Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Music of the Spoken Word

"That is how to make a soft-boiled egg. Thank you."

I-kun bows, pleased with his effort and happy to be done with it. The other two students in the room join me in a round of applause, and I heave a sigh. The last three demonstration speeches due among my grade 9 students are now finished without a hitch.

However, being the communicative sort that I tend to be, I just can't let it go at that. I have to ask the three boys, all members of both my home room and the top English grade, if they have any comments.

"It's too hot in this room to give a speech," replies I-kun in English, and the others chuckle. He's truly an interesting character. He's also absolutely right. Some clown (by the name of "Mr. O") has set the room heater on 30 degrees. I didn't notice until just now, which scares me. The English department office is a veritable sweatbox.

Of course, Mr. Ogawa (not to be confused with Mr. O) keeps doing the same thing in the music department office, where I've been spending my spare time lately, so I probably shouldn't complain.

"I was...what...?" attempts Ogawa-kun (Mr. Ogawa's son) in English, but he can't come up with the last word. Then K-kun says, "Nervous," in Japanese, and the others agree.

"It's natural and human to get nervous," I reply in English. "The important thing is, do you use your nervous energy, or do you let it dominate you?" I see squinting eyes, so I repeat it in Japanese.

K-kun and I-kun are both academic types, so they're not sure what I mean. Ogawa-kun, on the other hand, is a musician who, at age 15, already has a fair amount of stage performance time racked up (including that last performance series by the Kashima Philharmonic). He smiles knowingly as I try to paraphrase what I've just said to make it easier for the others to follow. Then I ask if they have any other questions or comments.

The three boys look at each other, and then Ogawa-kun asks for a critique on their pronunciation. The intent looks on the faces of the other two show that they are wondering the same thing. That surprises me. Ogawa-kun is definitely no academic, but the other two boys always struck me as being "test machines", i.e. good at rote memorization and acing exams but shying away from (or even mocking) anything that requires real thought or effort. I guess there's more to them than meets the eye, and that makes me very happy. Actually, their pronunciation during their speeches was quite good. Even impressive.

"However," I add, "speaking strictly and frankly, your pronunciation still sounds too Japanese. I'm talking about your vowel sounds and your intonation." I then go on to spend a good fifteen to twenty minutes demonstrating what I mean.

Vowels can be a tricky thing. Except for a few weird sounds here and there, like the various versions of "r" around the world, weird fricatives like English "th" and the "ch" in German and Hebrew (or Latin "x") and "eclipsed" percussives like the "mb" sound in some African languages, consonants are basically consonants. Sure, you could go on and on about aspiration and what-not, but, basically, you click, hiss, or spit, and you generally get the job done. Vowels? Those can be crazy simply because they are not so clearly defined. Your mouth is open in approximately this manner with your tongue in approximately this position. There is a LOT of gray area. Japanese is about as clear and simple as it gets: five vowels. Yep. Five written, five spoken. A I U E O (read in Latin manner, not Anglicized). However, they don't sound quite the same as English "ah", "ee", "oo", "ay", and "oh", particularly in the monstrous aberration that is American English simply because, as I point out, in American English the mouth is opened much wider, especially inside. It is often said in Europe that Americans talk as if they all have a hot potato in their mouth. I'd say that hits the nail right on the head. Face it; we're a nation of big-mouths, and our pronunciation reflects that. We also have a wider variety of vowels. In my elementary school days, we were taught that each of the five written vowels had a "long" and a "short" sound, meaning ten basic sounds. Once you get into dictionary pronunciation and the international phonetic alphabet, however, you learn that there are a good deal more than that. Even so, we don't come anywhere near the intimidating array of vocal sounds used in the various Chinese and Southeast Asian languages!

You'd think it only natural that a language with a simple sound system would have to rely on other means, such as tonality, to distinguish between words. Actually, the opposite is true. Japanese, with its mere five vowels, also has an extremely simple tonal system: high and low. HA-shi means chopsticks, and ha-SHI means bridge. In proper speech, there is no rising or falling intonation regardless of what is being said. Other than the simple high/low of individual syllables, the language is a virtual monotone (which plays a big role in its unique character...actually quite beautiful, if I dare say so). On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese, a very vowel-oriented language with many sounds, has four basic tonalities: mid, high, low, and falling. Thai, Laotian, Hmong, and Khmer (Cambodian) (among others) have these four plus rising. Each vowel has a specific tonality attached to it, and getting one wrong can completely screw up what you are trying to say.

So, what's the deal with English? We don't have tonalities. Instead, we have stress accents. Those can be hard for foreigners to master, and they can be even harder for us to "unlearn". Perhaps the biggest problem Americans face when trying to learn Japanese (other than the fact that the grammar is all upside down and backwards) is trying not to put stress in it. I mean, when an American asks you, "Is it HI-ro-SHI-ma or hi-RO-shi-ma," you're pretty much screwed, because the question is irrelevant. You could explain that HI and SHI are "high tone" and ro and ma "low tone", but all four syllables are exactly the same length and strength. That's something Americans naturally have a hard time figuring out, which is why, when Japanese mimic Americans, they do it by putting stress accents in their speech. That's ironic, considering the Japanese have as much trouble using stress accents in English as Americans do NOT using stress accents in Japanese.

Then there is rising and falling intonation. That's something I tend to go on and on about in my oral communication lessons. Things Americans take for granted, such as using a rising pitch with every item in a list or series except the last one, which falls (as in the sentence, "I have a Stratocaster, a Telecaster, and an SG"), are quite difficult for non-native speakers to master. I can go over it dozens of times, and the students will still try to read a list with everything falling.

"Think of it this way," I say to the three boys in the oh-so-hot room, "if the pitch falls, it usually means the statement is complete. If it rises, it means it's not. Something has to come next, whether it's the next item on the list or your answer to my question."

I'm greeted with a chorus of "ah"s. Apparently that struck home. We'll see if it lasts till next week.

I then follow with several minutes of impersonations of different dialects. That's always fun simply because it never occurs to most Japanese that English is spoken in different ways in different places (though they do know Ozzie is different from Yank. "I went to the hospital 'to die' [today]" jokes are rife here). Then I realize that I've burned up more time than I intended. After a week of work, I'm still only halfway through preparing the individual sheet music parts for the "DragonQuest IV" symphony, and I need to get busy. The boys seem surprisingly reluctant to go, which both delights and flatters me, but I hustle them and myself out into the freezing hallway. Still, I think it was time well spent.

Yet another day in the life of the Moody Minstrel...and today is Friday the 13th.


  • Um, I, ER, uh, am, er, uh, Speechless!

    By Blogger Pa've, at 7:07 PM  

  • Fricatives? How can you say that without blushing? I went to look it up and came across "voiceless labial-velar fricative". Well! I never. Is this the linguist's version of dirty dancing? You should turn down that thermostat, young man.

    We listen to NHK news in English each morning - not for the news content for sure - and I get a kick out of comparing the announcers' accents - British, West Coast US, East Coast US, etc.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:23 PM  

  • How do you say, "Crikey, that bloke is a shiela!" in Boston English.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 8:23 AM  

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