The Towajo Perspective

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Speech and Social Hierarchy

I recently ran across an article in which a highly-credentialed Mongolian professor was featured. The author explored social hierarchy in education. Apparently, the professor is good at what she does, but her students’ feedback revealed numerous issues with her accent. The students stated that she was a good teacher, but that they had a hard time understanding her because of her accent. After reading the article, one would presumably be more aware of issues facing minorities and individuals of various social standing in our communities; and a person’s acceptance into certain levels of the hierarchy would be based largely on one’s speaking abilities.


Okay. I’m with you, and I get it.


However, I also know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a person’s speech when they obviously have very little regard for pronunciation. It is like an atrocity is being committed. My insides shrivel up. My stomach turns into knots. My ears would bleed if they could. I get a headache trying to understand what on earth is the speaker trying to communicate to me.


Now, it is one thing to experience this in social settings; but when you pay a hefty tuition fee and your GPA is on the line, you really want your professor to be more considerate of your needs. If you, as the student, are expected to learn the material, then it is not unreasonable to expect the teacher to communicate in such a way that they can be understood.


My childhood was full of accents: Asian, African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Spanish, Irish, German, Jamaican, etc. There were also a variety of accents commonly embraced by native English speakers: southern, northern, mid-western, standard, British, valley girls, California surfers, etc. My ears have heard it all!


And yet, I wonder about the use of the word ‘accent‘ particularly in academic settings. Sometimes there is an issue with a person’s accent and sometimes there is an issue with the person just using wrong sounds when speaking a language; in particular a foreign language.


However, the word accent is universally accepted when describing both types of situations; wherein lies the point.


Native speakers are much more likely to understand “accents” – a variation of an agreed-upon phoneme. But what happens when the phoneme itself barely resembles anything that native speakers are accustomed to hearing? What happens if the language speaker has been taught by non-native speakers of the foreign language, and what if they have been taught to use sounds from their native language in said foreign language?


While there is absolutely a sense of hierarchy when it comes to accents (in any language), I do wonder if what is being labeled as an accent is actually a case of the speaker using sounds from one’s native language in the foreign language. In this case, it is more commonly not an accent. It just wrong.


When I, as a native English speaker, tried to pronounce the Chinese word 人 (ren2) with an English “r,” and I coupled a schwa sound with the consonant “n,” the word sounded more like run, and it had more of a 4th tone as opposed to a 2nd tone. Was this the case of an accent or was my pronunciation just wrong? I think that it was just wrong.


I have since attempted to learn to pronounce the sounds correctly. And at this point, I have an accent. People tend to understand me now, but they also easily comprehend that I am not a native speaker. But I acknowledged the phonemes that were giving me problems. And instead of continuing to use my native English sounds when attempting to pronounce these Chinese sounds, I began to embrace the uniqueness of the native Chinese pronunciation sounds. So, again, I now have an accent. What I had before was nothing less than incorrect speaking patterns.


Another example. When I, as a native English speaker, tried to pronounce the Chinese word 水 (shui3) using “the oo sound” and “the long e sound” (both of which are native English sounds), and I completely neglected the 3rd tone, the word sounded more like shoo4-wee. Was this the case of me having an accent or was my pronunciation just wrong? Again, I think that it was an undeniable case of incorrect speech.


In neither of these cases was there a valid argument to be made regarding bias due to social hierarchy, race, sex, religion, or anything else. The listeners legitimately did not understand my pronunciation because I had not yet learned the rules of producing Chinese sounds. In my head, there were only the rules that dictated what made English clear or unclear. However, English does not use tones and the English “r” is quite different from the Chinese “r.” And one sound after another, I had to embrace the pronunciation differences – that is, if there was ever going to be even a chance that I would be understood when speaking Chinese.


So, what happens when speakers of foreign languages do not take the time to understand the pronunciation rules of the foreign languages that they wish to speak? What happens when they assume that the rules that dictate sounds in their native languages will also be accepted by and understood by native speakers of the foreign languages in which they (as foreigners) wish to communicate? What happens if I just disregard Chinese tones because they are not important in English? What happens if a Chinese speaker only attempts to use 7 vowel sounds when speaking English, although the English language has well over 19 vowel sounds?


It seems to me that many times what is widely acknowledged as an accent in foreign language studies is actually incorrect speech.


Don’t get me wrong. The issue of hierarchy is absolutely a valid topic to explore in speech. As a black kid growing up in the southern parts of the US, I learned quickly that if I sounded “black” I was much more likely to be treated negatively by my teachers and school staff. I learned as a kid to use “my white voice” in public and to use “my black voice” at home.


The result was that I was never white enough for the white community and most of the time was nothing more than their token black; and the black community labeled me as a sell-out and thought that I hated being black because I was wanted to speak clearly. So, yes, I would agree that there is a valid point to be made regarding social hierarchy and speech. It is a complex issue that should continue to be explored.


However, the issue of whether or not a foreign language speaker is even aware of the phonemes that make up the foreign language that they wish to speak, should also be considered.


Are they using a variation of the phonemes in the foreign language, or are they simply using sounds from their own native language when speaking? Are we using the sounds from our native languages in foreign languages and thinking of our speech as merely having an accent? Are we even bothering to learn the phonemes of the foreign languages that we speak? If we knowingly disregard the pronunciation rules of foreign languages, or even if we just have not yet mastered those sounds, we cannot then place the blame on the listener.


It is not the listener’s responsibility to learn to understand my speech patterns. It is my responsibility to speak in such a way that the listener can understand me. -Miracle L. Smith


I believe that the issues of hierarchy and accuracy, as both pertain to speech, should be explored separately; for they are, indeed, two separate issues.

Absorbing The Content

Do you remember the game called Hungry Hippo? There is a circle of hippopotamuses (hippos) trying to eat as many pieces of food as possible. In fact, the goal of the game is to eat more pieces of food than any of the other players. The player who eats the most food wins the game.


Borrowing that analogy for language-learning classrooms, it can be said that the similarities are quite numerous. The teacher places huge quantities of food in the middle of the playing board for all of the students to have access to. And as soon as class begins, the students start trying to consume as much content as possible. And so-called “good” students will do their best to consume more content than any of the other students. But there is no time to absorb these large amounts of information. Instead, students is just expected to memorize, memorize, memorize.


They are not given the opportunity to dissect the information and experiment with it in different scenarios. They usually do not learn the differences between using a grammar point correctly and using it naturally. They are not allowed to spend time with the material long enough to compare the meaning in their native language to the meaning in the foreign language that they are working in. Language is a living and breathing entity. It is an art form. And there are nuances in language that are better felt than explained. If you do not believe me, then think about the 6-year old who somehow knows to say “we are” as opposed to “we is.” He feels the difference even though he cannot explain the rules of subject-verb agreement.


And so, because language students are not allotted sufficient time with their course materials, the result is that the majority of students develop a way of speaking a foreign language in a way that it is perhaps best be described as “broken.” We use words like Spanglish (Spanish-English) and Chinglish (Chinese-English) for language skills that can be recognized as both native and foreign in nature. And this is the status quo. The bar is set low. We embrace the notion that it is impossible for a non-native language speaker, above a certain age, to speak a foreign language well. And a student who has spent 8-10 years studying a language is labelled as fluent by other non-native speakers, while native speakers find the student’s abilities sufficient, at best, but usually unnatural and quite frequently unclear.


We need to understand that learning is cyclical. There are times when students are learning, learning, learning. And there are times when students are reviewing, reviewing, reviewing. And then there are times when students are consolidating, consolidating, consolidating. Why am I repeating each word three times? Well, it’s because learning is a process. And the educational system does not seem to acknowledge or appreciate this fact.


Even children who are learning their own native languages are given the opportunity to repeat information dozens of times before it is absorbed into their sponge-like brains.


So, why are foreign-language students expected to cram such large quantities of information into their brains each week? And why aren’t students being given the opportunity to spend more time with these large quantities of information so that they can digest it and make some sense of it?


I do not enjoy sounding like a broken record, but I feel compelled to again say that memorizing is not the same as learning. And if we are going to begin to produce students who can communicate naturally in their foreign language(s), we need to put more emphasis on quality and not quantity. Students are not animals feasting in the wild. Students need time to absorb, digest, and dissect the information that they are learning – that is, if they are expected to use their foreign languages naturally.


My opinion is that the status quo needs to change. We should expect language students to speak foreign languages well, regardless of their age when beginning their studies. And we should grant students sufficient time to spend with their materials so that they are able to become more intimate with the lessons. Lastly, we need to stop treating language classrooms like feeding centers where students are expected to absorb content in pretty much the same manner, regardless of their native languages. A Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students will not learn English as well as Spanish, French, and Italian speakers. Latin-based languages resemble each other in many ways, making it easier for students with that background to learn certain parts of English much easier.


We need to learn how to teach foreign languages better. We need to learn how to pay attention to what the students need.  We need to respect the language-learning process. Until we address these issues, the best that we can expect from language instruction that resembles a hungry hippo feeding frenzy is nothing more than broken, confusing, and sub-par language skills. There has to be a solution to these issues, and I plan to continue experimenting with my own language learning processes until I find something that works better.

Text-Talk Downfalls

It is rare to go to a place in today’s world where you don’t see multiple people on their smartphones or other various devices. I am always fascinated when I am out and about, to see how people interact with one another.


I think one of the most baffling exchanges for me is the interaction that you see between people in restaurants. If you are taking the time to go out to a restaurant with someone, why would you sit down across from them and immediately whip out your phone? I have seen people sitting across from each other who speak very little with one another for the entire meal. Instead, they are texting away on their phones.


What is even more fascinating about texting culture is the minimal effort that people put in when it comes to actually constructing a text message. I get messages from people that have misspelled words, incorrect grammar, and little to no punctuation. I also receive texts with a variety of different abbreviations.


There is a texting language that has developed in today’s culture. People are now spending so much time having conversations on their phones that their “text-talk” has begun leaking into their speech and other written communication.


I work with students on a daily basis and I get countless emails that are nearly impossible to decipher. I will read some emails three or four times, and still struggle to understand what point or question the student was trying to get across. Often times, the way that they write me is very similar to the way that they would write text messages. Usually when this happens, I will follow it up with a personal phone call to the student.


Sometimes, I find it difficult to understand students on the phone because they mumble and do not pronounce their words clearly. I believe this is a direct relation to the lack of time we actually spend speaking with one another face to face. I see the gap continually widening.  


It is time that we take a closer look at how texting culture is affecting our communication, and at what can be done to promote clearer spoken and written English.

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Continuous Improvement

Learning is an ongoing process. It is not something that stops as soon as you get out of school. Real world experiences help us to continually grow and learn each and every day. Aside from day to day experiences, you can also seek out ways to continually challenge yourself by doing such things as: taking online courses, reading books or scholarly journals, or even watching instructive YouTube videos.


The options, when it comes to learning are endless, and the biggest mistake a person can make is to think that he no longer needs to seek out new ways to learn and challenge himself.


Pronunciation is an area in which many people seem to think that growth and continuous improvement are not necessary. However, when it comes to communicating effectively with others, both professionally and personally, continuing to strengthen pronunciation skills is essential.


We are living in a diverse world where we work with people who speak a myriad of different languages on a daily basis. Because of the different languages and accents being used, the pronunciation barrier continually increases and makes it harder for people to understand one another.


The English language, specifically, is very complex and is made up of 19 different vowel sounds. An example of the complexity of the English language is that a single word can be pronounced in several different ways depending on the context. As a result, conversational speech can be tricky, and many things that people say can be easily misinterpreted.


At Towajo, we are challenging you to continually improve the quality of your spoken English and your pronunciation. Our system provides you with the necessary tools to be successful.


Recommendations for Business Professionals


This is what happens when you take something that you heard in a movie or a conversation, or that you read in a book, magazine, or even the dictionary, and decide to start using it, without taking the time to truly understand the actual words.


English curse words are appearing on Asian (mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) t-shirts, restaurant menus, street signs, and department stores in droves.


There seems to be some sort of consensus that if one took a few years (or even several years) of English classes that it makes one an authority on the language. This simply is not true. Not only is it not true for English, but it is not true for any language.


Interestingly, these types of inappropriate English words are not just seen on T-shirts. Inappropriate English words can be seen in print advertisements, as signage on university campuses, in business names – and probably most frequently of all, on restaurant menus.


And, from what we have seen, the Asian markets are most susceptible to these types of improper and offensive use of the English language.  Our research on mainstream Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese cultures revealed a very accepting attitude toward many things American.  Mainstream Asian cultures often seem so open to American culture that they accept words and phrases from the English language without question.


We are hoping that this article will help business gatekeepers to be more aware of the manner in which their businesses are being represented.  We are hoping that this article will help compel businesses to be more critical of the English words and phrases that they use to sell their products.


1) Learn the definition of the word/phrase that you wish to use

2) Understand the various contexts in which the word/phrase is used by native speakers

3) Understand when the word/phrase is formal or informal, and whether or not it is appropriate in both situations

4) Understand your target audience

5) Share your idea with native speakers and watch their reactions

6) Share your idea with native speakers and ask them to provide their honest feedback with you

A Warning About English Teachers

This is a Public Service Announcement (PSA).  All persons who claim to be English Teachers are not necessarily good English Teachers.  In fact, many who call themselves English teachers are not even native English speakers and have not learned English well enough to understand the very basics of the language.


Sure.  There will be situations where students want to casually take English lessons with a teacher who is not a native speaker of the language.  In these situations, the student might want to do something like improve their vocabulary skills or prepare for a specific test.  In such instances, an individual with moderate English skills might suffice.  But, this article attempts to serve as a warning to those who are in search of qualified, professional English teachers.


Take a look at the attachment.


Not only is the advertisement full of grammatical errors, but the English is also quite unnatural.  The writing illustrates an extremely low level of English language proficiency.  The author of this ad claims to be a professional English teacher, however he/she seems to have simply memorized some vocabulary words and randomly pulled these words together in what is supposed to be a demonstration of his professional English language services.


But instead of demonstrating English language ability, this person is actually demonstrating a distinct inability to use the English language.


If you are in need of English language instructional services, we recommend locating a native speaker who has experience in the actual language, itself.  And it is even better if the native speaker has experience as an actual instructor.  Otherwise, you could be learning a version of English that is nothing like the version that native English speakers use.


We highly recommend that you choose your next English Teacher wisely.  Good luck!

Like Driving A Car

When we first learn to drive a car, we are a bit jittery.  Thinking about all of the things that we have to remember, all at the same time, overwhelms us and makes us nervous.  But, over time, we learn to coordinate the individual movements that once seemed so tricky.  We can steer, check the rearview mirror, adjust our speed, change gears, turn on the blinker, and apply the breaks – all subconsciously.


So, even though we are not actively aware of each individual task that we are completing, we are often doing each of them like a professional!


How did we get to this level of driving?  Obviously, with practice.


Learning to speak English sounds clearly is just like learning to drive.  First, you learn to distinguish between the different English sounds.  This is the easy part of the process.  The hard work begins in the next step.  After you are able to confidently distinguish between the different sounds of English, you then must learn how to actually pronounce each of the sounds.


You must learn to coordinate muscle movements in your mouth, throat, tongue, soft palate, and your lips.  You will also likely need to learn to use your air in a different manner.  English vowels are shaped a special way in our mouths.  And our sounds are produced higher inside of our mouths and throats than in many other languages.  Additionally, we connect words and phrases in a unique manner.


So, you see, it is not simply the sounds that help you to speak English more clearly.  There is an overall approach to speaking English sounds that must be learned.  But, take our word for it.  It really is like driving a car.  Once you learn the basics, you become more comfortable with them.  Then, you learn more advanced skills and become comfortable with those.  Over time, you will notice your mastery and your comfort level significantly improving.


And if you have not already done so, taking a moment to listen to some of our students’ progress recordings might be helpful.  Their progress is so significant, that many times people think that they are actually listening to different speakers.


When you approach English through the filter of another language (your native language), everything that you perceive about English is affected by that language (your native language). This is why we prioritize learning as much as possible about other languages.  And because we have gathered information about our students’ experience with language, we are able to use that knowledge to help our students grasp important concepts about English.  In other words, we teach our students English in a way that they can actually learn it.


Remember the Towajo motto: We teach you to speak English clearly, confidently, accurately, and naturally.  Our System guarantees absolute results.


(Thank you, Dmitry Maslov for inspiring this article.  It is always fun exploring with you.)

The Humming Test

The Humming Test is unique to The Towajo System.  Miracle will often direct her students to hum so that she can assess their shapes, sound patterns, and the amount of tension present in their mouths, throats, tongues, and soft palates.  In case you are not familiar, humming is like singing but with the lips closed.  The sounds that are produced when a person hums gives several indicators as to the speaker’s vocal patterns.


Native English speakers produce sounds high in their mouths, and the sounds resonate high in the speaker’s head.  Speaking English is like making music.  The muscles and the air move together in harmony.  They move together fluidly; naturally.


Many people who speak English as a foreign language will produce the humming sound in a very different way than native English speakers.  These same non-native English speakers will often times produce sounds very low in their throats.  In these instances, the muscles will be relatively tense and there will be a feeling that the speaker is attempting to “control” the sounds.


Standard English, as spoken by native English speakers, will flow and have a melodic feel to it. The muscles and the air move together in unison, creating smooth, melodic sounds.


Focusing on where and how sounds are produced may seem trite.  It may even seem non-sensical. But, this is actually a foundational step of the Towajo Pronunciation System. Understanding how, exactly, a student produces sounds helps us to assess their needs and develop a plan which will help them to achieve their goals.


For our students, learning how to “hum,” the Towajo way, opens the door to teaching a student how to speak English more clearly and naturally.

The Towajo Method – Effective or Not?

Many of the students who approach us with the intention of learning to speak English more clearly often times expect us to teach them according to the way that they have experienced language learning in school.  But, we ask new students to consider something very important.


How long have you been speaking English?  Are you pleased with the results that you have achieved thus far with your spoken language skills?  Think of what you have been doing to learn to speak English clearly and ask yourself, “Is this working for me?…Have I achieved the results that I wanted?” Have your efforts to speak English more clearly been effective or ineffective?


Chances are that if you are on this website, you are interested in improving your spoken English skills.  And if you are on this website with these specific interests, then you may be curious about the effectiveness of the Towajo System.


The Towajo Pronunciation System is unlike anything that you have ever encountered before. There is absolutely nothing traditional about our methodology.  And so, while our system is nothing like any other system that you have encountered, there is one thing that we can guarantee you, and that is that our system is effective.  We help students help students to achieve results.


100% of the students who follow our system achieve measurable results within 6 months.  So, while our methodology is, without doubt, untraditional, it is also extremely effective.  Our methods will undoubtedly be different from anything you have ever attempted when learning English sounds, but our methods will also deliver amazing results for you.



The Towajo Method guarantees results.

Set a Goal

No matter where you are on your English journey, you surely have pronunciation goals that you have set for yourself.  Maybe you have big dreams of being able to speak English like a native. Maybe you want to earn a promotion at work.  Maybe you want to study at a university in the US. Maybe you just want to be able to sound cool with your friends.


Whatever your English pronunciation goals are, you have to identify them clearly before you can expect to make any significant progress in the desired areas.


Once you have identified your goals, you will then want to identify the key tools, resources, and people who can help you reach your goals.  Keep in mind that a person is not necessarily able to teach you native English pronunciation, simply because they speak the language.  It is better to seek out someone who has been trained in the field of language sounds and how to pronounce them if you really want to maximize results in this area.


The majority of our students have the goal of speaking English clearly.  They want to be understood. They do not want to have to repeat themselves over and over again because the listener does not understand their pronunciation.  They want English speakers to engage in conversation with them with ease – with a certain comfort level.  It is considered a great compliment in these cases if native speakers understand a non-native speaker’s English with minimum confusion.


Then there are the students who set the goal of sounding as much like a native speaker as possible. They take pleasure in receiving feedback that they pronounce English words like native speakers.  They work hard to master the techniques required to speak a foreign language correctly.  Often times, such individuals are teachers, professors, and linguists.


But, no matter if you simply want to improve your English pronunciation, or learn to pronounce English sounds like a native speaker, or even if you strive for some sort of balance between these two extremes – understanding your goal is the first step to success.  From there, you will need to find a qualified individual who can help you achieve your specific goals.


Students who move forward with learning without understanding their goals often find themselves frustrated.  They go in circles without feeling like they have achieved any significant success.



And as you set your goals, we would like to remind you of the following:  A language cannot cannot be said to be truly mastered unless the speaker communicates in a way that is understood, and unless the listener possesses the skills to decipher spoken language correctly.


Good luck to you as you set your goals and set out to meet them.  We wish you great success on your English journey.  And if we at The Towajo English Language Institute can do anything to assist you, just let us know.