Understanding Polish English Pronunciation: Tips for Interpreters and EFL Teachers

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 »  Articles Overview  »  Language Specific  »  Polish  »  Understanding Polish English Pronunciation: Tips for Interpreters and EFL Teachers

Understanding Polish English Pronunciation: Tips for Interpreters and EFL Teachers

By Maciej Rataj | Published  06/19/2009 | Polish | Recommendation:
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Quicklink: http://arm.proz.com/doc/2461
Maciej Rataj
անգլերենից լեհերեն translator

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Foreigners arriving in Poland for the first time are often confused by the way native speakers of Polish pronounce English. This problem results not only from the fact that Polish phonemes differ markedly from English ones, but also from the limited access to spoken English in Poland. Poland used to be a communist country, where teaching English was often neglected, English textbooks were written by Polish authors and usually devoid of listening comprehension materials and there was no access to radio or television programmes in English. Even today, unlike in Scandinavia or other parts of Europe, English films and television shows are accompanied by voice-over instead of subtitles, the latter prevailing only in cinemas. All this tends to make English speakers in Poland (including fairly proficient ones) sound difficult to understand. This is not to say that all Poles pronounce English badly, but it should be borne in mind that owing to the aforementioned reasons, numerous Poles, in particular those over forty, tend to read and write English better than they speak it.

The greatest pronunciation difficulties Polish speakers of English have can be divided into four categories: vowels, consonants, word stress and intonation. The following list is not exhaustive, but it shows certain areas where problems with understanding Poles may occur.

1. Vowels
1.1. The vowel in 'mat, 'pat' tends to be pronounced [e], hence 'met', 'pet' can be heard. 1.2. All long vowels are made short: 'bard' becomes 'bud' or 'but', 'bird' becomes 'bed' or 'bet', 'caught' becomes 'cot' and food' sounds like 'foot'. 1.3. Long [i:], as in 'beat' and short [i], as in 'bit' are confused, i.e. pronounced like the vowel at the end of the word 'happy'. 1.4. The short vowel in 'duck' and the long one in 'dark' are both pronounced like the short [a] in Polish, Spanish or Latin. 1.5. Schwa is usually pronounced [e], which often changes word stress. 1.6. The diphthong in 'ear' is pronounced [i] and the diphthong in 'pear' is pronounced [e]. Sometimes 'beard' is pronounced the same as 'bird'.

2. Consonants
2.1. The dental fricatives (as in 'that', 'thought') are mispronounced as [d, t] ('dat', 'tought') or [v, f] ('vat', 'fought'). 2.2. The initial consonants in 'show', 'church', 'jaw' and the middle one in 'measure' sound as if harder than in English. This, fortunately, hardly ever impedes communication. 2.3. Many final consonants, especially stops, affricates and fricatives are devoiced before a pause or when the next word starts with a voiceless sound. Thus 'bed' becomes 'bet', 'lab' becomes 'lap' (or 'lep') and 'large' sounds like 'larch'. 2.4. Since in Polish the letter W is pronounced [v], less proficient speakers tend to pronounce 'wet' as 'vet' etc. 2.5. Poles usually speak English which is rhotic (i.e. they pronounce [r] whenever spelled). This makes their speech clear but not infrequently causes them problems when they try to speak British English. Thus some speakers may sometimes pronounce 'court' with an [r] and sometimes make it sound like 'caught'. Besides, many older speakers as well as less advanced ones pronounce fricative [r] (as in Latin, Russian etc.).

3. Word stress
Since in Polish word stress is fairly fixed on the penultimate syllable and the final syllable is stressed only in some loan words, Poles usually stress the penultimate syllable in long words, such as 'development' and words with final-syllable stress, such as 'marine'. Of course, those unable to pronounce the schwa correctly will make such mistakes more often.

4. Intonation
In Polish, large phonetic units, e.g. sentences or utterances, are divided into syllables more clearly than in English, where the rhythmic system prevails. Consequently, the pitch varies only slightly and the intonation sounds monotonous compared to the speech of native speakers of English. Some individuals, e.g. speakers at a conference, may vary their intonation so little that interpreters may have difficulties detecting the most important information and in consequence rendering such speech clearly in another language. One may claim that even proficient Polish speakers of English are often afraid to speak English with clear intonation for fear of exaggerating or sounding pompous.

All things considered, the English of many Poles is indeed very different from native British, American or Australian English. It is to be hoped that having read the aforementioned points, foreigners communicating with Poles in English will be able to understand better what their Polish interlocutors mean and newly arrived teachers will know which areas of phonetics to focus on in teaching EFL to Polish students.

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