Foreign or native


This may seem heretical for a phonetician, but I’ve often thought that it is possible to learn a foreign language too well. When I was a post-graduate student, there was another person around whose first language was not English, but who spoke it as if he’d been at a public school. It was very difficult to like him, until you forced yourself to remember that he was, after all, a foreign learner of the language. His pronunciation was perfect, but other aspects of his behaviour were totally non-British, such as his gestures, and these made him appear arrogant, although he wasn’t. A slight foreign accent – or even a strong one – can fool a native speaker into thinking your control of their language is better than it actually is!

I was reminded of this last week when I watched a TV documentary about Goering. The name of the voiceover artist didn’t appear until the credits rolled at the end of the film, so I spent the whole hour wondering how anybody could think that coup was pronounced /kuːp/. Early on in the film he had said /ˈpentʃənt/ for penchant, and I’d thought, well, maybe there are people who’ve only seen it written, and so treat it like pendant, but then he went on to pronounce anti-semitism as /æntiˈsiːmaɪtɪsm/, and finally indictment as /ɪnˈdɪktmÉ™nt/, by which time I was beginning to suspect he was using English as an additional language – if not, then he was a very ill-educated Brit. His name came up at the end as Martin Heckmann. He has his own website and his accent, right enough, is impeccable, but if he is going to work as an English voiceover, he needs to make sure that he knows how to pronounce every individual word. If he had had a slight German accent, I should have had no problem with these pronunciations – two of the words are borrowed from French, one is an exceptional spelling, even in English, and the fourth, taking off the ending, could, at a pinch, be pronounced as he said it, but as it was, he simply gave the wrong impression of his ability.

In case anyone reading this is in any doubt, the usual pronunciation of these words is /kuː/, /ˈpɑ̃ʃɑ̃/, /æntiˈsemɪtɪsm/ and /ɪnˈdaɪtmənt/.


  1. I think good phoneticians often have this problem. Doc (J. D. O’Connor) used to say his pronunciation of Danish was so good that Danish people assumed he was a Dane and then spoke to him too fast, or too idiomatically, for him to understand. I have this difficulty myself with both German and Welsh. But I couldn’t live with myself if I made pronunciation errors in foreign languages.

  2. John – It’s good to hear from you! By errors do you mean the minutiae of precise vowel quality or consonant place of articulation, or what I’m talking about here? I’ve been taken for a Norwegian, but only when I’ve been speaking to Danes or Swedes (although on a couple of occasions Danes have replied in German when I’ve spoken to them in Norwegian!) Of course, Norwegian is a special case – I’ve always thought there are almost more Norwegian dialects than people to speak them, so people simply assume you are from a valley they’ve never met anyone from before, and that allows you a lot of leeway. And I’m sure that you wouldn’t make the sort of errors that I picked up from Herr Heckmann.

  3. Graham,

    which channel and day was it broadcast on? I’m going to try and watch it on BBC iPlayer if available there.

  4. Petr – The programme was called “Goering’s Secret”, and it was transmitted on the channel called “Yesterday”, so I’m not sure how you would access it. “Yesterday” is part of UKTV.

  5. As an ‘outcast’ I do indeed have a problem watching UKTV 🙁

  6. They might have pronounced penchant that way under influence of the standard US pronunciation, rather than as an analogy to pendant.

  7. tty – You’re quite right, and in fact ‘penchant’ was the first word I noticed, and if it had been the only difference from what we might call standard British English, I would have put it down to idiosyncrasy rather than anything else, and not written about it. After all, we have both ‘pendant’ and ‘trenchant’ with totally anglicized pronunciations, so ‘penchant’ is a bit of an anomaly.

  8. Your remark “I’ve often thought that it is possible to learn a foreign language too well” reminded me of this:
    John Drummond (1934-2006) in his autobiography Tainted by Experience 2000 at p.121 sed
    ‘I found [Paris] unfriendly and most of its inhabitants hostile. Part of this, ironically, was because my French was too good. People seemed irritated by this, as if I was trying to pass myself off as French. ‘Why do you have no accent?’ they would ask me indignantly’.
    Leaves me wondering ‘How`many people.

  9. Jack – Thanks for your confirmation of my thoughts. I’m reminded of the occasion many years ago when we were hosting a dinner party. One of the guests, about ten years older than us, had British nationality, and an English father, but had been brought up at the other side of the world, in a different language environment. Her accent was that of an American native speaker. At the end of the meal, she said that it had been “quite nice”. After our guests had left, we smiled about this, realizing that she intended the word in its “very” sense, as in “That was quite astonishing” rather than its modifying sense of “reasonably”. Had we not been linguists, we could have been ‘quite’ insulted!

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