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April 20, 2005 - Pronunciation of North American English - 2005-04-19

AA: I'm Avi Arditti; Rosanne Skirble is away. This week on Wordmaster: pronunciation the North American way. Our guest is Colleen Meyers. She teaches English to international teaching assistants at the University of Minnesota. She's also a co-author of a program for non-native English speakers called "Pronunciation for Success."

And success in pronunciation, Colleen Meyers says, includes learning how North Americans position their mouth when they speak.

COLLEEN MEYERS: "It sounds silly, but one technique that I have my students do is to take a pen or a pencil and put it in their mouth, so that they need to hold the pen or pencil between their teeth, and then to speak English. And this will open up their jaw just enough to help them be more understandable to people from Canada or the United States."

AA: "Right, you're holding a pen in your hand, and so when you talk about putting it in your mouth, obviously you mean putting it in lengthwise --

COLLEEN MEYERS: "Right. When you're talking, it forces you to keep your jaw open. And also it forces you to use your lips more actively. So, for instance, some speakers of other languages don't use as much lip movement as we do. So, for instance, Koreans tend to move their lips very little. And so, as a result, their sounds maybe aren't as clear as they need to be for speakers of North American English.

"And also there's just the whole way that they're perceived in terms of somebody looking at them. We have a saying in English: 'Read my lips.' So sometimes you can say something, and the person doesn't even need to hear what you're saying, but they can just look at the movement of your mouth and they can understand what you're getting at."

AA: "Recently we received a question from a young woman in Iran. She's curious how she can go about learning pronunciation, and one of the things she asked is should she look at herself in the mirror?"

COLLEEN MEYERS: "I think that that's a great idea, to use the mirror. In fact, with the students that I work with, we pull out the mirrors right away, because using a mirror is one of the ways in which non-native speakers of English can really get the sense of whether or not they're speaking like people from North America. So you could look at somebody in a movie and see the way that they're moving their jaw, and how they're moving their lips, and then try to imitate that by using a mirror.

"Another thing that I've heard, and that I sometimes tell my students to do, is to smile when they're speaking English. Because smiling -- when you smile, you're happy, and that can sometimes help with the music of English. So, for instance, if I pick up the phone and don't smile, then I might say something like 'hello' [flat tone]. But if I'm smiling, I would more likely say something like 'HEH-low.' And so to a North American listener, I sound like I'm much happier, and sound like I'm much more interested in talking to them."

AA: "Now you've talked about using movies as a way to see how actors and actresses move their mouths when they're speaking English. Are there any other ways that people can, let's say at home or in school, improve their pronunciation?"

COLLEEN MEYERS: "Well, some other ways that they might be able to do that would be, for instance, if they have access to American music. Of course, it depends on the music. You don't want to choose something that you have a hard time understanding. But some examples of music that I use with my students are, for instance, the theme from the movie 'Titanic,' by Celine Dion. In fact, a lot of people don't realize it, but Celine Dion is a non-native speaker of English herself."

AA: "She's French Canadian."

COLLEEN MEYERS: "Right, she's French Canadian. And the song that she sings in that movie is excellent, because she sings it slowly, she articulates very clearly, and not only that, but for a lot of students, they don't mind singing it over and over and over again."

MUSIC: "My Heart Will Go On"

AA: Colleen Meyers teaches English in the international teaching assistant program at the University of Minnesota. And she's one of the co-authors of a multimedia program called "Pronunciation for Success," from Aspen Productions.

That's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and our segments are online at I'm Avi Arditti.