Phonetic Workout

Have you ever tripped over your own tongue? It sits inside your mouth and swells like a cancerous growth and threatens to spill out on the floor if you dare part your lips. But eventually you’ll speak, and that bulging blood pack will bounce dangerously behind your teeth compromising every sound you make. It’s too big, too fat to exercise. Too many years of sitting back on a fleshy sofa and casually watching your teeth decay under the onslaught of sugary drinks you chug back, instead of actually doing any work. Now it can barely stand up. I bet it doesn’t even have the strength and fitness needed to reach the roof of your mouth anymore right? So when you finally call upon it to help produce a new sound you’ve never attempted before, that fat useless tongue flops about helplessly like a beached whale. This is something I have suffered from and now I have forced my tongue into an intense regular workout program, to build its confidence and physical fitness.

As someone who loves languages, I spend much of my time practicing speech as I do screaming into a mirror. That may or not be signs of mental illness, but I discovered for certain that I lack the ability to produce certain sounds. Even with regular training, there are still some phonics that I have yet to master, but in the past my list of infuriating unpronounceable words was far longer. If making my way through that list were a marathon, I’d be the one clutching my stomach in pain behind everyone else.


English Th:
I had fought that there wasn’t any problem. Fankfully, my dad picked up on it and the family all expressed their own feory on why I didn’t naturally make this ’th’ sound. None of it made sense to me although I foroughly tried. I just kept hearing ‘f’ in it’s place. I really didn’t know what they were all talking about. I stood opposite the mirror in the bathroom, frashing my tongue about in my mouf, desperately hoping someone would shout out, ‘you got it!’. In all my lessons I would practice under my breath, whether I was in science, maf, geography and so on. My parents and teachers would instruct me to push my tongue to my teef but I never quite managed to produce the right sound. In the end, on the brink of giving up, I stuck my tongue out completely and spoke. Of course everything I said was jumbled from that but my ’th’ was gloriously perfect as soon as I tried. Every time I spoke I would protrude my tongue and gently bite it in place to prevent it slipping back inside. For weeks I basked in my victory. Until of course I was scolded for leaving my tongue hanging outside of my mouth in an almost permanent fashion. It came as somewhat of a shock to audiences at school ceremonies where I would accept certificates on stage and announce my ‘Thank you!” with a bold tongue and a generous spray of saliva. You’re welcome.


Spanish rr:
Purr like a cat. Do it right now. Do it. Do you feel stupid yet? I certainly did. Why can cats roll their ‘r’s but I can’t? Worse still, I’m half Spanish and half my family is from Spain but I have never once successfully achieved this. It’s not as though I haven’t tried; when your parents shout at you, ‘stop purring Poncho!’, then you know you’re over doing it. I would practice whenever I had a free moment. Under my breath at school, as loud as I could in the park, once even during a church visit. Unfortunately in a church sound carries and I didn’t realise just how loud I was in that silent hall until I heard a priest mutter from the opposite end of the church ‘what on earth is that!? Is that a dying animal?’. I made sure to make a calm and swift exit as the priest made his way back, craning his head across the pews for the creature that just wanted to be put out of it’s misery. You see, my purrs weren’t so much purrs, as they were the grating choke of a drowning car engine. The harder I purred, the louder you could hear my lungs screaming to stop.


French r:
I’m very talented at butchering French pronunciation. Hard as I try to kick it off, my British accent clings on more persistently than the French do to coffee. (If you don’t believe me, conduct an experiment; watch how the average French person’s body will completely shut down as soon as caffeine is removed. I’m convinced the entire country would collapse if coffee supplies disappeared). One particular name I could never say correctly was the French ‘Laura’, which always comes out in the British way. The more I practiced, the more Elodie would yell ‘non!’ back to me with every failed attempt. I dropped the ‘lau’ and focussed entirely on the ‘ra’. Over and over, under constant criticism (including the very helpful line ‘for God’s sake Poncho, just be French!’), I cried out ‘ra’ periodically throughout the week. I realised I needed to be more careful as to where I trained however, after a friend asked me very politely why I was roaring like a dinosaur that morning. Perhaps the French language is more affiliated with the Jurassic era than I had first presumed.


Australian Kylie Minogue:
If you’re not familiar with her, Kylie Minogue is a singer from Australia and was very popular back when I was a teenager. Although I recognised her face at the age of 12, I had no idea what her name was (my musical ignorance was astounding at that age. I had yet to manufacture a soul for myself you see). She came up all over the media and at school though. In P.E during our first high jump lesson, the teacher decided to employ one of her pictures to give us a little more incentive to follow instruction. In order to pull off the high jump effectively you had to crane your head back before hooking your legs over and we all struggled with the movement. It turns out though, if you hang a photo of a beautiful semi-naked Australian singer upside down on the opposing wall, every student suddenly remembers to lean their heads back as they fly over the bar. Soon after the teacher made us swear not to report him for displaying photos like this, proficiency in high jump shockingly soared. But in spite of this, I still hadn’t heard her name before. In the same month, parens were invited to visit the school and we were all asked with starting our careers in advertising; convincing them that we learnt and achieved so much outside of paper-ball tennis. Those parents would decide which school to send their child to the following year, so our teachers were particularly anxious about making a good impression. No mistakes or bad behaviour could be afforded on this day. I was assigned to the English department and I spent the day writing news articles to be reported live by another student. It went well enough until I was asked to reverse rolls. I sat at the desk, white board behind me, and a sea of curious parental faces in front. I tapped my pages against the desk because at that age, I wasn’t yet allergic to clichés. First the weather with plenty of gesturing to the expertly drawn sheep that were supposedly clouds behind me. Next politics, where I showed just the right amount of apathy needed for the recent appalling scandal. But next was the media and I froze. I didn’t know how to pronounce what the student had written down on the page. Kylie Minogue. Having never heard either name, I didn’t have the slightest clue on how to read it. The seconds dragged on and the parents were still staring. I needed to say something, anything to get through this. So I made my best attempt at pronouncing it.


“….And in other news, ‘Killer Manoeuvre’ will be continuing her tour across the United States this weekend, but will be expected in the UK this summer. To her existing fans, you can hear Killer Manoeuvre’s new album ’slow’ on July 5th. Furthermore, after a generous donation to children in need, the charity has expressed its very warm thanks to Killer who has announced her dedication to the cause”


Mandarin (pretty much everything)
Mandarin uses tones in it’s language, meaning everything you say must be carefully said. You could say the same word twice with a different tone and present an entirely different meaning. So in my first Mandarin lesson I concentrated heavily on following the tones. As the teacher demonstrated each tone, she waved her hand in the same direction to help guide us. Up, down, flat and crazy bumpy line. The four quintessential gestures for phonetics. We learnt very basic phrases at first as you’d expect but unfortunately, my success in the course was overshadowed within the first 15 minutes. The very simple ‘my name is’ was just beyond my grasp. The teacher faced me and repeated it, waving her arms in time with the words. I copied. She repeated. I copied. Each time she frowned painfully and shook her head, holding desperately onto that encouraging please-try-again smile that all teachers need. After a dozen times that encouragement shifted ever so slightly when she said “you know what. You got it. Great…”. I’m going to ride that confidence wave all the way to the exam.


By the time that exam did finally arrive, I had prepared a lot in advance to combat this impediment. From a distance I would have appeared to have been a passionate budding composer with how much my arms and head waved about, but in reality I was in a Mandarin trance, focussing on every syllable that escaped my lips. When I walked into the exam, I was determined not to lose track of any tone. As I spoke to the two Chinese ladies in the oral exam, they gradually leaned back in their chairs, but not in the relaxed way I had hoped. Instead I suspect it was more out of survival instinct,  as they prayed that my swinging head wouldn’t crash into them. Unable to perform the tones without physical aid, both my hands and my head flew to the same tone. If it went up, so raised my hand along with my chin. If it went down, so lowered my hand along with my brow. If it did a crazy bumpy line, I would have a stroke.


My voice box and tongue have been at war with me for a long time with their shameless phonetic laziness from my childhood. But with an aggressive stance I got my tongue up to start working and you can too! If your tongue just sits there and watches other languages go by, you can change it. Just like in any reality tv show about promoting exercise, all you need to be is very aggressive and yell to make that tongue move.

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