Motivation for seeking English Pronunciation coaching can be shaped by professional and personal concerns. Both are important and can work hand-in-hand to improve communication and relationships with colleagues, clients, family and community members.
Like the small business owner who began an English pronunciation coaching program so he could represent his products as he expanded sales into midwest U.S. markets. In addition to achieving these business goals, he had other reasons for improving his speaking skills. His children made him painfully aware that his English pronunciation did not measure up to what they heard on popular children’s shows. So wanting to assure his daughters that he knew how to pronounce the name of the their beloved T.V. friend “Barney the Purple Dinosaur,” mastering English pronunciation to do so became important to him.
First, we addressed his business concerns of speaking about his company and its products to monolingual English-speaking wholesale distributors located outside the South Florida region. Although, he was a willing English speaker with a reasonably good vocabulary, his speech was strewn with phrases literally translated from Spanish to English making ideas difficult to be understood with clarity. We set out to replace these Spanish to English literal translations with easier to understand grammar and usage and in addition the following highlights:
- Learning English usage, grammar and vocabulary for fluent speech
- Using an online dictionary for pronunciation word stress reference
- Correcting the use of grammatical endings: past tense –ed endings and -s endings for plurals and possessives
- Pronouncing consonants and vowels to be better understood
- Using word stress and intonation for greater speech clarity and communicative effect
- Connecting words in spoken English for fluency
- Stressing focus words for meaning and chunking words into thought groups
After meeting for several weeks with a sole focus on business, one day our program took a sharp detour. He confided that his young daughters made fun of him when he said the name of their favorite children’s TV character, “Barney the Purple Dinosaur.”
Barney is a gigantic purple dinosaur who conveys educational messages as well as sings and dances. When “papa” said “Barney the Purple Dinosaur,” his four and six year-olds with worried looks would ask him why he talked the way he did and why he couldn’t say “Barney the Purple Dinosaur.” “Barney” sounded like Bani, “purple” sounded like “pul pe” and “dinosaur” like “dinosaw.”
His challenge was pronouncing vowels called /r/-colored vowels. These sometimes troublesome vowel sounds are classified as vowels but produced as a vowel plus the /r/ sound and pronounced as one sound. They are extremely common in English and are ones that some speakers find difficult to pronounce.
There are three different /r/-colored vowels in Barney the Purple Dinosaur. The key to pronouncing these different vowel sounds is changing the shape of your lips while pronouncing the /r/ sound which is said with a tense, bunched up tongue . The lip shapes required for “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” are using an open mouth for “Barney,” lip pursing for “Purple” and lip rounding for Dinosaur”.
BARNEY “ar” said with an “open mouth”
PURPLE “ur” said with “lip pursing”
DINOSAUR “ur” said with “lip rounding”
More examples of /r/-colored vowels in keywords:
Open mouth pronunciation for “bar, hard, far, market”
Lip pursing pronunciation for “bird, hurt, fur, first.” Lip pursing describes the shape of the lips when you make your lips very tight on the sides like a purse.
Lip rounding pronunciation for “bore, core, door, roar”
If you shift your pronunciation back and forth between “bar, bird, bore,” you’ll be able to feel the different lip shapes that are formed when you pronounce each word. While in session with my students, I have them look at the shape of their lips in a mirror to see if it matches mine. This technique demonstrate how much lip shape matters in pronouncing /r/-colored vowel sounds.
A note for Spanish speakers: be especially careful not to trill your /r/ sound when pronouncing /r/- colored vowels.
Subtle variations exist in the pronunciation of the/ r/-colored vowels. The most important feature is that the sound is pronounced at all and not left off. Words can still be understood despite a variation in pronunciation; there is no “gold standard.” Consider the varieties of English pronunciation in the U.S. Pronunciation is always an approximation and no two people pronounce a word exactly alike. But when sounds are left off or substitutions distort a word beyond recognition, pronunciation coaching and practice will clear things up.
Wanting to pronounce “Barney the Purple Dinosaur” for the uncompromising ears of his two young daughters meant that “papa” cared enough to fluently produce the name of their TV friend and share their love for Barney with them. It also is a typical example of how personal interactions — not just business concerns — can be a motivating factors in wanting to be better understood. The ability to interact successfully and confidently within our communities and within our families is as important to our sense of connectedness with others as improving our bottom line.