Fatal Phonemes and Emphasis Disasters

The ability to imitate an accent without making mistakes is rare, even among people who are paid boatloads of money to do it. Only a near-superhuman can avoid falling into sticky phoneme and stress traps unique to their linguistic background. For some language-nerd schadenfreude, here are a few recent endearing slip-ups I’ve come across while trashy tv-watching (mostly native anglophones trying to evoke a different type of native anglophone but instead sounding like they’re an alien or maybe having some kind of neurological crisis):

  • The Mentalist– Cute-as-a-button Simon Baker is the only redeeming thing about this show, which is entertainment cotton candy (overly sweet, messy, lacking in substance). He does an OK job masking his Australian accent most of the time but has trouble with certain sounds and stress placement…and sometimes he goes totally off the rails and the show might as well take place in Melbourne. For a quick taste, listen to the sentence starting with “personally” and ending with “our Lisbon” in this clip. If you ever find yourself drunk-watching this show, try to pay attention to his vowels.
  • SNL with Martin Freeman– Freeman is an incredibly talented actor, and his American accent is usually solid enough. He doesn’t tend to chew on his r’s or talk through his nose too much, like most British actors do when they go American (see: Hugh Dancy, Liam Neeson). Still, he got a little tripped up in this sketch from SNL a few weeks ago, when he mis-pronounced “lever” and quickly corrected himself. Note how he also chickened out of pronouncing the “ow” in “yellow.” To be fair, reading off a teleprompter after rehearsing this maybe three times tops can’t have made this any easier.
  • In an NPR interview, Hugh Laurie, King of Fake America (he’s a little grinding and nasal but phonetically he’s completely and unbelievably air-tight) revealed the word he most dreads saying in his adopted accent: New York. Side note: another Brit doing an admirably air-tight American accent is Damian Lewis of Homeland, who doesn’t fall into stress pattern traps.
  • Poor Marion Cotillard’s English is great here, but although her accent is charming and easy to understand, one of the pesky vowels in the word “focusing” makes her unintentionally obscene and Craig Ferguson runs with it.
  • Though I suppose this could happen to anyone, you’d be hard-pressed to find a real American who’d use the stress pattern Kate Winslet does when she says “I’ve seen you, man” in this clip from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
  • I’m from the Boston area, which is famous for a ridiculous accent that Hollywood consistently fails to reproduce. Very few get it right, and the attempts are cringe-worthy. One of the worst examples comes from Academy Award-nominated Laura Linney. All I can say is, it’s a good thing her role involved little more than two minutes worth of creepy whispered monologue. It makes me want to jump in the Chahles.
  • Here are a bunch more someone else picked out that are so embarrassing I can actually feel my soul shriveling up while I watch them.

Imitating an accent is obviously an even taller order when it’s not your native language. My own accent when I speak French elicits some level of confusion or curiosity from almost every stranger I interact with, sometimes inspiring such comments as “your accent is charmant (charming)” or the very helpful, “I can’t understand you, at all.” The French seem either uncomfortable or overly excited to hear their language spoken with an accent.

I always reassure my students that it’s fine to have an accent, that EVERYBODY has an accent, and that their goal shouldn’t be to “get rid of their accents” because this can result in total paralysis. I tell them that what matters is making themselves understood and adjusting their pronunciation when it’s going to affect meaning (for example, with minimal pairs like the vowels in “sheep” and “ship”). If their English is correct, many (but obviously not all, the world’s full of a-holes) people will simply find their accents interesting.

One of my favorite ESL classroom activities is to come up with specialized scripts targeting sound-specific traps for students to read out loud. Pronunciation contests can also be a big hit. I once had a small group of students from two very different linguistic backgrounds– half the class consisted of native Arabic speakers, and the rest were native Spanish speakers– so games like this turned into a battle of the phonemes, the Spanish speakers sweating over their j’s and the Arabic speakers roaring with laughter over the word “architect,” which I’d never expected them to have trouble with but which proved to be this particular group’s pronunciation Everest. It’s best to introduce these types of activities after the class has been together for a while, because then the students will be less self-conscious around each other and have more fun with it. Confidence goes a long way when speaking another language; shedding some of the self-consciousness allows students to really practice unfamiliar sound combinations and form them more naturally.

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