131. Three Lessons Learnt Outside the Classroom

Originally published in NELTA ELT Forum September 2015 Issue

Hello. This is a short reflection about learning. In it, you’ll find me sharing with you three minor incidents that have significantly shaped my perception about English language and how it should be spoken. These incidents have helped me become more open minded about English language not as the end itself but as a means towards meaning making and understanding. I hope you will feel the same too when you finish reading this.

How to sound American?

Use a lot of “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. Deliberately. Well, this is just a theory that I came up with after watching all sorts of English movies and serials during my teenage days. And, a lot of WWF (wrestling) too.

I started using those expressions a lot while talking with friends. Of course, a lot of talking would be in Nepali but the conversations would be peppered with a range of English words along with “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. I had thought, using these American expressions would make me sound cool and look cool.

Years later, when I started getting interested in public speaking and presentations, only then did I realize that using umm.. after every five words or so kinda disrupts you know the flow of communication. It dawned on me that using these ‘filler words’, only made me look ridiculously arrogant and literally ‘full of air’. If you were my friend back then, you’d probably mumble: what a poser!

It took me some time to stop using those filler words deliberately. Now, when they force themselves out of my mouth – which happens rarely these days – I am not trying to sound American anymore. It’s a cold realization for me but I imagine, what if filler words did make me sound American. Nope. That would be too convenient.

Funny ENGLISH accent! (Nepali movie)

Those of us – so called urbanites who studied in private boarding schools in Kathmandu – we have a general perception of what is good English and what is poor or ‘funny’ English. This attitude is pervasive, especially among the youth who are exposed to American or British form of English through movies and now through the internet.

Here’s one instance. This is a short clip of a Nepali movie uploaded on youtube.com. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axGCz_7abcA

01

It’s a scene from the movie where the two characters are having a very heated dispute during which they are switching from Nepali to English frequently.

Girl: Now you shut up.
Boy: You shut up. Your daddy is not human. He is bloody bastard and gangster. He wants me to kill you.
Girl: It is impossible.
Boy: It is possible.
Girl: Relax, relax, relax.

I want to be honest with you. I almost laughed myself to semi-death when I watched this clip for the first time. Even a bum in the street can speak better English than that – I had yelled. And I was not alone. Just go ahead and read the comments posted below the video, you will find examples of people making fun of these two actors’ English. The comments show how people in general assume that an English graduate should have ‘proper’ English pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have that, you’d better prepare your soul for heavy criticism and mockery.

02

Yes. I laughed at them and made a joke about them. I even posted the video link on my facebook wall trying to collect more derision and gloat over the comments.

Thinking about it, I’m a little embarrassed that I acted such a snob.

Adrian Underhill’s Pronunciation Masterclass

Adrian Underhill is an icon in the ELT communities all over the world. Since I joined, M.Ed. ELT, I’ve been religiously following his blog and youtube videos. And naturally, meeting him in person was a big thrill for me. I felt really lucky to have attended his workshop during my recent participation of IATEFL Conference 2015. The workshop was on pronunciation and how to use his Interactive Phonemic Chart. After explaining to the attendees how to trace vowels, diphthong, consonants and other sounds through his chart, the lanky ELT legend asked us for a demonstration.

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There was my turn and he asked me to tap with a stick through the phonetic symbols for the word “morning”. I was supposed to tap through m – ɔː – n – ɪ – ŋ but I tapped m – ɔ – r – n – ɪ – ŋ.

One of the attendees was quick to correct me, telling me that there’s no r sound in the word “morning”. Then came the divine intervention. With a broad smile in his unshaven face, he said, “If he hears the r sound in his head, then of course the sound is in the word”. I smiled back to him and everyone must have seen how victorious I had felt at that moment.

That statement alone was enough to destroy so many prevailing myths about proper pronunciation and how English should sound like.

Connecting the dots

There’s a proverb in Nepali, which goes like this: naya jogi le dherai kharani dhascha. A new beggar scrubs more ash on his face. Everyone has to go through the ‘new beggar’ phase but mine was filled with an embarrassing yet a very humbling one. From trying to imitate Americans, to mocking Nepali English accent and to learning from one of the best – I believe I have started to understand subtle nuances of English language and English language teaching. The ELT program of M.Ed was definitely the key turning point in my phase. The program helped me develop myself professionally, socially and more so, personally.

I believe that I don’t need ash on my face anymore.