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Are You Speaking Clearly? The Value of Correct Pronunciation (July 2009 Newsletter)

Cheek-SENT-me-high. I’m not kidding. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the well-known founder of the “flow” theory, which has nothing to do with pronunciation (check him out anyway). His interesting Hungarian name, however, has everything to do with it.

Imagine meeting Mr. Csikszentmihalyi at an event. He introduces himself and hands you a business card. You try to make sense of his name. The way he says it seems to bear no relation to the way it’s spelled. What to do? Keep reading…

The onslaught of communications technology has produced tremendous benefits. It has also taken some things away. We have gotten out of practice and become unconcerned about pronouncing proper nouns. You remember – proper nouns are the names of people, places and things. They are always capitalized.

We have lost an appreciation for pronunciation but communication research on pronunciation’s value is clear. First and foremost, good pronunciation and clear speech facilitates communication. There is plenty of communications scholarship that helps us connect the dots. Studies suggest that good interpersonal communicators are respectful. So it is logical to assume that pronouncing a name or place correctly demonstrates respect. The best communicators make others feel important. Proper pronunciation furthers that goal. Showing you care about people is another worthy objective that is supported by correct pronunciation.

Finally, precise pronunciation makes a person sound intelligent, educated and worldly. Not a small thing in our global economy.

Begin With People’s Names Phonetics and syllable stress (syllable accents) are no longer a formal part of schools’ language arts curricula and haven’t been for years. Fortunately, we do not need formal training to effectively use the principles behind these techniques. The trick is finding sounds that do make sense to your eye and ear, substituting them for the letters and/or combinations of letters in the name and writing it down in a way that helps you to make the correct sounds and stress the correct syllables.

For example, Asian names are often quite difficult for English speakers to make sense of and pronounce. Sounds that are common in English are not in these languages. One big difference is the pronunciation of the R and L sounds. Asian languages contain a sound that is a blend of the two, which is why we never know which sound to use and why native Japanese and other Asian speakers often have difficulty.  We naturally follow English rules of syllable stress, whereas every other language has its own rules

Take these Japanese names:

Incorrect: Nay – OH – ko; More correct:  NOW – ko

Incorrect: tuh – KAH – shee; More correct: TAH – kah – shee

Do enough of these and you will learn that syllable stress in 3-syllable Japanese names falls on the first syllable, not the second as is habit for English speakers. Syllable stress alone is often enough to bring about positive results.

Eastern European names, with their unfamiliar spellings are also tricky. The following are Polish surnames:

Incorrect: Pee-oh-TROW-skee; More correct: Pyo-TRAHV-skee

Incorrect: WEE-zuh-rek; more correct: Via-CHOR-rek

Practice Polish surnames enough and you might deduce that W sounds like V and the CZ combination sounds like CH (as in change).

Or you could take a page from Whoopi Goldberg who has said the only way she gets Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s name right is by thinking of it as “Ahm-a-DINNA-jacket.”

TIP: A website that is hugely helpful is  It contains phonetic spellings and recordings by native speakers of hundreds of names and places from a variety of languages.

Ask For Help

When you’re in the moment and it’s impractical go to a website for aid, the best source of pronunciation help is the person whose name you’re trying to learn. If you don’t get it the first time, don’t hesitate to ask the person to say it again, slowly. Assuming business cards have been exchanged, try to jot down a phonetic pronunciation on the card. I promise you the person will not take offense and may even be honored by your efforts.

Perhaps you have a friend or colleague who can help with pronunciation. Don’t be shy about asking for assistance.

And if the tables are turned and you happen to have a name that is unfamiliar to your listeners — maybe you’re traveling in a non-English speaking country — help your conversation partners by slowing down and giving them some tips on how to pronounce it. You may think Ruth is a simple name, but when I was traveling in the Middle East recently, I always tried to help people with it. In Arabic, the R is rolled and  the TH sound is nonexistent, leaving only the U, which is pronounced differently. This can actually be fun and a great cross-cultural conversation starter.

By the way, don’t worry about your accent; It is unlikely you will ever sound like a native speaker of a language you did not grow up learning. Your efforts, however, will have a subtle, but powerful effect and be handsomely rewarded.

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