Thursday, August 7, 2008

Speech Training: What is "correct" pronunciation?

What is correct pronunciation? I've asked myself this question so many times while designing my programs, and participants in my programs ask it even more.

Yesterday, I received 938LIVE's English@Work e-newsletter (938LIVE is a talk-radio station here in Singapore that supports the "Speak Good English" campaign). They were also asking this question and their answer was "any pronunciation used by careful speakers and recorded in dictionaries, like the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary." At face value, this seems like a pretty decent definition - if you happen to come from the US (lucky me!) or UK; the Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary only covers the most common and acceptable pronunciations for these two countries.

What the dictionary doesn't cover are all of the absolutely acceptable regional variations of the English language. What about Australian English accents? And what about here in Singapore? Is there a Singaporean dictionary that outlines the correct pronunciation for the English spoken here? Adam Brown, David Deterding and Low Ee Ling (among others) have done fantastic research into the Singapore English Dialect, and have recorded many of the pronunciation rules for this variety. Yes, there are "rules" that people generally follow here. Are we to say that since these rules aren't recorded in a formal dictionary, they are "wrong?"

When people ask me what "correct" pronunciation is, I continue to have the same answer: it depends. It depends on where you are in the world, who you are speaking with and where that person comes from. Pronunciation is learned by listening to the people around you. You copy what you hear. So if your teachers pronounced the word success as "sus-sess," that's probably the way you pronounce it. Just as I pronounce the same word as "suk-sess" because that's how people around me pronounced it. Is one better or more "correct" than the other? Not in their relative regions. My American accent is no more correct here in Singapore than the Singaporean accent would be in America.

The current debates about pronunciation arise because our world is becoming increasingly small. When we speak across borders our regional varieties begin to cross and suddenly there are misunderstandings. We all need to work to speak slowly and clearly. We need to articulate our words from start to finish (see my earlier post on word endings), sharpen our consonants and get serious about our speech instead of lazily mumbling through our conversations. It wouldn't hurt to learn some of the differences in vocabulary in different parts of the world too.

What we don't all need to do is adopt an American or British accent. What a boring world that would be to listen to!

Related references:
938LIVE English @ Work newsletter:
Brown, Singapore English in a Nutshell (my personal favorite on SG English)
Low & Brown, English in Singapore: An Introduction
David Deterding, Singapore English

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