This post sets out to focus on potential communication breakdown due to mother tongue interference when speaking in a foreign language. This is not about perfecting one’s diction, i.e.  the degree of clarity and distinctness of pronunciation in speech or singing, to erase mother tongue traits in our speech, but rather hilarious if not more grave situations that may arise out of mispronunciation of some words in a given context.

Mispronunciation is a major cause of misunderstanding especially when one is speaking in a foreign language and mother tongue interference is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, causes of mispronunciation of foreign words. Context, hand gestures and efforts from the person we are talking to sometimes comes to our aid in speech. In this scenario, the worst that could happen is that we embarrass ourselves or sound pretty hilarious. However, mispronunciation could lead to catastrophic results especially when not face to face in speech. This could occur on phone for example. Whereas misunderstanding in written language mainly occurs due to poor choice of vocabulary or shallow understanding of the foreign language grammar, pronunciation shortcomings may be due to absence of some sounds in our native language.

For instance, let us think of challenges faced by speakers of East Asian languages (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) when pronouncing the “L” sound and “R” sound in English, though with a wide range of variants. Another example could be the absence of the “P” sound in Arabic which leads some speakers of this language to having trouble with the sound and pronouncing it as if it were a “B” sound.

Considering that language is the connection between our thoughts and the sounds we make to put them across, i.e. the phonic expression of our thoughts, there is a communication breakdown whenever we fail to translate our thoughts into appropriate sounds that are unambiguously discernible by the recipient of the message.

In other words, polishing our pronunciation to overcome mother tongue interference when speaking in a foreign language is as important as any other aspects of foreign language learning. At academic level, schools tend to often give priority to grammar. However, even though grammar is the foundation on which language-learning is built, pronunciation is crucial to oral proficiency for an efficient and unambiguous communication.

Pronunciation matters a lot both in informal and formal contexts. Considering the former, let us take the case of someone who can’t pronounce the “L” sound and uses the “R” sound instead (this is the case of many Bantu language speakers in Africa, especially Meru where I was born and grew up). I recently happened to hear a street preacher shout at the top of his voice: “The fear of the rod is the beginning of wisdom”. To someone with some knowledge of the bible, the fact that I suspected the man was a street preacher even though he wore no attire to suggest so and aware of the fact that the people of Meru tend to pronounce the “R” sound instead of the “L” sound, on second thoughts it dawned on me that he actually meant to say that “The fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. However, the former statement also made perfect sense considering that until recently, corporal punishment was the norm both at school and at home. Nevertheless, as hilarious as it may sound, I cannot help imagining how someone not aware that Meru tribe notoriously has difficulties pronouncing the “L” sound, without knowledge of the bible or unaccustomed to street preachers without any religious identification attire could tell what the man actually meant to say. One could easily connect it to the “spare the rod and spoil the child” and the first statement could make perfect sense. Considering professional context (conversations between air traffic controllers and pilots, interpreters and their audience, customer care centres and customers on phone etc.), imagine how much difference a mispronunciation of the following words could make: row vs low, light vs right, lane vs rain, grow vs crow, gross vs cross, collect vs correct, bet vs bed, pitch vs bitch, beach vs peach, arm vs harm, hunger vs anger and so on and so forth.

Talking of hilarious situations arising from mispronunciations due to mother tongue interference, I suggest you watch this video entitled “The Italian man who went to Malta”. It’s a light-hearted shot at Italians and their pronunciation miscues.

Or this other video featuring a comedy scene built around Mispronunciation. In this sketch, from the Pink Panther series, the late Herbert Lom plays the inept French Inspector Clouseau, pronouncing the word “message” with a French accent making the word sound like “massage” leading to a funny misunderstanding with the hotel clerk.

In conclusion, efficient communication in a foreign language, especially oral and when not face to face with the other party, requires limiting the margin of misunderstanding to the uttermost. And correct pronunciation is the first solution to this problem. Building a good foundation is the key to learning and communicating efficiently in a foreign language. However, though sharp grammar skills and wide range of vocabulary are vital to communication, all it takes is mispronouncing one word to jeopardise these efforts, especially in speech.

Hillary Ngaine Kobia,

Coordinatore NLS

We, at Neno Language Services (NLS), provide translation (intellectual/industrial property translations, patent translations, technical translations, instruction leaflets translations, legal translations, medical translations, scientific translations, financial translations, sports translations) and interpreting (simultaneous, consecutive, chuchotage) services in more than 50 language combinations.