this. Repeat after me. OK, listen again, now repeat. OK, perhaps we’ll come back to that one later…
Just as Monty Python’s Italian teacher sounds oh so English, Japanese students bring to a foreign langauge, whether it be English, Italian, or I suppose any other language, their own set of ‘rules’ (that word, too) for the mechanical elements of speech.
Japanese students sound Japanese, even when speaking English, because their default pronunciation is that of their mother tongue. Italians speaking English mostly sound Italian for the same reason. And you and I, when speaking Italian, are likely to bring to that language the shapes and sounds of our native language (or possibly, as someone pointed out in an email, another language that you have learned, so speaking Italian as if it were Spanish, or vice versa in my case.)
Insomma, I can tell you that Italian is mostly pronounced as it is written, that these are the exceptions, that if you listen a lot and practice a lot, you’ll pick it up, don’t worry, and especially if you pay attention to the basics when just starting out. And NONE OF THAT IS LIKELY TO HELP A JOT.
For it’s highly, highly likely that you have no understanding of what you actually sound like when you speak your own language. Italian might be basically phonetic, but English certainly isn’t. So when you, for instance, read a particular letter or combination of letters, you either know how to say the word or you don’t, probably because you’ve heard it used, unlikely due to having studied phonics as a child, as is now the vogue.
Would you know how many vowel sounds you use on a day to day basis? If your answer is five, you’re way out. That’s the number of letters – there are many more vowel sounds than that. OK then, how about the diphthongs (two vowels stuck together)? How many of those pepper your utterances? Or what about the consonants? There are lots of those, though they present fewer problems in my experience.
Could you really say what the defining features of your accent IN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE are? Aside from the individual phonemes, there’s stress/accent to consider (which of the syllables in a multi-syllable word carries the most ‘weight’), and the stress/accent at phrase and sentence level (compare ‘Do you underSTAND?’ and ‘DO you understand?’), there’s the matter of syllable-timing, weak forms of vowels and so on, there are all the features of connected speech (intrusive consonants, linking, etc.), and of course, intonation plays a huge part (why do Germans sound curt and the Japanese polite? And what do WE sound like to them, I wonder?)
Of the top Google results I spent over an hour reading yesterday afternoon, perhaps twenty sites in all, most of them fell into the ‘I’ve no actual knowledge of this but here’s what I remember from elementary school’ method of teaching Italian pronunciation to foreigners. Many of the features of your speech that I’ve outlined above, were not mentioned at all, nor of course how they might be the same or different in Italian.
The ones that weren’t incomplete and ignorant tended to be written by experts of one sort or another, such as Maria Grazia Busà who writes about teaching English pronunciation to Italians in ‘Teaching Prosody to Italian Learners of English: Working towards a New Approach‘, the relevant section of which I’ve quoted here below. Feel free to skip it if you’re not up for a challenge at this time on a Monday morning.
A comparison of English and Italian prosodic features reveals what could be the possible pronunciation issues for an Italian speaker of English. The major differences in the Italian and English suprasegmental features are summarized below.
At the syllabic level, English has mainly CVC-type syllable structures, and allows complex consonant clusters both in syllable initial and final position; Italian has mainly CV-type syllable structures, with a distribution of long vowels in open syllables and short vowels in closed syllables; it does not allow complex consonant groups in syllable-initial or final position, and allows only a limited set of consonants in word-final position. As far as rhythm is concerned, English has been referred to as a stress-timed language, and Italian as a syllable-timed language (for a review, see Busà, 1995). This means that English will show a tendency to keep intervals between stresses equal, independently of the number of intervening unstressed syllables, by compressing sequences of unstressed syllables; Italian, on the other hand, will show a tendency to keep syllables at about constant duration, and more syllables (stressed or unstressed) will proportionally increase the duration of the sentence (Schlüter, 2005). Thus, whereas English is characterized by full vowels in stressed position and (highly) reduced vowels in unstressed position, Italian has no vowel reduction at the phonological level and limited vowel reduction at the phonetic level (Farnetani and Busà, 1999).
English and Italian also differ markedly in the way intonation is used to signal discourse information structure and focus, as well as in the intonation patterns used linguistically. In the first place, this difference concerns the relation between word order and intonation. Word order and intonation are the two most commonly used focus marking devices, and languages differ in the preference for one over the other, and in the ways in which the position of the focal constituent in the sentence may affect the intonational realization of focus (Chen et al. 2007).
English has few inflections and a relatively fixed word order, and it relies heavily on intonation to convey grammatical information or focus elements in the sentence. Italian, on the other hand, has more inflections and a more flexible word order than English, and so provides its speakers with the option of giving prominence to some information by rearranging words in the sentence. In addition, English uses intonational accent (or extra stress) to mark grammatically salient elements (for example new or emphatic information) as prominent, while given or old information is de-accented; typically, focus accent in English is found on the last major word of the sentence, but can come earlier to emphasize one of the earlier words or to contrast it with something else. In Italian, prosody is not used to distinguish between new and given information, that is, giveness is not prosodically marked by deaccenting elements carrying given information or by using a particular type of pitch accent; rather, prominence is given to elements that are in focus (Avesani and Vayra, 2005; Bocci and Avesani, 2008).
Thus, following the strategies of their native language, Italian speakers of English will be unable to mark salient discourse information through intonation, and show instead a tendency to either move syntactic elements around in the sentence, or use other linguistic devices (for example lexical items) to mark discourse focus.
Joanne Bogart’s ‘Italian Pronunciation a Primer for Singers‘ is much more typical of what’s out there. Though better. She begins by stating clearly who’s she’s writing for (most Italian teachers writing about pronunciation just machine-gun their advice in a three-hundred and sixty degree arc, hoping to hit as many learners as possible):
“The goal of this little guide is to help those with little or no knowledge of Italian pronunciation avoid some of the errors most commonly made by American English speakers.”
Read through to the end and another of Joanne’s lines stood out for me:
“There are plenty of books on Italian diction for singers but inevitably the author will not pronounce English exactly as you do — no one does — so examples can be misleading.”
How wise, how true, how helpful! And it was some combination of these two sources, plus all the rubbish, that enabled me crystallize in my own mind the ‘How to improve your Italian accent’ problem.
Reading through one of the stupider lists of how the Italian alphabet should be pronounced (/h/ as in ‘herpes’), I found myself asking my Italian wife,
“How do you say ‘mare’?”
She pronounces the ‘a’ as in the exclamation, ‘ah!’, which is what the stupid list advised (“Ah, herpes!”)
“I say it like ‘far’ or ‘car'”, I told her.
“Do you?” she replied, “I’d never noticed.”
OK, so she hadn’t noticed (and she’s an experienced Italian teacher), and of course I hadn’t noticed (or I wouldn’t be doing it), yet my knowledge of how Italian should sound, and how my English does in fact sound, is probably way above average. I teach English pronunciation, and after twenty-three years living in Italy, when I hear students of Italian mispronouncing a word or bombarding everyone with their particularly English vowels (as I do myself, I admit), I can’t help but offer feedback/correction.
And yet, I’ve never thought to apply my knowledge of the two languages to my own speech. Nor have those close to me (my family comprises four Italian adults, and me) been able to provide the sort of feedback that would encourage me to do so.
Well, perhaps it’s all hopeless, then. But we should at least try!
So let’s take the various elements that go to make up your accent in English (or whatever language you are native speaker of), one by one, and aim to better understand where we are starting from.
Then, once we’ve established a common vocabulary for discussing our strengths/weaknesses, or perhaps while we’re figuring out what all the bits that go into speech actually are, we can compare what we do in our own languages with what Italians do, and so see in which direction we will need to travel.
Where to begin?
Perhaps not at the destination.
Saturday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is here.
Why not try ignoring the meaning this time, and just listening to the way my son reads the phonemes, the syllables, the words, the phrases and the sentences?