Recently, while aboard a flight to Geneva, the Swiss captain offered his apologies for the delay in taking off, which he attributed to “seek voke.” I wondered what he meant. Sick folk? Who was sick? After puzzling a while I realised what he had meant to say: “thick fog”.

How much meaning must get lost in pronunciation each day in this world where two thirds of the population converse in English as a second language? My guess is a lot.

The Swiss speaker of English failed to master the short vowel sounds ‘I’ and ‘O’ in English and could not put his teeth into the TH, a difficulty shared by many French native speakers too. Correct vowel sounds and voicing of consonants are only part of the pronunciation puzzle, however. There are three other important areas where meaning can escape: incorrect word stress, inappropriate pitch pattern and monotonous rhythm.

Incorrect word stress poses a major barrier to meaning.  Recently a French professor gave a presentation in which he used the word response three times. He put the emphasis on the first syllable. It should be on the second and last syllable. As a result, it wasn’t until he had repeated this word three times that I grasped what he meant. A few minutes into his presentation, I had adjusted somewhat to his peculiarities and was able to mentally correct his wrong pronunciation of efficacy. He stressed the second syllable – the ‘I’ and not the first. EffEEcacy instead of EFFicacy. The same applied to unprecedented, which he pronounced as unpreCEdented instead of unPREcedented.  Ultimately I was so distracted by this Frenchman’s mispronunciations that I started making a note of them instead of following his story!

With Spanish speakers, meanwhile, it’s often the monotonous rhythm that stops us from listening spellbound. Spanish speakers often have a narrow frequency range in Spanish. When carried over into English and combined with their traditional rhythmic regularity, it has the effect of making audiences tune out. Italians also tend not to adjust adequately to the less regular, stress-based rhythm of English. In addition, they are often more difficult to follow because of their melodious but inappropriate intonation and incorrect word stress.

What can non-native speakers of English do to boost their chances of getting their message across loud and clear? The best option is a course of presenting and language training. Since 1999 Media Wise has specialised in coaching non-native speakers of English. Failing that, they could also do as the French and Italian Prime Ministers Sarkozy and Berlusconi would do: use interpreters!

For more information, contact Emma Robson at emma@mediawise.local.