How to pronounce the letter ‘w’

The greying bespectacled chap, probably in his 50s, is conducting the survey on behalf of the government and towards the end of the tedious session, asks to confirm my name.

‘The surname is…?’

‘Chew. See-Aitch-Eee-Double U.’

He writes, ‘Cheuu’.

“Er sorry, it is not two ‘u’s. It is one ‘w’.”

The muppet scratches his head. “Yah? Double ‘u’s right? Two ‘u’s.”

I am beginning to doubt his intelligence. “No. I said ‘w’. Double U.”

“Oh…’dabew’!”

Face-palm.

Improve your toddler’s vocabulary

First, it is more important to instil a passion for reading, and its corollary, the English language; than to ensure that a toddler learns more English words for the sake of his knowing more English words.

Second, it is more important for the parent to speak English that is grammatically sound and phonetically accurate, to his child, every day; than to speak in slang, e.g. Singlish, and to use standard English only during ‘teaching’ sessions. Children learn by imitation and even adults learn a new language more effectively by immersing themselves in a culture or society that uses that language. But if the people around them speak the language poorly, that is what the adult learner will pick up. It is therefore not surprising that Singaporeans in general do not speak, and write, English well. English language teachers in the primary schools are not setting the right ‘linguistic’ example by their poor speech habits.

Third, it is more effective for the parent to insert a ‘difficult’ word every now and then in his conversations with the child than to set a specific session for the learning of new words. I do this often with my children and they will tell me that they do not understand this word or that word and it becomes a teaching moment on the spot.

That said, I am neither discouraging the use of Singlish in my case nor claiming that slang is a sub-standard form of English. No, Singlish is a non-standard variant of English, not sub-standard. It is all right for Singaporeans to speak our unique slang among family members and friends. The problem is, we are also parents, and we want to teach our children standard English. The best way to do so is to avoid using non-standard forms in the home at all times. Children will have their classmates with whom to get acquainted with their local slang.

English pronunciation

When I was a schoolboy in the 1980s, emphases were made during English lessons on learning the spellings of words by heart and applying the parts of speech in grammar exercises and writing compositions.

One crucial aspect was left out: accurate pronunciation. It resulted in an entire generation of Singaporeans who could read English and possibly write it well enough to be understood but who could not speak it.

Time and again, I have encountered Singaporeans who pronounce their words with stresses on the wrong syllables. Many continue to speak English in the same way they speak the other three official languages of Singapore; syllable-timed, i.e. in staccato-fashion.

English is a stress-timed language and many of our intelligibility problems, especially when communicating with native anglophones, are easily solved if we were to have learnt phonetics.

I cringe every time I speak to my children’s English language teachers. Many of them do not and probably cannot pronounce their words accurately.

It is a shame on the part of our education system that I have to correct my children’s mispronunciations regularly.

Englishes

Spoken language is important as well as written. I keep trying to remember diction. One of the reasons we love a good British accent is that words are actually pronounced correctly.

– anonymous from the US

It is not the British who have the accents – it is the US, Canada, and other English speaking countries. It is always the country of origin which has the purest form of a language. All others are changed and influence through the integration of other nationalities and original languages.

– anonymous from the US

First, I assume that you are refering to Received Pronunciation (RP) by your using the phrase ‘good British accent’ because there are numerous English accents in Great Britain and the majority of them exist in England alone, excluding Scotland and Wales.

Second, by what standard can one judge whether a particular pronunciation is ‘correct’ or not? The ‘standard’ English accent of Shakespeare’s time sounds far removed from RP.

General American (AmE), however, has retained elements of an older British standard, such as rhoticity and the short vowels, which the English had discarded between the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Third, I have noticed how people in the US tend to pronounce English words by their every syllable whereas RP Speakers or those who have inherited the British system, during the days of Empire, do not.

E.g. Americans pronounce every syllable of words like ‘contemporary’ and ‘library’ whereas RP speakers tend to gloss over some bits.

Fourth, Standard US English in some sense is more phonetic — words are spelt the way they are pronounced — than Standard British English (BrE).

E.g. A word such as ‘route’ is more logically read as ‘r-out’ than ‘root’, which is precisely what Americans do compared with RP speakers. Why ‘centre’ in BrE when the word is pronounced ‘center’ in the US?

There is no such thing as a ‘gold standard’ of English but many standard Englishes in terms of oral and written: standard British English, General American, standard Australian English, standard Canadian English, standard Indian English, etc.

English as a language may have originated from the United Kingdom but across the world where English took root, it evolved. British English also evolved, and in some respects more so than US English.

So which is ‘purer’?

Having said that, I am still a stickler for BrE because it is the linguistic norm in which I was brought up and educated.