Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Speech is near the heart

I know this blog is not even about my personal life and I try hard to sound academic when I write. I am not intending to do that today. It's not appropriate to my topic.

Where do I start? Fourth grade, where Richard told me on the playground that despite being born and raised in these United States, I "talked like an Englishman" and so I got angry at him and told him he farted too much?

Or when I moved later that year and Niki and the other mean girls would tease me by telling me to say "New York" and surrounded me with cruel laughter since I couldn't pronounce the letter R when it followed a vowel?

Or the one day I went to the school speech therapist, then folded the practice paper up as tiny as I could and hid it so my parents wouldn't find it and realized I'd had to go to special ed? I had taught myself to read when I was two. People considered me smart. Mom and Dad would get angry at me for not being smart anymore, or so my eleven-year-old mind thought. I was ashamed of myself, of my nonexistent R.

On that paper was the trick I'd searched dictionaries to learn but never found. You touch the tip of your tongue to your hard palate. Once I realized it, the problem disappeared. It's easy to fix this stuff when you're motivated. And eleven.

It's a lot harder later on, even if you're motivated.

My job in India was creating training materials for accent neutralization. I went back to the source, to these simple mechanical tricks that I had myself used to sound "more American" as a child. Tongue goes here. Lips do this. Smile a bit more. No, not that much. When testing these new techniques, I could see the same frustration in the eyes of my trainees that was in my own back in the day. Some nailed it. Others struggled. I realized that now we needed a lot more than mechanics. My training had to be coupled with massive amounts of encouragement and positive reinforcement, as it's hard to be told "you need to speak like this to be understood better." It's hard to hear. Because the way we speak is who we are.

I grew up in an environment where certain patterns of speech were considered "uneducated" and it was not okay to talk like that, and despite Texas, grew up sounding more like NPR than country music. I had a Canadian neighbor I idolized as a child and hearing my voice today, I know some Vancouver crept its way into my voice. Upon returning from India, I was asked on multiple occasions "where I came from" because of my "beautiful accent." I have even been accused of "code-switching" into an Indian accent around second-generation Indians even when I was using what was my regular everyday I'm-not-thinking-about-how-I'm-talking voice. Who knows -- maybe because I am so isolated here and the main person I talk to is my husband, I'm beginning to pick up his speech patterns? I think I pick things up fairly quickly and unconsciously --unless I am told not to-- but my accent has never been Canadian, or Indian, or even pure GenAm. I don't know what it is, but I've made peace with it in the years between self-conscious preteen and now.

Well, at least I think I have, but I am certain that it is one of the things that is holding me back from expressing myself fluently in Bengali. I remember the giggles of my classmates, my own horror at hearing older girls in my French classes in college speak French with American accents, and of course the hesitation and terror of a former "gifted kid" - I can't mess this up. I can't get this wrong or else it proves I'm really not that smart. So my mind stops; I freeze, and I say nothing.

I know a lot about Bengali. I can read and write with little problem. I'm still expanding my vocabulary and trying to solidify grammar, but I'd say I'm at an advanced beginner or beginning-intermediate level. I can wax poetic about the order of the alphabet and how it all makes sense and conjugate verbs and put together simple, grammatically correct sentences if I have the time to write them out. But when it comes to practical usage, I slip back down into the novice level. I tell people I talk like a toddler but I know toddlers who speak better than me.

It feels like math class; I know the equations. I can plug numbers in and get the right answers. But I'm not entirely sure of how those equations are derived, if that matters at all, and you certainly don't want to get in a rocket that I built using those equations.

So I am trying to break through this impasse. I am doing this by trying to speak daily, then recording myself and actually listening to what I recorded. I'm not up to extemporaneous speaking yet, but at least reading from a book and getting the sounds in my ears and mouth seems to be helping. And since I either have no more shame or just a lot of bravado (not sure which), I will share a couple of recordings with you.

This is the last recording from the first book of Sahaj Path, Lesson 1, after a week of recording and listening back.

This is the first recording from Lesson 2. 

You can tell the difference a week of practice makes. (I got frustrated and deleted the first recording of Lesson 1, which is why I didn't post it.) In Lesson 2, I read the story ahead of time so I could understand its meaning, but I didn't with the poem. This recording is the first time I have encountered the poem, and I'm reading the Bengali script.

This is my life, my study, my fears. You should do one thing every day that scares you, they say. So I speak. Maybe one day that won't be scary and I'll have to do something else.


  1. Good Job !!!! This is amazing, and I wish you all the best in this pursuit.

  2. Oh man, I know that feeling of slipping back to beginner when you try to use it.

    My accent is apparently quite generic, as everywhere I've lived, people have thought I was from there (which is only various parts of America). I picked up a little bit of Canada when I lived in Rochester. I picked up a little bit of southern when I lived in Arkansas. It all blends together into something that I thought was pretty unique, but maybe not. At the very least no one seems to be able to place it. They certainly don't believe that I grew up just outside Boston.

    I'd rather sound Scottish, though :D

  3. Loved reading your post.
    "You should do one thing every day that scares you, they say." - Inspiring I must say.
    Till now I am not fluent in English either, whenever I try to describe my thought or idea to my friend (Igor) I always mess up :(
    I admire you and your effort to learn an alien language, though you need not to. Immense love can be only justifiable motivating factor in this case. And surely there is a sign - when you are listening the second voice sample (recording 2) at 2min 32 sec, it goes like this:
    "tara guli niye rati, bati (sound of giggle) jegechhilo sara rati".
    This giggle is the sign, sign for love for what you do.. It reminds me when my cute and adorable niece do read the Sahaj Path and do the exact like you.
    Love and Respect Soumen..

  4. Few things I wanted to mention:
    1. "i butcher your language": Negative!!! I listened the two recordings. My bengali ear did not find much flaw. To me, you are far better than those non-bengali businessmans from Barabajar.

    2. Hopefully you do, though I am going tell you. What you are doing is absolutely perfect, additionally you may read a small portion from Anandabazar Patrika, small portion which is interesting to you.

  5. The giggle was for the typical mistake I just made! rati - bati! I do this all the time! I was a little better today I think. But I'll wait a week or two of doing this, like I did for lesson 1, and then post the final eventually.

    Thank you all for your very kind words! But I know I have a lot more practicing to do. I know I will always have an accent. But as long as I'm understood, that's fine I suppose.

  6. I hate to think of anyone bullying you!


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