American English Phonetics

Another American English Faculty Project

Let us assume that we know the phonemic composition of all English words and that we know what the allophones of each phoneme are and when they are used. Are we now able to pronounce English like a native speaker? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Speaking is a form of highly automatic behavior, much more complex than is, say, walking, and learning to pronounce a foreign language is not something that can be achieved overnight. It is a long process because pronouncing English must not only be learned, but must also replace another sort of automatic behavior, pronouncing English as if it were Dutch. Because that is of course what we are naturally inclined to do when we are not called upon to try and do otherwise: without being conscious of it we tend to replace the foreign sounds with the Dutch sounds that we think resemble them best. In the worst possible case this means that we would pronounce We are very glad to be here and we hope that our stay here will be beneficial to our community as well as yours as what could be represented as: Wie aar ferrie glête (like bête) toe bie hier ent wie hoop det ouwer stee hier wil bie bennefisjel toe ouwer kommjoenetie es wel es joers. While a GA speaker may well have come to expect this sort of pronunciation from visiting Dutch politicians, he himself would have said: /wɪr ˈvɛri ɡlæd tə ˈbiː hɪr ən wi ˈhoʊp ðət ɑr ˈsteɪ hɪr wəl bi bɛnə ˈfɪʃl tʊ ˈɑr kəmjuːnət̬im əz wɛl əz ˈjʊrz/.

It goes without saying that the substition of the sounds of the native language for those of the foreign language does not stop short at the phonemes, but also applies to rhythm, stress and intonation. Examples here are: unrest mispronounced */ˈʌnrɛst/ instead of /ʌnˈrɛst/ because of onrust; communication mispronounced /ˈkɑːmjəniˈkeɪʃn/ instead of /kəˈmjuːnɪˈkeɪʃŋ/ because of communicatie. Or again, Nice, isn’t it? may be said with a rising intonation instead of a falling one, on the pattern of the rising intonation of Leuk hè? Interference therefore applies to the whole phonology of the language.

As was said in the first chapter, the process is known as interference, more precisely as phonological interference. It accounts for what we commonly call ‘a foreign accent.’ The degree of foreign accent will in the first place depend on how different the phonology of the foreign language is from that of the native language. Dutch learners of English are fairly well off: compared with the sort of differences that may be found between other languages, the phonologies of Dutch and English are reasonably similar. Someone speaking Dutch using only Japanese sound patterns would to all intents and purposes be unintelligible. Yet, many people do not realize how different Dutch English sounds from American English. The trouble is that the Dutchness of our accent does not fully strike us because we listen with Dutch ears, and also because we have been accustomed to hearing English with a Dutch accent from the moment we started learning it. So although we may be reasonably intelligible, our foreign accent may be quite ’thick’, and very different from ‘the real thing,’ i.e. an authentic American accent.

The problems on the production side are paralleled by problems on the perception side: the Dutch speaker will also interpret the English sounds as Dutch sounds. Here again, the problem is really more serious than it appears to be, because the context often suggests the correct word, so that we do not normally have to rely too heavily on our ability to discriminate English sounds as Dutch sounds: even if we really hear banish for vanish – GA /v/ being more like initial Dutch /b/ than like initial Dutch /v/ – we will nevertheless ‘understand’ vanish if that is what the context suggests. It is only when there is no context, as in isolated or nonsense words, that we may notice how badly our perception falls short of that of the native speaker.