Wednesday, 26 April 2017

V is for Ventriloquist #atozchallenge

"Ventriloquist is someone who...." 

A muffled thud made me stop and look up. I was reading a story in Red class, year 1, at 3 in the afternoon. The bell to go home would ring in less than ten minutes. This was our daily routine--story time to end the day. It was also my favourite time. There is a kind of magic that happens when you read to a group of children. 

Muffled clattering followed the muffled thud.

I got up from the chair I was sitting in, designed for six year old children, and stood up to peer across the room.

"Mrs G?" I called out to our class room assistant.

She was sitting behind the table that marked the end of our carpet area (which is where all the children were gathered for story time) on a short chair, similar to mine, when I started reading the story.

So I pitched my question in that direction.

A hand shot up from behind the table. It belonged to Mrs. G.

"Mrs G...what happened? Are you okay?"

All the little heads that were facing me now turned to face the direction my question was aimed at.

A few muffled noises which sounded like sobs to me came from behind the table. 

"Ellie, can you and Ryan read the Hungry Caterpillar for us please?"

Conor had swung into action before me. He was spread on top of the table, ninja style, to find out where Mrs G was.

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar, mean, right?"

Ellie was the best reader in class and also the most pedantic.

I nodded and sprang across the carpet area, scooped Conor off the table and tapped on Mrs G's shoulder who was lying in a sort of child pose on the floor. Her shoulders were heaving.

For the uninitiated among you, i.e. those who haven't experienced being responsible for under ten year olds in a classroom situation, let me tell you that all of the above happened in less that 2 minutes. Speed and agility are of utmost importance when it comes to keeping order. Trust me.

"Mrs G, what happened? Are you okay?"

The face Mrs G raised to me from her position on the floor was red and streaked with tears.

"Where does it hurt...should I send for the nurse?"

Mrs G held out her hand (her sobs had morphed into intermittent hiccups by now) to be helped up on her feet.

"Mrs G is on the floor." announced Conor with glee.

The entire class bolted to the table. Mayhem.

There's nothing like noisy children to reboot a teacher/teaching assistant's batteries into action. When you've taught children this young, you know how quickly they pick on your energies. 

Stoic and calm, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened a couple of minutes ago, Mrs. G rose to her role, calling out children by their names and instructing them to pick up the drying dragons they'd painted earlier, from the table she'd been sitting at and tumbled off from while checking their reading records.

The bell rang. The children left. We were alone in the room: Mrs. G and I.

"Are you okay? What happened?"

"Say that again..." again the same sobs, no wait... that's soft chuckling...not sobs.

I was lost and confused.

"What did I say?"

Mrs G walked across the carpet area and picked the book I was about to read to the children, came back to where I was standing, opened to a page and pointed to, "ventriloquist."

"Ventriloquist?" I asked.

And there she was again, chuckling her soft chuckles, her shoulders heaving. Blobs of red were creeping back on her neck and cheeks.

The penny dropped. 

"How do you say it?" I asked.

In between her heaves, she held my hand to assure me she didn't mean to be rude and said, 

I spent the rest of that afternoon saying [ven-tril-uh-kwist] aloud  to myself. 

Even today, when I come across it, I do a quick rehearsal in my head before I utter this word.

When I'd  said ventriloquist that day, this is what Mrs. G had heard, wen-tri-lo-quist. I had stressed each syllable (Indian style) and picked LO instead of tri as my stress syllable. Try it once, I can assure you it doesn't sound like any ventriloquist you know. We'll cover the v/w confusion in a bit.

I learnt English as a second language. All my spoken English came from school and from reading books. I have always loved words and I never hesitate to use new ones. When using a dictionary, I wasn't shown how to read the pronunciation of the words, so I only gleaned the meaning and usage and kept adding new words to my vocabulary.

All was well till I ended up teaching in a primary school in London. 

I came across West London English and my students met English's Indian cousin.

The great thing about children is that they are honest and forgiving. My students would correct me and with their help I learnt how to modulate my speech to not sound 'funny' when I didn't want to sound funny.  

But, it wasn't till my own two children started correcting my V or lack of it, that I became aware of the fact that despite Hindi alphabet's ability to have a letter for almost all 44 phonemes, my V sounded like W to others (not to me). Even today, scenes like this happen at home.

"Have you packed your vests?"

"Yes, mom...wests and souths and a few norths, too."

A CELTA trainer in Doha told me, "Never be ashamed of how you speak. Find out the standard pronunciation of a word, if you're not sure. And tell your students both the versions--standard and colloquial."

"I'm a Geordie." she said and smiled. " If I talk to you the way I speak at home, you'll be lost."

I ended up teaching English to adults in Doha. 

V is to Hindi speakers what P is to speakers of Arabic. There is no P sound in Arabic, so B is used instead.

"PAPA  John's Pizza." I stress the P with a piece of paper placed a few centimeters away from my mouth. "See, how the paper moves when I say P, now say B--it doesn't move."

"Let's try again Abdullah...P...P, expel that air through your lips."

"Wery well teacher." mimics Abdullah and I have no choice but to laugh out loud and remind myself to bite my lower lip slightly with my teeth next time I want to sound out the very troublesome V.
I love the English language. It's let me live so many lives over these years: from Famous Five to Winnie the Pooh and then a bit of Mowgli, too. I better stop or we'll be here for a very long time.

I love the different accents even more. The richness these bring to a language so widely spoken should not be contained in the clipped sound of received pronunciation.

In India, the way you speak English is often used as a measure of your intelligence. I know. Sad and shocking. 

Have you ever faced a miscommunication or misinterpretation because of your accent or pronunciation?

A 2 minute video to wind up the post today.
Wishing you all a wonderful day:)
Will see you tomorrow.

Disclaimer: The classroom shenanigans are a mixture of many memories. All names have been changed. The bit about Mrs. G falling off her chair because she put her head back a bit too much to laugh out and hence tipped the balance of the tiny chair is totally true.


  1. as a native English speaker I would sometimes get words wrong- mainly because I was an avid reader, and there were several words that I had only ever seen in books- never heard. Albeit is an example- I said it how the German's would- Al-bite whereas in English is is al-be-it

    1. I didn't know this could happen to native English speakers too. Thank you for sharing your story:)

  2. English is a tricky language even for those of us who speak it. Spelling it is awful and trying to give a pronunciation guide is hard too. Like "eye" rhymes with "sigh."

    A real story: my husband was looking for a town called Worcestershire, they make a famous sauce too called Worcestershire sauce. Well, they don't pronounce the first "r" and not the "ces" and the shire sounds different too. So he's looking for this town and the locals say no, they don't have a town with that name, cause they are laughing behind his back. They pronounced it "Wooster-sher" so they slur over all the syllables and of course, they didn't recognize the town he pronounced.

    Also, my mom was from outside Boston and says "girls" with a gyu sound, so it sounds like "gyurls" and that's how I learned it... then I learned later there's no "yu" sound. That was her dialect. Maui Jungalow

    1. I can see this Worcestershire story play like a movie, thank you for sharing Courtney:)

  3. You chose an original word for V.

    My last English teacher told me that I speak English with a French accent. Whic is funny beacuse I'm not French. But, even in my own country (?!) some people ask me "Which country are you from?". I speak several languages (as I say, all badly). I have (almost) ceased of worrying about my accent any more. That doesn't mean that I don't try to learn, just I need to focus in communication in order to move on. And misunderstandings sometimes create funny situations...

    Eva - Mail Adventures

    1. They certainly do Eva. I do like the French accent, though:)

  4. I have mispronunced words as simple as rugged ... Even riot. English lands me in hot soup from time to time... My mom can't pronounce chess... She calls it sess. There's no ch in my mother tongue ��

    1. Thank you for sharing Rajlakshmi. I hope your mom won't mind you sharing her story here:)

  5. I used to work with a lot of Eastern Europeans - I'm so used to the v/w thing it barely registers.
    Altho'... I never understood how the same person who couldn't say "wiggle" ("viggle") would consistently buy "weal" ("veal") for dinner.
    Your difficulty, I get. It's an unfamiliar sound ... but she could form both sounds correctly, just never apply them to the right words. That one confused me.

    On the other hand, she could at least speak other languages.
    I can read them and understand them but I get too tongue-tied to speak them. The words sound great in my head but I just cannot get them out. Very, very frustrating...

    1. My children have worked very hard to train my brain to gauge the difference between v and w. They are relentless in their training:)

  6. I get in serious trouble with names - Leicester, Grosvenor, Urquhart.. what? all those letters are not pronounced? why have them there then! :? Confuse friend and foe alike!

    In India I've been told 'you speak like a Victorian yaar' outside of India I'm told 'your accent isn't like an Indian/Bengali,' and 'you speak/look like a Gujrati/Marathi/North-Easterner' Aargh given up now :))

    1. Oh, I gave up with "Leicester" ages ago. It's an impossible word ;)

    2. I hear you loud and clear Nilanjana. And Eva,because we lived in the Uk for a very long time, I heard Leicester before I saw it. It helped. If I had seen the spelling first, I'd have struggled.

  7. People in S.Africa who are brought up in Afrikaans-speaking homes cannot pronounce th. I have a daughter-in-law who speaks beautiful English but she can't think. She finks. My son spent ages trying to teach her but she could NOT make the th sound. Interesting.

    1. Thank you for sharing Shirley. I didn't know this.

  8. Being from the south of England I suppose I speak what's known as Queens English. I often have great difficulty understanding accents from the north and Scotland​!

    1. Northern accents can be tricky to understand, especially on the phone.

  9. You write English beautifully Arti. I used to stammer as a child and young adult, so nobody knew what I was saying! Thankfully that's passed now ... Had a real chuckle at your children saying they'd packed their wests, norths and souths! Here in SA we have so many different accents - thank you for this lovely post!

    1. Thank you for the compliment Susan:)
      How did you overcome your stammer?

  10. What a great word, and, even better, a hilarious story. I worked with someone who pronounced blood as 'bloot' (rhymes with hoot) as she was from eastern europe, and could never get the hang of pronouncing it 'blud'.
    I love that you can laugh at yourself so effortlessly.

    Phillip | V is for Vodka

    1. Cheers Phillip.
      As I don't plan to sue myself for libel, I can afford to laugh at myself freely and often:)

  11. What a great story - tipping a chair because you're laughing is a most wonderful way to end on the floor I think.

    I LOVE hearing people speak in languages that aren't mine. If you don't have to worry about actually understanding what's being said, you can transport yourself into sounds and nuances and rhythms - it feels so amazing to me. I'm not really sure how to explain it but it feels like a tactile experience for my brain.

    1. I think I get what you mean Deborah. That's one of the reasons I enjoy train rides in busy cities. You can dip in and out of worlds without understanding a word.

  12. I just read that there is also no V in Arabic. The things we learn during A to Z.

    Finding Eliza

    1. Yes, I did too--on Nilanjana's post. I'm feeling quite informed in this month of April:)

  13. Thank you for being willing to share your story, and put your challenges out there for all to see! Strong person, you are!

    Affirmations for a Good Life

  14. What a fun story! Thank you for telling it. Yes, the different accents people have can cause confusion, but to me it's a small price to pay for the richness of enjoying the language as it is truly spoken in different places.

  15. Language is fun. I know Swedes struggle with ch and sh sounds. So, to a Swede, sheep and cheap might sound exactly the same. I have a Swedish boyfriend, and we sometimes rehearse the difference. ;) As a native English speaker with Swedish as a second language, there are letter combinations I just cannot get my mouth to pronounce. Like "sjö" -- lake.

    A to Z 2017: Magical and Medicinal Herbs

    1. Wow! sjo? That sounds tricky.
      Thanks for sharing Sara and for stopping by.

  16. Must admit this particular blog caught my attention more than the others since I'm in the business of teaching my Arab students the difference between 'P' and 'B' like you so rightly pointed out .
    So I've had to correct 'barents' atleast a thousand times in the last six months - my trick ? " b for Bangalore and p for Pepsi ' - worked like a charm !
    I guess we take our accents and pronunciations for granted until we're stuck in a 'Mind Your Language ' scenario for five days a week .
    I dare say I welcome the challenge !
    Well done Arti and baccha party !


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