SOUNDING good, sounding right, is as important as looking good, looking right. Agree? Right. Agree. Sounding good comes from making sure you make the right sounds. Right? Makes sense. Correct sounds actually sound good. Sounds logical. You wouldn’t come out looking good if you continued to make wrong sounds. Adds up. You can expect to [...]

Sunday Times 2

The vanilla-flavoured spoken English lesson


SOUNDING good, sounding right, is as important as looking good, looking right. Agree?
Right. Agree.

Sounding good comes from making sure you make the right sounds. Right?

Makes sense.

Correct sounds actually sound good.

Sounds logical.

You wouldn’t come out looking good if you continued to make wrong sounds.

Adds up.

You can expect to start to look smart, look good, the moment you start making the right sounds.

Point taken.

The effect may not be immediately noted, but over time it will sink in.

Hope so.

And you do agree that getting it right is a worthwhile pursuit?

Oh, absolutely.

So — what are we going on about?

EXHAUSTED TRAVELLER: Is that a GIANT VANILLA ICE CREAM DESSERT I see before me? CAMEL: All I see is desert, Desert, and more DESERT.

Simply this:

The above soundings or considerations were prompted by factors touching aspects of language, as used here in our near-perfect paradise.

A small group of us have been giving serious thought to the imperfect way we Sri Lankans use our inherited English. The plight of words, their sounds they are entitled to, have come into sharp focus after meeting Isuru and Anusha. This is an expat Sri Lankan couple who both look good and sound good. Correction — they look great and sound great. Observing them from a distance, you see two attractive, well-groomed, sensibly dressed Sri Lankans. When you come up close and listen to them, you hear polished, accented English as it is seldom heard here among Sri Lankans.

Being in their company, you note that the quality of their spoken words has as much to do with the couple’s authentic-sounding “foreign accent” as their accenting of words. By accenting, we mean that they stress words in the right places. They respect the music and natural rhythms of English as spoken by a native English speaker. Once you are conscious of the flow of correctly stressed English words, you start to appreciate the music of the language. The music arises from abiding by the rules that govern the spoken English word.

It is a depressing truth that we Sri Lankans get the stress wrong in every five consecutive English words we utter — and this despite the hours we spend with the BBC and CNN, following British and American news broadcasts, interviews, documentaries, movies, sitcoms, drama series. It has nothing to do with acquiring a foreign accent and everything to do with being sensitive to the lilt of the language, whether you speak British, American, Canadian, South African or Australian English. Asian spoken English is another matter, but an aspect of it; our Sri Lankan participation in the language is a big part of the discussion.

Isuru and Anusha arrived a year ago. Having spent their lives in the UK, they decided after graduating from university to come out and discover their ancestral homeland. They have been travelling widely, hiring cars and hopping onto buses, looking for “roots”, picking up the language, and generally “grubbing around.” They intend to stay at least five years. They love to bits the good things about the country: its warmth — social and climatic, its ready smile, its food, its children, its flora and fauna, its tropical plenty.

Their faces are always lit by attractive smiles. When they aren’t smiling, a smile lingers on their faces. When their smiles dim a bit, we know Isuru and Anusha are uncomfortable, that they have encountered something that displeases them. This usually happens when they note things that aren’t so good about the country, but are too polite to talk about. We know the couple shudder inwardly at our substandard hygiene, our litter-strewn streets, our uncleared drains, our garbage overflow, and our general insensitivity to the plight of animals, especially street dogs, cattle and elephants. They will insist, however, that the good outweighs the bad in a country they love more by the day.

Isuru and Anusha are a smart, wholly engaging couple, and they conduct themselves with poise — and zero self-consciousness. Isuru is a systems analyst, heading a department for a leading corporate name in Colombo; Anusha is a language consultant who speaks five European languages; she is also an animal rights activist. Isuru takes a fiancé’s interest in Anusha’s work and social concerns.

Isuru wears a trimmed three-day beard and looks rather like the Indian movie star Sidharth Malhotra, or Varun Dhawan, both Bollywood heartthrobs; he displays the sensitive intelligence of Malhotra, and a thick dash of the potent maleness of Dhawan. Anusha looks every bit the Kandyan princess her style and appearance evoke. Their manner is as English as it gets, as we know the English from English TV and English movies, and some English-Sri Lankan interaction. What sets the couple apart is their Asian charm, a combination that makes for near perfection.

Sitting with Isuru and Anusha — for buffet lunch, afternoon tea, evening cocktails – is a treat. Their conversation is subdued, soothing, informed, and witty — pleasantly give-and-take without the one-upmanship that so often spoils a local social. When they speak, you want to close your eyes and listen undistracted to the musical weave of two cultivated voices, one tenor, the other contralto.

It would be hard to find a couple who can make you feel extra-special simply by asking you to join them for an ice cream.

It all started with the ice cream

It was the ice cream, in fact, that set off the vanilla-flavoured conversation that led to the language concerns expressed above.

We were sitting out on the patio of a breezy pizza-pasta outlet in Bambalapitiya, metres from the sea, and studying the menu card.

“It’s ‘va.NILL.a’, darling,” said Anusha, looking up at the young waiter and gently stressing the second syllable. She spoke in the helpful, kindly, discreet manner of an older sister or an intimate friend who has something worthwhile to share, something that needs to be addressed.
Confirming our order, the waiter had said “VAN.illa”, stressing the first syllable, the way most of us — the syllabub-sherbet-faluda-milkshake-consuming citizens of Sri Lanka — persistently do.

Anusha, it has to be quickly added, is not the type of person who goes around minding other people’s language mannerisms. She was talking to the waiter in the generous spirit of someone who has a useful everyday tip to share.

The wrongly accented “vanilla” had in fact been troubling us for some time, and it was a relief to have Anusha on our side.

When a lovely word like “vanilla” is misrepresented, sounded incorrectly, it should strike the ear the way a karapincha leaf placed on top of a vanilla ice cream dessert would shock the eye, repel the tongue.

Wrongly spoken, wrongly accented words are the equivalent of misspelled words. The first is a vocal-audio lapse, the second a visual slip. We all like to get spellings right, but we tend to tone-deafness in the sounding of words. Writing a language and speaking it demand equal respect from the users. Getting the sound right is an essential part of the pleasure of using language.

Everyone loves VANILLA, yet everyone here loves to get it wrong. Call us fussy and pedantic, but if you keep getting VANILLA wrong, we will end up hating vanilla-ice cream.

The waiter tried. He focused on the second beat of ‘va.NILL.a’, and almost got it right the fourth time. Anusha was encouraging. “You will get it right. We know you will.”

There were a couple of other words on the menu we wanted our friendly waiter to be aware of, and to be proud to get right.
Spaghetti is spa.GHETT.i, not SPAGH.ett.i.

Potatoes are po.TA.toes, not P-T-Toes.

Tomatoes are to.MAY.toes, or to.MAH.toes, not T-M-Toes.

And dessert is Di.ZERT, not DEZZ.ert. This is not the Sinai desert or the desert of Taklamakan.

The message: Get the sound right and your food will taste better. It’s worth the effort.

Anusha is the kind of person who wants to share benefits. She will extend herself to help a waiter earning a monthly salary of less than Rs. 10,000 so that he will sound better and look better and qualify for something better than Rs. 10,000. She wouldn’t lose a beat worrying about the noisy Porsche guests at the next table who keep ruining their orders for tomato soup, potato fingers, spaghetti Bolognese, and vanilla dessert the moment they open their mouths.

Sound better than the guests you are serving and be a proud waiter indeed.

The waiter left with his order, pleased and a little embarrassed.

“Wouldn’t it be great if our sweet friend got it right the next time we visited,” Anusha mused.
“If he does, his tip will be doubled,” we said.

“What if he gets all the words right?” Isuru asked.

“Then we’ll treat him to high tea at the Galle Face Hotel, and load his plate with vanilla goodies!” laughed Anusha.
(More on Sri Lankan

spoken English in coming weeks)

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