Teachers and coaches in the area of speech know that accurate pronunciations can’t be expected when the sounds in question are not being accurately heard. Certainly anyone who aims to speak like a native speaker should also work at hearing like a native hearer. Ear-training is at least as important as mouth-training.
For the learner, the task is asymmetrical. We only have one voice and we only need one accent; but we need to understand a large number of speakers, varying in age and sex, speaking in different styles and different accents.
As a teacher I also find ear-training harder, certainly with foreigners aiming in the direction of native competence (actors, on the other hand, need to transmit more than to receive). This is partly because of the same asymmetry – the range of facts to teach is wider, in fact indefinitely large. But, especially with advanced learners, there’s also the fact that errors of hearing are less apparent than errors of speaking.
Errors of hearing came to my mind recently when I watched a “making-of” documentary featuring interviews with participants in a production of Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Most of the interviewers spoke in English; but as the Lady Macbeth spoke in Italian, which I don’t speak – or, more pertinently, don’t “hear” – I switched on the subtitles. These appeared throughout the entire documentary, so I had what is for me the fairly rare experience of watching English-subtitled English. Rare, and in this case, sobering: as you can see from the picture at the top, the subtitler certainly wasn’t a native speaker.
You may well have your own favourite examples of less than perfect subtitling. My purpose today is not to mock or complain. Rather, this material offers a good opportunity to explore comprehension difficulties, which for the subtitler of the Macbeth documentary certainly extended beyond a shaky grasp of English neither. Some of the mistakes are relatively basic, but others are a good deal more subtle and, in many cases, they provide food for thought and discussion.
Rather than chew over this food here and now, I thought I’d offer the inaccurately subtitled clips as an ear-training quiz for non-natives (link below). I’d be grateful to anyone who’s willing to fill in and submit their own versions – anonymously if you wish, and confidentially of course. I can’t promise to reply individually, especially if I get a lot of submissions, but I will discuss the clips (and any responses) in a further post, say in a week or so.
The interviews offer a range of material and challenges. There are three speakers, all of them well-recorded and speaking in a fairly careful style. Star baritone Thomas Hampson (pictured above), who grew up in Spokane (Am spoˈkæn, Br spəwˈkan), WA, has a General American accent. Director David Pountney has a somewhat posh, conservative British accent. There’s a smaller contribution from Romanian-born costume designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, who speaks excellent (but not native) English. There are very few instances of vocabulary peculiar to the classical/opera world.
In the quiz I show the subtitles along with the audio clips. They may possibly mislead you, but they’re part of the fun. Some of the divergence between the subtitles and the audio is due to paraphrasing, necessary to squeeze rapid speech into just a line or two at the bottom of the screen; but all the examples contain discrepancies which I think represent hearing errors. (If you don’t want to see the subtitles, perhaps you could get somebody else to play the clips and type your answers in for you.) Good luck, and thanks to those who participate.
You can take the quiz here.