Believe it or not, when I’m not travelling or sunbathing I’m actually working here in Spain as an English language assistant. Last week I helped in a class based on pronunciation. The teacher rightly told the students that they can get by in England with a Spanish accent but they need to pronounce words more or less correctly in order to be understood. In English there are so many words that sound similar but can give completely different meanings so it’s important that the difference can be heard. There’s a ridiculous amount of these words if you think about it and for those learning English these words sound mostly identical, causing all kinds of confusion. For example, bird, beer, bar and bear all sound the same to many Spanish students. English is a lot tougher than we realize.
So my job for the day was chief enunciator (or something), I had to read out lists of subtly different words and the students had to repeat after me. So there I was slowly repeating perk, park, peak, pick, peck and puck doing my best to emphasize the difference in sound. The students struggled so much with differentiating between park and puck so I repeated them with excessive emphasis paaaarrrk and puuuuuuck so many times that I sounded like I’d developed a speech impediment. After the 34th time I’m fairly sure the students pretended that they heard a difference between the two, to save hearing my drawn out vowel sounds for a minute longer.
We then moved on to ‘notoriously difficult words for Spanish speakers to pronounce’. This mainly consisted of the ‘sh’ sound in words like procession and a personal favourite, the adjective social. I had to repeat the word so many times that after a while I was struggling with the different ‘s’ sounds as much as the kids. They try to say sho-ssial and after the 50th attempt I was starting to mix up the sounds myself. Disastrous. I’ll probably never be able to say it normally again.
To make matters worse the teacher enforced silence (a rare phenomenon in Spanish schools) so that the students could listen intently to my pronunciation. I felt the responsibility of exemplifying correct pronunciation because I am effectively the only access most of them have to natively spoken English. It didn’t help that the teacher gave a long lecture about how I speak ‘standard’ English because I am from Surrey and it’s important for the students to copy exactly what I say. Under all this pressure I definitely crumbled and some questionable examples of correct English were given.
What I have concluded from this experience is that a) when standing in front of 30 pairs of expectant eyes it becomes difficult to function normally b) English is really very difficult and I am eternally grateful that its my mother tongue and not a language I have to learn.