Idea for a pronounced improvement

A friend wrote on Facebook:

As a basic sign of respect for Lu Lingzi, the BU student killed in last week's bombing, can the NPR folks at least take five seconds to learn how to pronounce her name correctly?

I've wished before for a class that would teach how to pronounce various languages. The idea is similar to those crash courses for tourists visiting foreign countries, but the focus would be on pronunciation, with vocabulary only as a happy side effect.

It could be done a lot of ways. It could be taught in grade school; it could be an adult education thing; it could be an app or family of apps; it could be a blog or tweet stream or a daily column in the newspaper or a YouTube channel.

It might help to have multiple teachers who specialize in different languages. Teaching could focus on just Romanized forms or, for the ambitious, it could include how to read non-Roman alphabets like Cyrillic and Korean.

I would benefit from such a class. At Thai and Vietnamese restaurants I'm sometimes uncomfortable ordering things from the menu that I'm not sure how to pronounce. One of these days I should put in the effort to learn.

Mandarin romanizes in a pretty straightforward way that I'm sure most people could learn, especially if we set aside the tones. It would help if reporters would pronounce things right, which they could do on a case-by-case basis with just a minute of coaching. For starters, they could pronounce "Beijing" with the "j" in "jingle bells" rather than the "zh" in "Doctor Zhivago".

Come to think of it, I'm not positive I pronounce "Zhivago" correctly.

7 thoughts on “Idea for a pronounced improvement

  1. May I just offer a one word response.

    Yes. [however pronounced like “yesz” since I •really• agree with the sentiments.]

    I have also been known to correct gringos in pronunciation of hispanic names for cities and streets in the southwestern USA for the past couple of decades. I was born and bred in NYC and even Boston-folk tend to exhibit better pronunciation skills when their hispanic community is even smaller (percentage wise).

    I’m willing to forgive on the long-standing debate on how to pronounce “Aguello St.” in San Francisco, but I will not yield in certain other areas.

    Con respeto,
    — Me llamo Pablo

  2. I expanded on your idea a bit on a post made to Facebook right now. No doubt full of typos but I don’t know how to fix it. Since I am a Luddite where it comes to figuring out how to create URLs properly, I’ll just copy and paste the comment in here:

    I don’t care whether you are left-, centrist- or right-wing oriented, or a saneoid or nutjob from any ideology. Can we just agree on one simple thing:

    As a nation, we should be graded with possibly a D+ for our attempts to pronounce not only the names of a lovely young Chinese citizen who died so horribly a week ago, but also the names of her (alleged) attackers who appear to have been Degestani immigrants to this nation?

    Can we at LEAST come together across the aisles and agree that perhaps ANY required four year English curriculum should include a smattering of time spent towards getting the pronunciation / spelling of foreign names and states correct? If not part of the legally required curriculum (which I see might offend the right-wing a bit) then perhaps just occasional “advanced” spelling bees where every word is a foreign name or state which must be spelled correctly by the player AND also also pronounced correctly by the judge or announcer.

    Can we agree on at least this ONE idea, or are we going to continue to be that callous in our posture towards the rest of the planet?

  3. This is generally a good idea and I agree people, especially journalists, should try harder. But let me throw out the idea that it might take a little more than five seconds for a person to learn how to pronounce a foreign language correctly.

    The sounds that make up spoken languages are called phonemes. Linguists have organized all the phonemes of all the known languages of the world into a sort of periodic table. Different languages use different sets of phonemes. (Apologies if you already know all this; I didn't learn any of it until I took a psych class in college.)

    For example: English has both an "L" sound and an "R" sound. Japanese doesn't have either, but does have a sound in between them. Because of this, native Japanese speakers have a hard time with "L" and "R" sounds. When they try to make either sound, it comes out as the in-between sound.

    Here's the crazy part: input and output are affected equally. That is to say, not only is it hard to make sounds that are outside of your native language, it's also hard to perceive them as distinct. The words "rock" and "lock" will actually sound like the same word to a native Japanese speaker.

    My last name is spelled (in Arabic) راغب. People often ask me how to pronounce it correctly. I honestly have no idea what the correct answer is, because the غ represents a sound not in English, which I cannot reproduce, and I'm not sure I really get the difference between غ and خ. And this is my own name!

    So consider that those who are butchering these names may literally be unable to hear the difference, or even if they do, may require a lot of practice before they can get it right.

  4. Excellent points, Ben.

    My original simplistic thought was that there are two cases: one where people invest the effort to get a thorough understanding of a language's pronunciation, and an ad hoc case where an American reporter who hasn't invested this effort gets coached on how to pronounce a person's non-English name. I glossed over the issue of unfamiliar phonemes, but as you point out it can't really be ignored.

    Common practice in the languages I can think of is to bend the pronunciation of foreign words to fit the native set of phonemes. In computer programming terms, it's like lossy conversion from one string encoding to another. For example, in Mandarin what we write as "r" is not really an "r"; it's sort of between an "r" sound and a "zh" sound. But for English-speaking purposes, the "r" sound is close enough, as for example when we say "Renmin University". (By the way, the "Ren" is not pronounced as in "Ren and Stimpy", but as in "Run DMC". It's all so confusing!)

    One "tricky" phoneme in Lu Lingzi's name is the "zi". An American reporter could easily learn that the Mandarin pronunciation is not at all like "zee", but pretty close to "dzuh" or "dzih", like in "pizzicato". That shouldn't take more than a few seconds to learn, as there are no unfamiliar phonemes in that syllable.

    Another tricky phoneme is the "u", which in this case is pronounced in Mandarin like the German "ü". French has this sound too — we mispronounce it all the time when we say "déjà vu" like "day zhah voo". I think it would be okay for an American reporter to perform the same "lossy conversion" and pronounce "Lu" as "Loo". Thus: "Loo Ling Dzuh". And again, I wouldn't expect the reporter to try to get the tones right — that's a whole separate problem from the phonemes.

    In the pronunciation classes that I proposed, it would make sense to teach these acceptable "lossy conversions".

    There's at least one more issue I didn't consider when I wrote this post, which is the wishes of the person whose name we're pronouncing. I don't know how Lu Lingzi preferred to be addressed or how she would introduce herself. I've only read a tiny bit about her and seen a couple of video news clips. She seemed like a very nice young woman, and I can only imagine the heartbreak her family is suffering.

    [Disclaimer: I'm not at all fluent in Chinese, but I don't think I'm too far off here.]

  5. don't forget, however, words like nostalgia, where the accented syllable is the i and so in this case the i IS pronounced separately, while still making the g sound like an English j: nostalj-I-a.Other words with a stressed i in this position are for exampletrattoriafattoriaarmoniapizzeriaand particularly interesting, as it softens the c and is pronounced separately due to the stress being on the i:farmacia (farmach-I-a)I'm sure there are other examples of words ending in -gia and -cia where the i is pronounced separately due to its taking the stress.

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