A sound choice
Exploring intelligibility of English language is pure fun P. Sujatha Varma discovers in a tête-À-tête with a phonetician
Photo: Ch. Vijaya Bhaskar
Phonetically correct Syamala Lakshmi is obsessed with right accent
She is on a sound track doing what sounds convincing to her. Fascinated by the world of sounds, N. Syamala Lakshmi sounds off her preference quite clearly.
An invitation from a local college introduced Syamala as an alumna of the institution and said she would attend the college function as a visiting researcher from the Department of English, Yakohama National University, Japan.
The Japanese university tag was enough to raise curiosity of the media personnel and most of them went to the venue expecting to see a snooty personality.
Syamala’s starkly modest persona was almost a surprise in waiting, as none could spot this lady clad in a cotton Punjabi suit and sitting aloof in a corner. “Can we sit somewhere inside and talk”, she pleads thrusting a finger in her right ear and pointing to the din that marked the freshers’ day celebrations of Sri Durga Malleswara Siddhartha Mahila Kalasala, when asked to share her experiences.
As we converse, she gradually sheds layers of diffidence revealing her deep understanding of the subject she deals with. “Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl in George Bernard Shaw’s comedic masterpiece Pygmalion was my inspiration,” she says taking the listener by surprise.
After doing BA from Siddhartha Mahila Kalasala, she acquired a master’s degree in English from Nagarjuna University followed by a diploma in Teaching English from CIEFL.
Then she completed her M.Phil from the University of Hyderabad and pursued a doctorate from CIEFL in Phonetics and chose to study various aspects of English language spoken by students of engineering and technology courses.
Her marriage in 2002 to a research associate at the National Institute for Material Science at Tsukuba, known as science city in Japan, took her to the island country in East Asia where she is currently pursuing a post-doctoral research in phonetics at Yakohama University in Japan.
“Phonetics fascinated me. I always tried to be perfect in whatever I did and it included my speech. Phonetics is important for general communication skills.
One must realize the significance of the right tone, right accent and the right pause. People of Andhra Pradesh are relatively good in their pronunciation, in comparison to their counterparts in other states. We need to minimize the influence of mother tongue on English language.
That can spell magic as far as articulation is concerned. It is also important to explore the transliteration of English language.” She also works as a language consultant for a reputable local company there.
Coming back to Shaw’s protagonist Professor Henry Higgins, a phonetician, who, in order to win a bet, trains the flower girl Eliza to behave like a duchess, mainly my teaching her to speak beautifully, she recounts: “I told myself that if a flower girl like Eliza Doolittle could be groomed and passed off as a duchess, there is no reason why I should not give wings to my dreams.”
After overcoming initial difficulties in an alien land where people who cannot speak Japanese feel completely lost, she became an active member of the Japan Association for Language Teaching. “In Japan, it is difficult to manage things if you don’t know the native language. You will find signboards and all other forms of writing only in Japanese.
We were lucky to be given interpreters in the initial days. Some of my students also volunteered to be our interpreters,” she says recollecting the hilarious incident when she went to a local doctor and complained of pain in her stomach and he mistook it for pregnancy. “In a way, he cannot be blamed. I used sign language showing him my stomach in an attempt to convey the pain,” she chuckles.
Veering off to recount interesting anecdotes of life in Japan, she keeps coming back to her favourite subject phonetics. “A young Japanese boy in my neighbourhood, who stayed glued to the Cartoon Network channel for most part of the day, spoke English with a funny accent. I could fathom the reason only after seeing his bedroom transformed into a Disney world. The kid used the Cartoon Network style of speaking because he thought it was the right way,” she explains.
“There are many ways of learning English language. Japanese students have the advantage of being exposed to different aspects of their respective subjects.
By the time a student reaches university, he becomes an independent learner, thanks to the pragmatic approach of the authorities there,” she opines.
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