I Hereby Pronounce Thee Like a Foreigner

Somehow, in a bout of bad timing, I got quite out of language learning at just the time the internet made it ever easier to seek out other languages. Not only that, with the web there was (and is) even a community of people who define themselves as polyglots and language learners, who support and inspire each other – or brag and make a business of their language-learning ways, but at least still learn.

Me? I’d count two languages in which I’m fluent – and as we’ll see, that’s being put into question – and another… 7? 8? 9?  in which I’ve dabbled and feel like I’ve forgotten more than I ever learnt.

Not me, probably not you, hardly anyone of the great and fast language learners I’ve ever heard.

With all the forgetting and lack of practice/study, like so many others, I’ve been wondering if maybe I am just not all that good at languages. Or maybe, I was quite good at it, but only so much as to never have to invest the time and effort that really needs to be expended, and thus never sticking with it for long enough.

One particular problem that has been raising its ugly head ever more often – and that does not get mentioned all that often in such a direct way – is the strange attitude we find towards the speaking of other languages as/by a foreigner.

To Teach, But Not to Speak ‘Correctly’?

Then, there was the English teaching I did in Latvia: I enjoyed it, but I don’t sound like a native English speaker, even though this is a language I tend to use (certainly in writing) more than my first language, German.

With the German teaching in China, the (almost the same) usual problem applied: As an Austrian, you are a native speaker of German – but of its Austrian variant. Of course, there’s more of a difference between “High” German and some of the German dialects in Germany than between it and Austrian “High” German, but not coming from Germany raises some concerns.
This is particularly funny – and/or aggravating – because other Austrians tend to switch to a less-dialectal form when talking to me, assuming that maybe I can’t understand dialect because I don’t – and can’t really – speak it myself…

Now, having to take a pronunciation course as part of the (English) teacher training I have taken up again, getting feedback on my pronunciation – and having lived in China long enough to have had lots of experience with “getting the tones wrong” – the scale tips strongly in favor of “you just can’t sound right.”

To Learn – Or Not to…

Aside from the oft-wasted effort at remembering verb conjugations and such, it is pronunciation that makes you stand out like the obvious foreigner  and that is all-too-common an issue that makes people give up on other languages.

The challenge in learning another language is not only that the foreign language learner has to get his/her head – and tongue and jaw – around sounds which don’t exist in their first language. No, not only do other languages potentially sound barbaric in the original meaning of the word – a barbar being someone whose language sounded just like the supposedly ignorant (of e.g. Greek or even, already, Sanskrit and earlier Indo-European) and stammering “bar bar bar” sounds of others.
No, even when speaking the other, better language that is foreign to you, you may (probably will) still sound like the barbarian at the gates, butchering some sounds of it – unless you are one of those rather rare people who can master another language’s sounds completely.

Making yourself at home in this world does not necessarily require  that you know languages other than the one spoken in your surroundings (usually the one you grew up with), anyways; and even if you need or want to fit in somewhere else, or just simply want to be a part of the wider linguistic and cultural diversity  of this world, a non-native pronunciation will make it obvious that you are not – or “not really” – at home in that other area, that language.

Or so it seems.

What True Sound?

The funny thing is that native speakers need not sound truly “better” to not be called out on their pronunciation quite as much.

Of course, they do speak differently.
A foreign language speaker will probably be recognizably different from any native speaker, and thus stand out.
Native speakers, though… just go from Harlem to the Hamptons, from one social class to another, and people will sound different. Put a British speaker together with an Aussie and an American, and even if they all spoke “proper” English, it would be considerably different – not to even begin to think about an Indian or Nigerian who may have grown up with English as (one) first language but will sound rather different again. Wrong, even – unless, of course, you realize the context.

Where racism is strongly discouraged, linguistic discrimination is just normal, though.

“Just learn to speak properly.” There’s a difference between the two, of course, since you can learn better pronunciation and you may simply not be understandable if you get things wrong. There’s also a level where it becomes ridiculously stupid to discourage or get discouraged because of pronunciation differences, though – and we find that view, too.

After all, just go somewhere another language is spoken, see what the difference is between you only speaking your own first language and trying to find someone who speaks that, or you being there and speaking the language spoken there, even if somewhat badly…

Culturally Intelligent Language Attitudes

It’s just one of those (many) ways in which the world doesn’t necessarily subscribe to our desires – but to know more, live better, not get mired in stupidity (worst of all, the stupidity of our own resistance to doing things so we learn and live better), we’ll just have to deal with it and go on anyways…

Still, with languages, the contradictory attitude is quite perplexing, as well as problematic. You don’t sound like a native – whatever that would really sound like, given all its diversity – you are standing apart. At the same time, at least you speak the language, and if it is fluent and correct enough, it’s all well. Except when it’s not.

Cultural intelligence, in this context, seems to be something that arises best only when both parties in a communicative situation know the trouble with learning another language and thus agree to overlook the “barbaric” sound of an other in favor of communication.
For one person, one language learner, alone, there’s just one way to be culturally intelligent about it: give it your best, but don’t get concerned about a perfection that doesn’t really exist.

Funny thing in this context, to harken back to the online, paragon, language-learners:
They typically don’t even learn too much of the writing, just of the speaking. They typically define fluency not the way it’s officially done, but simply as being able to participate in a conversation over a longer time without totally lacking in words or understanding.
The pronunciation? Typically, obviously imperfect – but who cares when you managed to get to decent-enough conversations in a new language in three months, and it’s the tenth language you’ve tackled?

Of course, it won’t help me with my pronunciation-for-teachers course. That, too, has a funny side to it, though: there are so many teachers and teacher-training students who should have taken that course, but still don’t all sound “like a native” – and often enough, make enough other mistakes as well. It seems to be the very focus on perfection, which they then also transmit to their students, which keeps them from simply communicating as well – and typically, understandable – as they could, all for the self-consciousness caused by the constant nagging thought about their imperfect grasp of the language.

No native speaker has the perfect grasp of all of their language. That’s why we can tell what region of our own language area someone comes from and what social group they may belong to, and that’s the reason why children learn their first language for the longest time at school (and may still have more to learn if they go on to study a particular discipline and all its vocabulary and phraseology at university).

So, learn, communicate, make yourself uncomfortable – and get at home in this imperfect world, imperfect as you are. Just speak.

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