THERE are few social situations more embarrassing than asking someone to repeat themselves. It’s even worse if you’re the one doing the repeating.
When it comes to verbal communication, it’s safe to say us Irish frequently struggle to get our discourse on.
This begs the question, why are we so hard to understand?
When sometimes even the Irish cannot understand the Irish, how can we expect to have any sort of meaningful conversation with people of other nationalities?
Author Peter F. Bulmer believes he’s found the answer.
His book The Lost Secret of Speaking Perfect English puts forward some interesting theories about speech and language and attempts not only to make the world aware of the global communication problem, but to fix it.
Curious to find out what he’d make of my own fast-paced and occasionally incoherent lilt, I decided to catch up with Peter and see if he had any suggestions for how I could improve.
While the well-travelled writer insists my voice is “a beautiful Irish stream flowing softly down into Galway Bay”, he admits I could do with slowing down a bit and breathing more.
But that goes for the majority of the Irish, so I didn’t take it to heart.
Why is it that we, as a nation, are in such a rush to get our words out? Is it because we lack the confidence to speak slowly, purposefully and with authority? Or is it our rural slang that makes the rest of the world go “huh?”
Peter agrees confidence is important, but stresses our Irishness isn’t the problem.
“It’s not a question of accents,” he explains.
“As long as you can speak clearly, you can communicate.
“A lot of Irish people have a problem with their “th” words. You lose the “th” sound and come out with words like “tink” and “tought”. But the “th” sound is very important for sucking in air and creating the proper breathing and rhythm.
“In order to project what you’re saying, you need to slow down a bit. You need to develop more of a rhythm and give yourself a chance to breathe.
This also gives the other person a chance to absorb what you’re saying.
“Everybody can learn to speak clearly and properly but they need a technique and they need to develop confidence. Grammar is important, of course, but the key is the technique.
“And it’s honestly not that complicated, anyone can do it. I mean, I only have my A levels, I don’t have a degree. Yet when I speak, people listen to me. It’s not about intelligence or being academic.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to better themselves. If you can’t speak clearly, it’s a big handicap, in work as well as socially.”
According to Peter, who is seriously good at doing accents, my current rhythm is very Italian. I’m not breathing as much as he would recommend… but if I put in a little bit of effort he’s convinced my words will flow easier and I’ll “knock people dead” with my charming accent.
Brave words, but I genuinely believe him. He has, after all, been teaching English in Italy for seven years. It was during his travels that he realised a lot of people he was dealing with couldn’t understand each other, but they could understand him.
“People would come up to me and tell me I was easy to understand, but that when others speak, or when they speak to others, nobody can understand each other. So I wondered how is it that people can understand me?”
So he sat down to analyse himself and figure out how he was able to communicate where others couldn’t. This, coupled with further research, led him to believe it was all about rhythm, breathing and mouth movements.
In his book he lists these mouth movements, annotating them and giving them different names. He also lists the 11,000 most popular English words and provides their correct pronunciation.
While I wasn’t able to get a quick fix for my frequently garbled ramblings, talking with Peter certainly prompted me to slow down my speech.
At the end of the day we want people to listen when we talk. So we might as well learn to do it right.
The Lost Secret of Speaking Perfect English: The Moving Mouth Dictionary’ by Peter F. Bulmer is out now.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved