The Saudi Pronunciation Project: A ReflectionCheyney WheelwrightSummer 2011
The first time I met Mana, he was crouched down below the dashboard of his cousin’s SUV, trying his best to appear small or disappear altogether. He was new to America, new to Ogden, and very new to English. He was terrified of American men, children, and especially women. He was, apparently, very terrified of me. His cousin, Mohammad, had been living with my family for nearly two years and was unsympathetic to Mana’s discomfort. “Go talk to him,” he told me. “Scare him to death. He needs to learn English.” While fear was not my intent, the teacher in me couldn’t let a terrified boy sit in my driveway without at least some positive interaction. As I approached the car, Mana inched away from the open window. “Salaam,” I said. “How are you?” He flashed me a wide smile. “Mana,” he said.

I would next see Mana when he attended our Saudi pronunciation project class—a mix of graduate students and level 3 ESL students. Remembering my first interaction with him nearly eight weeks before, I couldn’t wait to get started on English pronunciation, and conversely, the Saudi dialect of Arabic that he would be teaching me as part of our class. In the next seven weeks I would be looking carefully at our two cultures and the difficulties both English and Arabic speakers encounter when attempting to learn each other’s language. First, I would need to review what I had already learned about Arabic through my interaction with other ESL students--native Arabic speakers that I had met in other contexts and other classes.

During one of our very first classes, my fellow graduate students and I had a discussion about the differences between Arabic and English. Native Arabic speakers are not only dealing with a very new alphabet when they encounter English, they are also learning to read from left to right rather than right to left as in Arabic. Each Arabic speaker in effect knows two languages—Formal Arabic, the language of the Qu’uran and other religious texts, and Modern Standard Arabic. Through further research I found that Mana’s native dialect of Modern Standard Arabic encompasses a six vowel system—three pairs of vowel sounds based on /a/, /i/, and /u/ distinguished by length. English, on the other hand, has eleven vowel phones in speech and six in writing (Thompson ). I could therefore expect Mana to have some difficulty with English pronunciation of certain vowels. I also knew from my experience as a writing teacher that native Arabic speakers are used to a system that does not orthographically represent vowels in writing; they oftentimes confuse English vowels or omit them altogether.

Issues with English
One of the first issues most Arabic speakers have with learning English involves the new /p/ sound they encounter—one that is absent in Arabic. As a teacher, I’ve often taught /p/ by pairing it with /b/ and other voice/voiceless pairings like /t-d/ or /k-g/. If students keep one hand on their throat while practicing words with these sounds back to back, they will hopefully grasp the phonological nature of /p/. One afternoon in class, Abdulaziz was working with my classmate Shawn and me when he mentioned the Arabic word bab,which means “door.” Both Shawn and I heard the word as /baep/, but knowing that there is no equivalent /p/ sound in Arabic, I was curious about the short length of the final consonant or central vowel and wondered if it contributed to the sound we were hearing.

This was confirmed when I found a study involving Saudis conducted by James E. Flege which stated at one point that “the relative shortness of the vowel in tab produced by the Saudis probably led American listeners to hear some of the final stops in that word as /p/” (128). Native English speakers like myself were used to hearing a longer /ae/ sound, and attributed the final sound as a /p/ simply because of timing. I was very interested in possible differences in timing—both in English and Arabic—that may lead to misunderstandings. In my experience, students who can easily produce the correct sounds while practicing the alphabet will often lose intelligibility when given words. Flege states that “cross language timing differences may not be directly perceptible at a segmental level to most listeners, but may well contribute to the perception of accentedness and even, in some case, result in diminished intelligibility”(140). While I understand that there are several issues at work in this situation, I think timing is a fascinating facet of the equation. I would like to study this further in hopes of improving my teaching of ESL students.

Another issue with English that seemed prevalent in our class was the mixing of vowel sounds, most often /a/ for /o/ or the /iy/ and /I/. Amjad seemed to differentiate better than the other students, but Mana frequently intermixed vowels as we were practicing different vocabulary lists. One afternoon, I gave him three words: boot, boat, and bought. Although he could pronounce them correctly once I said them, he had a lot of trouble reading them after a short break. Even when the word was placed in the context of a sentence, the errors persisted. Later, Mohammad explained to me how Arabic writing uses indicators for different vowel sounds, placed above or below the preceding consonant. The specific vowels sounds that I was attempting with Mana, /u/, /o/, and / /, “would be allophonic variants for the Arab, that is, not meaningfully distinct” (Thompson). In written Arabic, Mana would actually use the same “vowel graph” for each of these distinct sounds in English.

Issues with Arabic
I hear Arabic all the time—both at home and at school—but have been very slow to understand the sound system, and even more important, the dialect variations of similar words. Eight letters in the Arabic alphabet have a clear equivalent in English: B,F,K,L,M,N,R, and Z. The language also has two distinct consonants which relate to the sound of /s/ /d/ /h/ and /t/. The actual sound produced depends on the vowel’s placement within a word and also, of course, on the speaker’s dialect. Mana is from Najran in the south of Saudi Arabia, so he speaks a similar dialect to that of my Saudi live-in student. His sounds, to me, seemed very familiar. In the first week of class, he worked with me to get the basic initial, medial, and ending sounds of the alphabet—not an easy task.

For most native English speakers, the /r7/ of Arabic would be problematic. I had been practicing the rolled sound with my Spanish, so it didn’t give me much trouble. The letter ha, however, was very hard for me—and I’m still working on it. My research told me that the letter is pronounced /h/, a voiceless, pharangeal fricative. Mana told me he could hear me using my voice to approximate the sound. No matter how many times he produced the sound and asked me to watch and listen, I still couldn’t quite get it. To me, it sounded exactly the same as the Arabic letter kha /x~X/. He taught me the word hoh /hax~X/, meaning “peach.” Apparently I pronounce this word just fine. My next hitch came with the letter sad, which also utilizes pharangealization. It sounded just the same as the letter sin, although Mana said it was “forever apart” in sound. The two sounds appear in the names Saleh /s?aleyh/, which uses the letter sad and in Salem /salem/ which contains sin. Mana claims that it would take a native English speaker seven or eight years just to hear the sound. We’ll see.

Shawn and I struggled mightily to understand the letter dad /d?/ in the word thub /d? b/ (lizard). We both heard it as a “th” with either a /g/ or glottal stop. Abdulaziz used exaggerated mouth movements and gestures to show us where the sound was originating in his mouth. Still, a native English speaker will probably always have trouble with this sound. The glottal stop in the letter za would also cause issues, in my opinion. Mana gave me the word zarf, which sounds like “th?arf.” And the trickiest letter of them all, the ayn…the IPA lists it as just a glottal stop. It appears in the word agrob, which sounds like a slight choke before the actual word begins. The word means “scorpion,” and Mana demonstrated for me how the glottal stop could be simply the sound you make when you step on one—the sound right before the scream. His methodology was very helpful for my understanding although my pronunciation is still lacking.

One final note on my Arabic learning: never underestimate regional dialects. In a class of five students, we had three distinct dialects from regions all over Saudi Arabia. The word wallad, or “son” becomes “my son” when I add the suffix /Iy/. After a few weeks together, my student invariably becomes walladi, which is as it should be. Mana, however, said that his southern dialect would pronounce the word /uwl^dIy/, and that this pronunciation would serve me well even in Yemen. I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with him exploring English and Arabic, and am happy to claim him now as ulladi.



Works Cited
Flege, James E. “Cross-language Phonetic Interference: Arabic to English.” Language and Speech 24:2. April 1981. Web. 21 July 2011.
Thompson-Panos, Karyn and Maria Thomas-Ruzic. “The Least You Should Know About Arabic: Implications for the ESL Writing Instructor.” Tesol Quarterly 17:4. Dec. 1983. Web. 7 June 2011.