- Practicing task. Work hard on the diphthong ‘owe-oo’ as in ‘hotel’. It is a simple sound for non-native speakers to create, and makes a huge difference as it crops up all owe-oo-ver the place. Spanish and Greek speakers usually pronounce this sound as a mono-thong; so ‘hop’ and ‘hope’, ‘pop’ and ‘pope’ end up sounding the same. In reality they are completely different sounding words. The diphthong in howe-oop and powe-oop makes them twice as long as hop and and pop. Common words that use this diphthong: so, no, know, slow, although, over, go, show, photo … and many more.
- Listening task. Discover and embrace our magnificent and mysterious schwaaaaa. English is a dahhh-dee-dahhh-dee-diddledee-dahhhh language (stress timed). Many other languages are ‘syllable timed’ which means each syllable is given the same length of time and emphasis when spoken; Da-di-da-di-dee-dul-di-da. The commonest vowel sound, and the biggest contributor to the rhythm of spoken English, is our schwa. It’s identified in this paragraph by everything in bold. The schwa is an unstressed ‘uh‘ sound. It can only be detected by listening, because as you can see, it doesn‘t have its own spelling. Only when you’ve detected the schwa, recognised our ‘diddly-daah’ rhythm, and properly understood the link between them, only then should you start trying it out for yourself.
- Listening and pra|cticing task. ‘|Uh-|oh’ – the glottal sto|p. This is another anomaly of spoken English for whi|ch there are no clues in the written word. On|ce again, this is about| listening and discovering where it|’s used. (I|’ts identified in this paragraph by ‘|’). The glottal sto|p, described by one of my clien|ts as ‘choking’ (!) is a pin|ching of muscles in the throa|t to cause a comple|te, bu|t momentary cessation of sound and breath. I visualise it as a line of link|ed sausages. The leng|th of the line represen|ts the sentence and the sausage meat is the sound. Ea|ch pin|ch represen|ts what happens to the sound where a glottal sto|p occurs. There is mu|ch to the glottal sto|p that isn|’t covered here, but think of it as an energy force tha|t we use to spring from one sound to another. It|’s like a hiccu|p.
- Practicing task. The ‘the’. The ‘th’ sound is particular to English and comfortably fudged by non-native speakers with ‘ze’ (German, French) ‘de’ (Spanish, Greek, Chinese, Swahili). ‘Th’ is created by breath and/or sound expelled between the teeth and the tongue, where the top end of your tongue is snug against your top teeth. (If it’s tricky, push your lips forward to support your tongue with your bottom lip acting as a hammock.) Once you’ve got the hang of it, practice will make perfect. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re probably on the right track.
- Thinking and visualising task. Your tongue: that valiant little acrobat performing tricks in the smallest, darkest gymnasium in the world. By the age of 3 you effortlessly mastered a foreign language, complete with excellent grammar, an impressive vocabulary and perfect pronunciation: your mother tongue. In order to achieve this, your infant tongue shaped itself around and about your lips, teeth and palate and learned all the tricks necessary to communicate and be understood by the people around you. To speak your best English, your tongue must learn to dance to a completely different tune, and your success will depend on how able you are to listen, visualise and retrain your tongue.
Where have all the diphthongs gone?
Long taaahm passin’
Let it be said, I do not doubt that spoken language evolves over time. But I assumed it would be undetectable, like watching the hour hand on a clock. Perhaps it’s that I live in London; melting pot of people, cultures, races and languages. Or maybe I’m naive about just how long I’ve been around with my ears open (comfortably over half a century – GULP!) But the shocking fact remains, diphthongs are dying out. The biggest casualty is the sound ‘eeeyerrr’, as in ‘here’, ‘year’, ‘fear’. This vowel sound has morphed to a strange, flat ‘hiiiih’ (somewhere between ‘hair’ and ‘heee’). It’s at its most distinct in MLE speakers, but by no means restricted to this group. I hear it up and down the land, in and out of private schools. I even hear it daily on Radio 4 for goodness sake; the bastion of RP (received pronunciation) … or so they think. Are our tongues and jaws getting tired? What’s so tough about travelling from eeeee to aaaayyy, as in ‘create’? And yet Nick Clegg would far rather enthuse about everything he’s ‘crated’ (24 secs in).
I’ve only recently become aware of the glorious irony embedded in the spoken English language. Generally mocked for lacking rhythm, it turns out we English possess one of the most beautifully rhythmic languages on earth. A stress timed language such as ours is not the norm. Think of the even pitter-patter of Spanish and French; both ‘syllable timed languages’ and then reflect on the glorious diddly-dah-dee-diddly-dum-di-doodee-diddly-dum-de-daaaah of our own. Diphthongs are an integral part of this linguistic musicality, and I’m putting my hand up to say “Ih-eeem reeeyerly sad to heeyerrr you goh-ooo”