We Americans (in the United States, that is) are, in my opinion, a little too fond of bad-mouthing people who don’t speak English, don’t speak it well, or speak it but don’t pronounce it like we do . . . the latter of which, given the number of regional accents in the U.S., seems a bit ridiculous. Furthermore, have you ever listened to most English-speaking Americans try to pronounce any other language? It would be humorous were it not pathetic.
I’ve always felt that pronouncing another language correctly is both a sign of respect, and an exercise in emulation. I don’t understand people who can’t learn to pronounce words from a language other than their native tongue. After all, the people who speak that language have no trouble with the pronunciation, and they’re human beings too. We share the same physiology, so what’s the problem?
It seems to me it’s cultural and, with many, culturally chauvinistic. I know, when I was younger I felt a little odd pronouncing Spanish words correctly, as they didn’t quite sound like they were coming from me. I have to admit it took a while before I was able to really pay attention and learn how to properly pronounce words that weren’t native to me. Especially important, and somewhat difficult, was learning how to roll my “Rs” when speaking Spanish.
I taught myself Spanish before I traveled to Cuba with the 6th contingent of the Venceremos Brigade, in the Spring of 1973. I purchased a Spanish/English dictionary and a book called “501 Spanish Verbs Fully Conjugated” and I spent hours every day reading and practicing. I also had a book of short stories written in Spanish with side-by-side English translations.
The rules of grammar were not terribly difficult; they’re def easier than those for the proper use of English. My first discovery was that of patterns in infinitive verbs and their conjugation in the three basic tenses: Past; present; and future. It really made the use of verbs fairly easy once I knew the infinitive. There were some irregularities, but nowhere near the quantity found in my native tongue.
Pronunciation, however, was another story entirely. I came to the conclusion—and believe it to this day—that native speakers will forgive grammatical errors more easily than they forgive errors in pronunciation. Think about it the next time you’re listening to someone speaking English with a foreign accent.
With that in mind, I spent a great deal of time learning how Spanish is pronounced. I practiced continuously. In fact, I distinctly recall sitting on the bus in which we were traveling around the country during the last week of our two-month stay, heading for the western province of Pinar del Rio. The name presents a pronunciation challenge, as the “r” in “Pinar” is pronounced with what is called an “alveolar tap,” where you touch the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The letter generally ends up sounding like the letter “t” or “d” in English pronunciation.
The “R” in “Rio,” however, is rolled (also referred to as “trilled”) as are all “Rs” at the beginning of a word. Double “Rs” are always rolled, regardless of where they occur in a word. I would sit in the bus, staring out at the Cuban countryside, repeating “Pinar del Rio” over and over and over, until I could effortlessly shift from the alveolar tap to the trill without screwing it up.
One problem this created for me was that people for whom Spanish was their native language, upon hearing me speak Spanish, assumed from my meticulous pronunciation that I could speak fluently. I could not. I could carry on a decent conversation, though deep philosophy was not in my repertoire. I can probably still carry on a conversation all these years later, and am quite certain I could blend in to a Spanish speaking area within a couple of weeks.
Bottom line . . . speaking, and pronouncing, another language correctly is both an intelligent thing to do and a sign of respect for those who speak that language as their primary tongue. The human mouth, tongue, and throat are designed to make the sounds that humans make, regardless of where they’re from or how strange their pronunciations may seem to you. It just takes practice and, maybe, a little courage.