“Never make fun of someone who mispronounces a word. It means they learned it by reading.” -Anonymous
Ever read this quote? You probably have and if you’re a bibliophile, usually wish everyone else in the world would read it too.
We’ve all been there.
Excited to try out a new word that we learned while reading. Or maybe you learned it and started subconsciously using it in conversation.
Only to get that look of confusion and pity when someone hears you pronounce it wrong. Horribly wrong.
Like saying “ep-it-tohme” instead of “uh-PI-tuh-mee” for the word epitome. Common mistake but makes a big difference when it comes to communication and understanding.
It can be embarrassing and demoralizing especially if the other person sees you making a mistake as a fault, not an attempt to learn.
But what if everyone read frequently and used it as their main means of learning new words? Wouldn’t that level the playing field?
For those of you who speak two or three or more languages, you’re probably very used to this experience. Mispronouncing a word that leads to confusion and embarrassment. It’s hard not to be too hard on yourself. I think multi-lingual people have had a lot more experience with this and therefore are better adept at handling this situation.
So let’s take some second language-learning advice and apply it to those of us who are still learning our first language.
First of all, there are over 170,000 words in the English language. It is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide and this includes different dialects as well. However, only about 400 million are native speakers which means they use English as their first language.
It is impossible for a single person to know the definition and usage of every word in their native tongue, let alone how to pronounce them all.
And English is notorious for having confusing grammar and awkward spellings.
Remember that old elementary school mnemonic “I before E except after C”? Yea that’s a neat trick but there are so many exceptions to this ‘rule’ that it’s basically useless. Neighbor, forfeit, weird….
So how do multi-lingual individuals deal with mispronouncing words?
There are a lot of ways to get over the fear of mispronouncing a word and to recover when you do mispronounce a word.
- Acnowledge that you are afraid to make a mistake; and then understand that that is ok
- Practice with people you know and trust
- Ask for help from trusted friends; they can correct you in real time so you learn
- Smile and be genuine
- Practice with topics and words you are most confortable with first to build confidence
- Move on quickly; most people are too focused on themselves to care much about one of your mistakes
So what do you do when you learn a new word reading?
When I come across a new word while reading, sometimes I skip over it if I can infer the meaning of the sentence or phrase.
Other times, though, the entire understanding of the sentence hinges on the word. Like this sentence from The Invisible Library:
“His top hat was tilted insouciantly to one side, and he was wearing pale grey kid gloves.”- Genevieve Cogman
Any idea what ‘insouciantly’ means? Is his hat tilted stylishly? Or is it about to fall off? Is this character carefree or careless in his dress?
A sentence like this is meaningful when it comes to describing and understanding a new character. In this instance, I would look up the new word in an e-dictionary to find the true definition and probably an example. Then I’d listen to the pronunciation. The crucial point to learning to actually speak a new word. As a native English speaker, a word like this might come naturally enough to pronounce, but you’ve got to admit it’s a weird-looking word that could be pronounced several ways.
One last example to prove that even native speakers mess up words they know the meaning to and have tried to use before: Worcestershire. I dare you to say it now. Not so easy, huh?