Mouthing the words

Tonight in French class, we struggled with some pronunciation. It isn’t natural to ascribe new sounds to familiar letters; we want to make the sounds already in our repertoire. However, it’s not a matter of ability. Our mouths aren’t any different from that of any other human being. We have the capability; we just need to retrain ourselves.

As we talked in class, I flashed back to a German immersion weekend in which I had once participated. The instructor had a gift for coaxing effective pronunciation from people, and I’ll never forget a trick he showed us. Americans frequently struggle with the “ch” sound in German, which presents a real problem since the word for “I” is “ich.” Understandably, it is used often. Many kids were convinced their mouths just wouldn’t make the soft sound, so the instructor told them to read the words he wrote on the board:

see human

After everyone had done it, he began systematically crossing out letters, asking people to read the phrase in the same manner, but truncating the missing letters. He followed with:

ee human

ee hum

ee hu

ee h

When we got to the end of the exercise, sheepish understanding dawned on the students’ faces. We had done it. Not only did our mouths make the right sounds, but we also discovered that the sounds weren’t new ones for our palates. We were already making them in our English conversations. The key was dissociating ourselves from our normal patterns of letter/sound recognition so we could accept new associations.

Beyond learning a foreign language, I think we often limit ourselves by holding tight to what is customary. If we give context to our experiences simply by evaluating them against the familiar, we miss seeing the perspective of others. That’s why we sometimes talk louder when we really need different words–or a different way to say them.

When you’re at an impasse, let loose of what you think you know and come at it from a different angle. I’m sure you’ll find a way.

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