Unstable speech

Hi there everyone,

My question has to do with the instability of our speech when we are speaking English.

To set it up: There are days my spoken English just flows...Conversely, there are days when I struggle to find words and the rythm and intonation I use are definitely not at my best level.

I`m very curious (not to say puzzled) about the motives why this instability of speech occurs. Despite the fact one of the main factors might be the exposure to the language (ok - practice makes perfect etc), so why is that this phenomenon is experienced by people who have been living in English speaking countries for quite a while and make use of English on a daily basis?

If anyone could shed some light on this question...I`d love to hear some of your thoughts about it.

Thanks bunches :)
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Avatar do usuário Thomas 14430 7 58 285
I suggest it is just "nerves". As you talk, you pay too much attention to what you are saying, looking for errors or things that you could have said better. And when you hear the mispronunciation of a word, the wrong use of a word, etc., you agonize over it. All this is going on while you are in the middle of a conversation. (You can either play the guitar or you can think about playing the guitar, but you are going to do a bad job if you try to do both at the same time. The same could be said of kissing. LOL) Does that sound familiar?

I bet your English is at its best when you are angry, upset. And that would be because you are expressing yourself and don't give a damn what the other person thinks. Am I right?

We give so much importance to having a minimal accent. I have met many people who speak English without an accent (or with minimal accent), but they simply do not have a good command of the language. A Japanese girl I knew, for example, worked as a bilingual guide at Universal Studios. If you could have heard her, you would have sworn she was American, a native speaker. She could not advance from that position because she could not write even simple sentences in English. Many years ago, I spent time with some children who had learned English in the Philippines. (They were Central American, not Filipinos.) Anyone hearing them would have said they were native speakers. Their pronunciation and accent were perfect. However, they would ask me in Spanish how to say in English very simple, basic words. Many years ago I had an astronomy class in California with a Paulista. He had a terrible, "carregado" accent. However, his command of English grammar and vocabulary was impeccable. His spoken and written English (even when related to science) was as good as, and probably better than, that of any student in the classroom. The common thread to these stories is, of course, that I believe "good English" is not simple to define. A foreign language has many facets. Not having a foreign accent is, in my book, given too much weight.

Many years ago I read about a foreign professor who had given a talk in the USA. An American told him he had a heavy accent. The professor replied, "You are right. I have the same problem with the other eight langugages I speak too."

Having an accent or making a mistake is not the end of the world. It just means you are bilingual, that you can do something that most people cannot: speak a second or third language.
Hi there Thomas,

Great examples!

"As you talk, you pay too much attention to what you are saying, looking for errors or things that you could have said better. And when you hear the mispronunciation of a word, the wrong use of a word, etc., you agonize over it." That`s me Thomas.

I couldn`t agree more with every single line you wrote, except for when you deduced my English might flow at its best when I`m nervous or sad (quite the contrary, it simply vanishes lol).

Anyway...I understand it when you mention that we usually give so much importance to having a minimal accent. Unfortunately, at first, having/or not having a "heavy" accent might bear on the way you "fit in" a particular society (for example, some people might think you don`t know the language enough because of your accent and tend to "dumb down" the level of the conversation ).

Mind you, only a good/advanced/proficient user of the language in its main fields (speaking, writing, listening) will be able to have real credit when dealing with native speakers (at least in the long run).

If you have a look at both videos below, you`ll notice that besides having a "heavier" accent when he talks (conspicuously "marked" by the rythm of the Portuguese language), Celso Amorim`s English (he is the Minister of External Relations of Brazil) run circles around the English spoken by Brazilian Victoria`s secret angel Isabeli Fontana. Her English is bubbly, her accent mild but it is clear how she lacks vocabulary.



Anyway, the point is that once we are living in a foreign country, there is a kind of feeling that makes us want to "fit in" a little more (I`ve just moved out of Brazil, therefore the attempt to adjust the "tone of my speech"). I`ve read some articles about it on the internet by a famous linguist called "Ron Martinez". Martinez argues that the wish to blend in to some extent in a particular society, when brought together with dedication to study, effort etc leads the non-native speaker to reach a level called "ultimate attainment". As I am not a linguist myself, the only aspect of this concept I could highlight would be that the ultimate attainment represents the ability to pass as a native or proficient speaker in some situations.

People who reach the ultimate attainment are called "passers". Passers are almost never able to pass 100% of the time, but in some occasions what they say comes out just "perfect". You know those situations in which someone pays compliments to your English or even mention they thought you had been living in that place for quite a while. Without a doubt, it shoots up the non-native speaker confidence and "self-steem". That`s enough for the passers, because they know they`ll never sound like the natives.

The mathematics of the ultimate attainment would consist of something on the lines of:


As long as the non-native speaker in question does not bother, there is no need to become a "passer". However, I`m of the opinion that when the non-native speaker proficiency comprises great pronunciation skills, that`s a winning combination.

Amazing opportunity to discuss this :)

Avatar do usuário Marcio_Farias 12430 1 22 210
eternal_learner escreveu:[...] I couldn`t agree more with every single line you wrote, except for when you deduced my English might flow at its best when I`m nervous or sad (quite the contrary, it simply vanishes lol).

What if someone started an argument with you amid an intense verbal change or prodded you with the Devil's trident unfairly accusing you of things you wouldn't have done yourself? Would you still keep silent (while your salivating assailant frothed on and on)? Haven't you ever started a loud verbal exchange with your older/younger sister/brother and wouldn't you really lash out at her/him lock, stock and barrel?

Avatar do usuário Thomas 14430 7 58 285
I don't think our language skills necessarily improve with the years. In my 20s, I had no trouble passing as a native speaker of Spanish and Portuguese, especially if my face could not be seen. I rarely speak Portuguese today (although I keep it alive in UOL chatrooms), but I am comfortable in conversations. I live in Costa Rica, a Spanish speaking country. I am convinced that I have a stronger American accent now in Spanish than I had 40 years ago although my vocabulary has increased over the years. In a store or restaurant, some clerks want to talk to my son but not to me. (I should add that physically my son passes as Latin or Anglo. I have had people recognize me as Anglo in darkened movie theaters, or while sitting in a car in traffic. So, it's not just my accent, it is my physical appearance. LOL)
It's like "This guy is American, so he is not going to understand anything I say." When this happens, I often say, "I am asking the questions, not the person with me. I am the person with the money, not him or her. If you lack the education to converse with me, let's have your supervisor find someone who has." They are being rude to me, whether or not they know it. And I will not tolerate it. Some people "freak out" (se vira louca) upon hearing even the slightest accent. My mother was certainly that way. If a foreign friend telephoned, she was convinced that she would not understand a word he or she said, and...she was right. In the middle of conversations, I have had people ask if I speak Spanish/Portuguese. My usual response is "Are we talking in Chinese?"

The older I get, the more of an "attitude" I have. LOL I am getting like Martín Fierro who said, "Soy blando con los blandos, y soy duro con los duros." I am losing (have lost?) my tolerance with "babacas".

Accent is much more (I believe) than pronunciation. It's more than rhythm. It's also the use of expressions unique to the culture of the language, appropriate slang, body language, etc. Consult your dictionary. What does it say about accent? You may be surprised.

This is a very interesting subject, something not often discussed but yet it affects us daily.