Whenever I meet someone for the first time and we get to the part where we exchange names, I always follow the same script:
Me: Hi, my name is
Person: Interesting name. How do you spell that?”
Me: Don’t worry about it; it will only confuse you.
Why do I insist on keeping the spelling of my name a secret? Because I learned a long time ago if people see my name before hearing it, they will ALWAYS learn to pronounce it wrong.
Letters are just pictures that people attach sounds to, and there’s no universal law that demands it must sound the way it looks on paper.
Indeed, systems for script and sound (orthographies) vary across different languages. For language learners this can be problematic.
If you learned to read at the age of 6, you will have already reinforced these through reading books, to street signs, to cereal boxes, etc..
This strong reinforcement of script-sound associations will interfere in your learning of a second language.
In fact, in my own experience teaching hundreds of people in different languages with different accents, I’d say that most pronunciation errors comes down to the interference of native language script-sound associations. Here’s what I mean….
The Two Causes of Bad Foreign Language Accent
There are only two reasons why you would not pronounce a foreign word right: either you can’t or you won’t.
If you can’t pronounce a word right, it’s because you lack the motor skills needed to make the sounds of the word.
For example, there is no Spanish ‘r’ in English, so an American who can’t roll his ‘r’ will not be able to pronounce the Spanish word “perro.”
A foreign word like Idahosa, however, is made of only of sounds that also exist in English (ee as in “beet,” dow as is “doubt,” and sah as is “so-ccer.”
In other words, there is no physiological obstacle to pronouncing my name right. Still, I am certain that the majority of people will have heard “Ai-duh-HO-suh” in their head when they read my name (don’t lie- I know you did).
If you see a word before you hear it, you risk developing a poor pronunciation habit that will linger with you for a long time. This is why written words are your worst enemy as a language learner.
People I’ve known for years will still call me “Ai-duh-HO-suh” by accident because they experienced my name for the first time on paper.
The Solution: Foreign Language Illiteracy
Script is visual, concrete, and you can learn and memorize new scripts in the quiet safety of your own room.
But sound is more elusive and to get good at it you have to say things out loud and risk embarrassing yourself in front of others.
So why can’t you just keep learning your second language out of a textbook like I’ve been doing?
No matter how you look at it: language communication is a sound-based activity. There’s no way around this.
The process of learning a second language is a process of learning how to hear and create the sounds. So anything that interferes with this end is counterproductive. In other words, the ideal language learning environment is one that removes all script and relies purely on sound.
Many people I tell this to consider this idea stupid: “How can you learn another language without reading or writing?” To this question I always respond the same: “How did you learn your first language?”
No baby in this history of babies has ever learned to write before speaking. You learned your first language in exactly the same environment that I am encouraging you to learn your second one – one based entirely on sound.
Reading and writing is an important skill, but its always dependent on our ability to listen and speak.
The Compromise: RPT & Mimicry
Despite the evils of written word in second-language instruction, there’s no denying its convenience.
Moreover, it is difficult to determine exactly what someone is saying in another language without having some visual representation to work with.
But we’ve already established that visual representation can be disruptive given the likelihood of native language interference.
This is why I created Rhythmic Phonetic Notation. In the all my course materials, I use a special phonetic respelling that corrects for the native-language interference while minimizing the use of special symbols.
Whenever the sound exists in English and there is an English letter that represents that sound, I use the English script.
For sounds that do not exist in English, I use the symbol from the International Phonetic Alphabet.
Since most foreign language sounds also exist in English, IPA script usage is minimal, so you only have to learn a handful of new symbols.
As for learning to read and write, I urge my students to wait at least until they develop mimicry before learning the language’s orthography.
When you have this ability, it means you have a strong internal concept of all the sounds that make up your target language.
As was the case for you learning your first language, the sound came first, then the script. Reverse the order and risk never quite learning the original sound.
Trust me when I say this: the language learner who is illiterate and fluent is much better off than the one who is literate but terrible at speaking and listening.
The former can learn to read and write, but the latter will hit a ceiling in his speaking and listening early on.
Why I Won’t Change My Name
In case you were wondering why I don’t change the spelling of my name, there is actually a good reason.
In my mother’s tribe in Nigeria, names are actually full sentences with significant meanings. My name, Idahosa, is actually three different words. I – DAHỌ – OSA (Ọ is same as “o” sound in the word “ought”).
Since it is a name, you pronounce it more quickly with the DAHỌ merging with the OSA, hence my respelling: ee-DAO-ssah.
It translates to “I listen (to) God,” which I think is nice. So no disrespect the the great state of Idaho, but I’d really appreciate it if you pronounced my name right. Thanks.