Modern Family

The following video is a compilation of some of the many mispronunciations and misuses of English by the character Gloria on the television show Modern Family:

All of her mispronunciations and misuses of English are confusing and frustrating for those communicating with her and are often a source of humor and amusement both for the other characters and for the viewing audience.  The writers of Modern Family wrote the role of Gloria for the actress Sofia Vergara, who is from Colombia, and they and she have captured brilliantly all of the sound-substitutions, placing of stress on the wrong word or syllable, and mixing-up of words, or malapropisms, that are common for many Spanish speakers of English.  They have captured this so well that her performance is almost  a textbook case of the problems facing these speakers.
Sofia Vergara often appears on the Ellen Degeneres show, and one of the major themes of her appearances is Ellen’s delight at Sofia’s many mispronunciations.  In one episode Ellen can’t help repeating Sofia’s mispronunciation of the word “gift” over and over throughout the interview, giving the vowel a long “e” sound instead of the short “i” sound.  Again, this is all in fun, but in real life people usually want to be taken seriously and not be made fun of for the delight and entertainment of others.  On another episode of Ellen’s show Sofia continually mispronounces the New York Giants football team as the New York “Yiants,”replacing the “j” sound with the “y” sound as many Spanish speakers do (3/4/2014).  Once again Ellen and her audience are amused and delighted much as the viewers of Modern Family are. The last thing Sofia Vergara would want to do is change her accent and speak Standard American Speech because she would be out of a job and have to find another line of work.  While these kinds of errors are very appropriate for entertainment purposes, they are not appropriate for a person communicating a serious message in a professional or business situation.  These are the kinds of errors we focus on in our work at the Speech Studio; we make sure that you avoid similar mispronunciations and misuses of the language so that you have great confidence in your communication ability and are taken seriously when you speak.

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Dropping Syllables

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a ya `dun

k’mir fre mint

`mel pya

nome sane

Some of you may understand these phrases because of the rhythm and intonation or because you’ve heard them said this way before.  For those of you who may not have understood, let me translate:

a ya `dun
“How’re you doing?”

k’mir fre mint
“Come here for a minute.”

`mel pya
“May I help you?”

nome sane
“Do you know what I’m saying?”

To be absolutely clear when speaking, we need to pronounce all of the syllables in a word.  Omitting—or dropping—a syllable will make a word or a phrase less clear.  For example,
the word “Mississippi” has four syllables:  [mi se SI pee], but if you omit the second syllable, the word sounds like [mi SI pee]—in other words:  three syllables instead of four.
Here are some examples of words in which some speakers occasionally drop the FIRST syllable:

instead of “away”
Don’t go way (away)!

instead of “because”
He did it cuz (because) he wanted to.

 instead of “excuse”
Scuse me!       Excuse me!

instead of “expensive”
It’s spensive! It’s expensive!

instead of “remember”
member, I tol ya bout that.

Here the first syllable of “about” is omitted as well:   Member I tol ya bout that.  Remember, I told you about that.

instead of “appreciate”
I preciate it.  I appreciate it.

Some speakers drop the third syllable as  well as the first:

I  pre-shate it.
I a-pre-she-ate-it!

In the following words some speakers drop the SECOND syllable:

instead of “pro ba bly”
We’ll probly (probably) be there tomorrow.

instead of “te le phone”
She’s on the tel-phone (telephone).

instead of fi-na-ly
She fine-ly (finally) finished her report.

Here “finely” is another word altogether:   She chopped the parsley very finely.

instead of “re-a-ssured”
They felt re-sured (reassured) by him.

instead of “dif-fi-cul-ty”
They had a lot of dif-culty (difficulty) with this.

instead of “op per tu ni ties”
This presented many op-tun-ties for them.

Here the fourth syllable is dropped along with  the second:
This presented many op-tun-ties  for them.
This presented many opportunities for them.
Co-per-a-tion   instead of “co-wa-per-a-tion”  We need their co-per-a-tion (co-wa -per-a-tion).
When the second syllable is omitted in the previous word, it can be mistaken for “corporation.”  The corporation needs their cooperation.”  Some speakers collapse two syllables into one, as when they pronounce this word as “kwa-pray-tion,” in which the first two syllables as well as the third and fourth syllables are collapsed, or said as one syllable, turning this five syllable word—co-wah-per-RAY-shun—into a three syllable word—kwa-PRAY-tion.
Two syllables are often collapsed (or “klapsed”) into one syllable in the following words:
Quite               instead of “qui-et        It’s very quite (qui-et) in here.
Or:  It’s quite quiet in here.
Claint              instead of “cli-ent”      I’ve prepared these for my clint (cli-ent).
Pleece             instead of “po-lice”     Please call the pleece (po-lice)!
Rill                  instead of “re-al”         He’s buying some ril (re-al) estate.
A speaker may be able to get away with dropping an occasional syllable, but dropping syllables in several words within a sentence will begin to interfere with clarity and perhaps more importantly affect the rhythm of the sentence as well as just sounding plain sloppy and under-articulated.  Read the following story aloud while dropping syllables from many of the words as indicated:
I ‘member a claint of mine had an op-tun-ty to partic-pate in a ‘spensive rill ‘state dill in Pens’vania and wanted to be re-sured that he would have my kwa-pray-tion.  He also had dif-culty with a noisy neighbor and used my tel-phone to call the pleece.  He said  he ‘pre-shated my help and then ‘scused himself; he fine-ly moved ‘way to Tenn-see ‘cause it was quite-er there than here in N’york.
Now read this passage aloud again pronouncing all of the syll-bles, (or rather syl-la-bles) and hear how it sounds this time:
I remember a client of mine had an opportunity to participate in an expensive real estate deal in Pennsylvania and wanted to be reassured that he would have my cooperation.  He also had difficulty with a noisy neighbor and used my telephone to call the police.  He said he appreciated my help and then excused himself; he finally moved away to Tennessee because it was quieter there than here in New York.
Pronouncing all of the syllables makes your speech clearer and more precise presenting an image of a speaker who is detailed, careful, exact, crisp, focused, and on-point—not only in what he or she is saying but in behavior and action as well.
Fine-ly, or rather finally, there are some other words where we can—and often SHOULD—drop a syllable such as “interesting” (in-tres-ting), “omelet” (om-let), “beautifully” (beau-ti-fly), “basically” (ba-sic-ly), and “discovery” (dis-cov-ry).  But this is another story.  So stay tuned for another edition of Inside the Speech Studio.

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Confusion at the Pharmacy

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If you don’t pronounce vowel sounds correctly in English, others may misinterpret what you say, sometimes with amusing results.
A man by the name of Kevin wrote into the Metropolitan Diary Column of the New York Times to describe an experience he had had at a pharmacy.  He looked in their new food section to get something to eat for lunch and picked out some sushi.  As he was paying for it, he asked the woman behind the counter if she had any chopsticks.  Without saying a word, she pointed to a bowl over in the cosmetics section, which Kevin found kind of odd.  But when he went over there and reached into the bowl, he found that it was full of chap sticks.  Kevin wrote that it had never occurred to him before how similar these two words are.
The clerk behind the counter had mistaken “chop sticks” for “chap sticks.”  This is a very common mistake for many foreign speakers of English, who confuse the American short “a” (as in “apple”) with the vowel sound “Ahhh.”    They pronounce the short “a” as “Ah” and also hear it as “Ah.”  This should not be surprising when we realize that the letter “a” is pronounced “Ah” in most other languages (Casa Blanca; Ja). The letter “a” is also pronounced “Ah” in about 50 English words, such as father, drama, wasp, mantra, massage, yacht, and pasta.
Pronouncing the short “a” as Ah can lead to confusion as when a client of mine recently was using i-pod and i-pad interchangeably.  Other pairs of words that may cause confusion are cop/cap (Where’s the cop?  Where’s the cap?), mop/map (Hand me the mop!  Hand me the map!), pocket/packet (Is the packet in your pocket?), Don/Dan (Do you mean Don?  Do you mean Dan?), and volley/valley (They played volley ball in the valley).
To create the /a/ Ah sound as in “cop” and “father,” you need to drop your jaw and lower your entire tongue to its lowest position in the mouth as when one makes an important discovery and says “Ah Ha!”  (You also need to keep your lips relaxed and neutral and make sure they’re not rounded.)
To make the short “a” sound, on the other hand, move your tongue forward and slightly arch the front of the blade of your tongue, which is just behind its tip.  Some people hear this sound as being similar to the sound a sheep makes when it bleets:  “MA-A-A-A!”  (Be sure to keep the BACK of your tongue low in the mouth, or you may get a rather unpleasant palatal sound, which causes some speakers to want to avoid this vowel sound altogether.)
In practicing these two sounds, you can move your tongue back and forward a number of times from Ah to the short “a.”  And then use the vowels in simple pairs of one-syllable words—each repeated several times:  mop/map, mop/map, mop/map; cop/cap, cop/cap, cop/cap, and so on.  And then use the pairs of words in short sentences, as I did before:  Hand me the mop.  Hand me the map—in which the word “hand” also has the short “a” sound.  Cop/cap, cop/cap.  The cop took off his cap.
The position of the tongue is crucial in pronouncing these vowels—as well as ALL vowels—correctly.  If you have trouble making or hearing these or other vowel sounds, you may want to enlist the services of a speech coach.  (After all, that’s what we’re here for.)
When a speaker mispronounces a vowel sound and thereby substitutes another word for the one she intended to use, the grammar and context may make the meaning clear, and the mispronunciation just sounds odd or can be distracting, while at other times the mix-up of vowels creates confusion or genuine misunderstanding, as it did in the incident at the pharmacy with the chop sticks and chap sticks.
And then there is the matter of whether the country Iraq should be pronounced with the short “a” (ear-Rack) or with the Ah vowel (ear-Rock) and whether Iran should be pronounced (ear-Ran) or (ear-Ron), and (PAh ki StAhn) or (Pack uh Stan), (Ahf  gAH ni stAHn) or (Af ghA nuh stAn).  But this is another story.  So stay tuned for another edition of Inside the Speech Studio.

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Speaking too fast

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Do people say you speak too fast? Maybe that’s not the problem after all!
One of the chief complaints I hear from people who come to the Speech Studio is
“Everyone tells me that I speak too fast”
I often say to these people:  “You SHOULD speak fast!”
And the reason for this is that we THINK in images, which occur very fast, and so speech itself is a very slow medium in comparison to the speed at which we think.  Therefore, it’s good to speak fast.  And this is especially true if you’re in New York or if you’re in business where things often happen very fast.
Fast talkers are often told to slow way down and pause often.  But one of the WORST things you can do is to slow down, speak very slowly, and separate each word.  If you do this, you run the risk of sounding very boring—and perhaps not very intelligent.
When a person tells me they speak too fast, I often find that this is the least of their problems and that there are 16 other things that need to be addressed, and chief among these is CLARITY.  In other words when you speak fast, you need to be clear.  And the faster you speak, the clearer you need to be.
We also need to VARY the rate, or speed, at which we speak—now fast—now slow—now fast again—in order to have vocal variety and hold the attention of our listeners.  It is also a good idea to speak more slowly for emphasis and faster for everything else.  For example, if I say “I’m going home,” the words “I’m going” can be said very fast, while the one-syllable word “home” can be drawn out and said slowly because it is emphasized, and it may take longer to say this one-syllable word than the other three syllables combined.
In a much longer sentence we can subordinate an entire dependant clause:
“David and KEVIN, who have known each other since they were in first grade together many years ago, just signed a CONRACT for five million DOLLARS.”   Here, the relative clause “who have known each other since they were in first grade together many years ago” can be said at a very fast rate—especially in comparison to the words Kevin, contract, and dollars.
Finally, it is important to match the overall rate of your speech to your specific thoughts and images. Some things by their very nature are slow while other things occur very fast.  For example, if you were to say:  “Last Sunday afternoon, I was walking along the beach near the ocean, and I could feel the warmth of the sun on my back.  I dug my toes down into the sand and could feel the waves lapping at my ankles,” you may want to speak slowly to luxuriate in the images and sensory impressions and to communicate these to your  listener.
On the other hand, you may want to speak much faster when describing a scene such as this:
“I was at 42nd Street and Madison the other day, when all of a sudden a man came running out of the bank waving a gun in the air.  Two policemen ran out of the bank after him with their guns drawn and chased him down 42nd Street all the way to Fifth Avenue.”
You would speak quickly here because the events happened quickly.  Even a word such as “chased” must be said fast—just like the word “fast” itself must be said fast.
But now—just for the fun of it—let’s see what happens when you reverse the rates at which you speak when describing these two events, speaking very fast in describing the scene at the beach:
“Last Sunday afternoon, I was walking along the beach near the ocean and could feel the warmth of the sun on my back.  I dug my toes down into the sand and could feel the waves lapping at my ankles.” What sort of impression does this make?
And on the other hand, try speaking very, very, very slowly while describing the bank robbery:
“I was at 42nd and Madison the other day, when all of a sudden a man ran out of the bank waving a gun in the air.  Two policemen ran out of the bank after him with their guns drawn and chased him down 42nd Street all the way to Fifth Avenue.”
As Shakespeare said: “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  And “action”  includes not only gestures but also the rate at which you speak.  So speak as fast as you want to but always remember to be extremely CLEAR when you speak.  And that’s another story.
So stay tuned for another edition of Inside the Speech Studio.

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Native English speakers mispronounce words, too

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It isn’t just foreign speakers of English who mispronounce words. Native speakers often do, too.
When my son Benjamin was about 13 years old, he was talking to me one day and suddenly in the middle of what he was saying he says the word  “uh  LIE  us.”  And I said “What?   What was that word?”  And he says again “uh  LIE  us.”  And I said “Spell it for me.”  And he says “ a l i a s,” and I said “Oh, you mean ‘alias.’ [AY lee us]”  And he said “So that’s how you pronounce it.”  He knew what it meant, but at 13 he had never heard it spoken, so he didn’t know how to pronounce it correctly.
At around the same time, I was over at his friend Jordan’s house, and Jordan, who was also a very bright kid (and who is now studying to be a medical doctor) was talking to me, and he suddenly says “per  kuh  PEE  tuh.”  And I said “What was that word?”  And he repeats “per kuh PEE tuh.”  And I’m thinking “what could this mean?  Pita.  Pita bread.  I thought of the sign in the Food Court at Grand Central Station:  EATA PITA, and I thought this might be some kind of sandwich.  (But this didn’t make sense in the context of what he was saying.)  So I said “Spell it for me,” and Jordan says “p e r   c a p i t a.”  And I said “Oh, that’s pronounced per  KAP  uh tuh,” which means “per head or per person” as in “the per capita income in the United States has risen this year.”  Like Benjamin he knew what the word meant but had never heard it pronounced.
Both of these kids were native speakers of English; they were very bright; they knew the meaning of the words and how to use them.  But at 13 they simply had not had the opportunity to hear the words pronounced.
My wife told me that when she was a young software engineer, she was sitting in her cubicle at work and heard one of her co-workers in the next cubicle who was having a big problem with his computer suddenly exclaim “Oh, everything went awry.”  And she thought to herself “Oh, that’s how you say that word,” which is spelled  A W R Y.  Up until that time she had thought it was pronounced  AW  ree—which is not a bad guess since “aw” is usually pronounced AW and “ ry” could be ree.
And a cousin of mine told me that for the longest time he thought the word “pint” was pronounced PINT.  He would say I’m going to buy a pint of milk.  Now this also makes sense from a purely spelling point of view because two consonants following a vowel letter make that vowel short.  And we have a pinto bean, and the car of long ago was called the Pinto.
Now all of these people are native speakers of English and are smart people, but occasionally they mispronounce a word.  And occasionally people on radio and television will mispronounce a word.
Why is this?  It is because English has a low correlation between spelling and pronunciation.  Spanish, for example, is a language that is spelled phonetically.  The pronunciation of any given letter is much more consistent.  The letter “a” is pronounced AH (casa blanca), the letter “e” is pronounce EH (el pero), the letter “i” is pronounced EE (si, si, signoir), and the letter “u” is pronounced OO (luna).  In English on the other hand there are multiple pronunciations for many letters of the alphabet, and conversely there are multiple spellings for many of the sounds of the language.  There are also many anomalies and one-offs.  Why is the word “colonel” pronounced KER nl when there is no letter “r” in the spelling of the word?  Why is the letter “o” in the plural of woman pronounced /I/—women—other than to differentiate the letter “o” in the singular form  from the letter “o” in the plural?  Why is the word “sew” spelled S E W like the beginning of the word sewer?  And I could go on and on and on.  The first section of Spoken Word Power, the compilation of the pronunciation Words of the Day that I’m working on is devoted to words whose spelling looks nothing at all like how the word is pronounced.  In addition to spelling and pronunciation, stress is variable in English.  This means that in any given word there is often no way to tell which syllable should be stressed.  Is it LO cate —  or lo KATE?  Is it Ho tell —  or ho TELL?
When you learn a new word in English, you have to learn the spelling of the word and the definition so that you’re able to recognize the word in print and know its meaning and how it’s used.  This is the same as learning a new word in any language.  But in English you also have to learn and remember the word’s pronunciation as well.  And so, if you haven’t used a word in a while or have not heard it pronounced for a long time, it’s easy to forget how to pronounce it.  This is why even professors, doctors, and other well-educated people with advanced degrees occasionally forget how to pronounce a word.
So if you’re a foreign speaker of English and don’t know how to pronounce certain words, realize that you’re not alone.  Even native speakers of English sometimes don’t know or have forgotten how to pronounce some words.
One of the things we do at the Speech Studio is to help you close this gap between spelling and pronunciation as well as pointing out words that people often mispronounce, and we catch all of the words that you use and may be mispronouncing.  A little knowledge and practice goes a long way in perfecting your pronunciation.
Stay tuned for another edition of Inside the Speech Studio.

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