Pronunciation is King

Posted on 21. Jul, 2014 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic

The above comic is one of the very few I’ve done (along with the one from my previous entry) which is taken verbatim from personal experience. In 2008, I was on the island of Muuido, off the coast of South Korea, in a little restaurant on the beach. It was apparently off-season, as there was nary a soul in sight apart from myself and my travel companions. I was far enough off the beaten track that the waitress (also the eatery’s proprietress and cook) didn’t speak a word of English. I, of course, didn’t speak a word of Korean. But I wanted to try. The rest played out exactly as it does in the strip – after consulting my dictionary, I said “rice” and “fish” and received two bowls of cold noodle soup. They were delicious, but contained no perceivable trace of either rice or fish.

I’ve since made South Korean friends who read the strip above and don’t get it. By all rights I should have received fish and rice! I said the words, after all. And it’s not like a Korean restaurant on a Pacific island would be out of fish and rice, right? The only conclusion I can draw from my adventure is that my pronunciation was off. Way off.

And when it comes to speaking languages, pronunciation is king.

My wife is Italian. She speaks excellent English – she’s fluent. She wasn’t when we first met, but after five years with someone, you pick it up pretty quickly (ProTip: want to learn a language? Date a native speaker with poor skills in your native language!). She can even understand the molasses drawl of the cowboys that live out by my dad’s place in rural New Mexico. She has trouble understanding the British, but who doesn’t? The only snag is that occasionally she’ll pronounce words with a strong Italian inflection. You would think we’d get what she’s trying to say, but we’re used to hearing words the way we’re used to hearing them. She often has to repeat a word like “transparent” several times before the listener gets it. It can be discouraging at times. How good can your language skills be if people can’t understand a simple word?

We lived in Lyon, France for exactly one year. I arrived knowing exactly zero French, and felt that after one year I was more or less conversational. I was no longer paralyzed by the fear that I would be ostracized as a dirty foreigner, as detailed in my very first post here.

On the morning of our departure, leaving Lyon for good, I walked into a boulangerie to order up some baguettes for the long train ride to Venice. Here’s how the conversation went.

Me: Deux baguettes, s’il vous plaît. (Two baguettes, please)
Boulangère: Pardon?
Me: …deux baguettes, s’il vous plaît. Deux baguettes.
Boulangère: J’ai pas compris. Quoi? (I don’t understand. What?)
Me: (Making exaggerated sign language for “baguette” and holding up two fingers) Baguettes! Baguettes! Deux BAGUETTES!
Boulangère: Ah! Baguettes!
Me: Voilà! Baguettes!
Boulangère: Combien de baguettes alors? (How many baguettes?)
Me: (Slapping my forehead) Oh, mon Dieu! (Good grief!)

True story. I couldn’t believe that after a year, I couldn’t even make myself understood ordering baguettes. What could be simpler? Surely my French was terrible!

The thing to remember is that while pronunciation may be king, it is not necessarily tied to your language ability.

My father is German. He’s been living in the United States for 27 years, and speaking English for longer than that. He is obviously fluent in English (so fluent that he doesn’t like speaking German with me!), but he still has a German accent. But he doesn’t care! He knows he speaks English, and he doesn’t let a little thing like his pronunciation or accent get in the way. The mother of my childhood friend was Israeli, and always felt that her English was somehow wrong. An accent is a beautiful thing! So what if you have to repeat a few words now and again?

My pronunciation of German words is pretty good. So good, Germans occasionally think I’m German. I’m not quite fluent, and in certain subjects have real difficulty making myself clear, but the pronunciation carries me. People assume my German is much better than it actually is because I can say “Bundesverfassungsgericht” like a local. Conversely, in French, because my accent is so strong, people often assume my French is much worse than it actually is.

Pronunciation is king, but it is not necessarily tied to language ability. So don’t be discouraged! If you’re a natural at pronunciation, don’t get lazy, get better! If your pronunciation sucks, work on it! Your accent is the spice you bring to the table.

Just please, someone, for the love of Mike, tell me how to correctly say “fish and rice” in Korean!

Now let’s hear about your pronunciation troubles. Have any funny stories? Can’t shake that accent? Have you learned to listen to what non-native speakers are trying to say, rather than listening to what they’re literally saying?

Introducing Our New Indonesian Language and Culture Blog

Posted on 16. Jul, 2014 by in Company News, Language Learning

Indonesian Blog_cropped

You know all of those lovely language and culture blogs we run? Well, there’s a new blog in town: the Indonesian language and culture blog! Whether you’re an expat living in Indonesia, a traveler planning a quick trip to the country, or just someone who is curious about the language and culture, our blog is the place for you.

Two fantastic bloggers will be tag-teaming the Indonesian blog: Sasha, our Chinese vlogger extraordinaire who has just returned from a whirlwind trip around Indonesia, and Ani, a native Indonesian (now living in the U.S.) with more than a decade of experience teaching the language. Together, they will be joining forces to bring you language lessons (from beginner level and beyond), travel articles, culture videos, and much more.

If the stunning images of Indonesia shown above aren’t reason enough to head over the Indonesian blog immediately, here are a few fun facts about the Indonesian language and culture to pique your interest:

  • Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands (what?!), covering more square footage than the entire United States. This includes the world’s most populous island—Java.
  • With all that land to cover, it makes sense that Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, with more than 238 million inhabitants.
  • One of those inhabitants was actually the oldest hominid in the world, Pithecanthropus Erectus. Discovered in Indonesia, it dates back to 1.8 million years ago.
  • Another important inhabitant? Indonesia is also home to only living ancient Komodo dragon.
  • The Indonesian language (called Bahasa Indonesian by native speakers) is used in government, education, media, and beyond in Indonesia.
  • The country is home to more than 700 indigenous languages beyond Bahasa Indonesia, so much of the population is bi- or tri-lingual.
  • Indonesia is also home to more than 300 ethnic groups, each with their own rich customs and traditions.
  • Even more diverse than the population is the flora. Indonesia is home to more than 6,000 species of orchids.
  • Religion is really important in Indonesia. All citizens are required to officially subscribe to one of the six recognized religions (even if they don’t actually practice one of them).
  • 18% of the world’s coral reefs lie in Indonesia waters, and it also boasts the world’s largest mangrove.

Not convinced yet? Then you’re insatiable, because Indonesia is beyond awesome, and you’ll just have to miss out. For the rest of you curious language and culture lovers, be sure to check out the Indonesian blog for regular updates!

Japanese Wins the 2014 World Cup of Languages

Posted on 14. Jul, 2014 by in Events, Language Learning

The day we’ve all be waiting for has come, and I have to say I’m a little sad it’s here. It’s been a pleasure to play along with you all, and I hope you’ve had fun learning a new language during our 2014 World Cup of Languages! You all deserve a pat on the back for your effort, and I hope you’ll continue learning and exploring your language(s) of interest!

But enough with the sentimental stuff. Ladies and gents, we have a winner. With an impressive win of 2,832 points to 1,170, Japanese has defeated Italian! Totaling more than 325 total hours learned throughout the entire competition, Japanese was among the top contenders all along, and didn’t let us down for a second in the finals. I think we can all agree that they deserved the win.


Congratulations, Japanese learners and fans! We randomly selected a winner among the pool of entrants who selected Japanese as their winning language, and Tim Groth is the lucky winner of a free 6-month subscription to Transparent Language Online and a free Transparent Connect tutoring session! Tim, you will be contacted by e-mail shortly with the details. To the rest of you, be sure to check your inboxes later today for a little surprise, as my way of saying thanks for playing along! Until next time: happy language learning!