I’ve been listening to The Next Big Thing on NPR; today’s episode (which you can hear online) is quite interesting from a linguistic point of view. The title is “Speak for Yourself,” and the site describes it thus:

Conversations with two men for whom conversation is rarely a simple proposition. One’s a well-known nature writer. The other is a young man from rural Pennsylvania. Both have struggled to overcome or make peace with a stutter.

But the segment that I most enjoyed was “Chinatown Blues,” in which radio producer Ken Hom (not the chef) describes growing up in New York’s Chinatown with a mother who dragged him to Chinese opera. (If you listen online, I believe it’s the fourth clip.) What particularly struck me was his description of trying to tell his mother what he’d had for dinner. In his rudimentary Chinese (Toisan, a variety of Cantonese) he tries to say the word for ‘shrimp,’ which is ha. He says it over and over, trying to get the tone right, until finally his mother says “I really have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.” His imitation of his desperate attempts to say the word are hilarious, and should put paid to any idea that people who are Chinese by birth somehow have the magical ability to pronounce tones.


  1. I recently saw, on a segment of Oprah that my wife was watching, where a doctor who grew up with stuttering problems, himself, has invented a device which fits into the ear and corrects all stammering. It seems that most, if not all, people who stutter have such difficulty because they do not hear themself as we do. This solution somehow “tricks” the brain into thinking such is not the case, and the “cure” is almost immediate!….

  2. Tones are difficult. It took me years of study before I even started to hear the difference when corrected. I still have problems. A phonologist ran my voice through a computer that analyzied my tones, and compared it with a native speaker. I was surprised that it wasn’t as bad as I thought. My biggest problem is that the range between my high and low tones is much smaller than a native speaker – but I think I’m affraid to speak that way because it sounds to me like I’m exaggerating. It also makes any mistakes much more noticable! But long ago I learned that if you just speak in full sentences, rather than single words, most people can figure out what you mean even if your pronounciation isn’t perfect.

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