Monotonous Czechs and insincere Americans: does the way we talk influence our prejudices?

Jan Volín, photo: David Vaughan

Every language has its own rhythms and melodies, and these influence the way we speak foreign languages too. However hard we try, we nearly always end up imposing the melodies of our native tongue onto the language we’re trying to speak. Would Greta Garbo saying “I want to be alone” or JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” be the same without the accent? This question is not just a curiosity. With so much of the world’s communication going on in English, a group of academics at the Institute of Phonetics of Prague’s Charles University is researching into how English spoken with a Czech accent influences its impact on native speakers. David Vaughan has been investigating.

Jan Volín,  photo: David Vaughan
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard native English speakers complain that Czechs sound monotonous, disengaged or even bored when they’re speaking English. This has nothing to do with some kind of Czech national malaise and everything to do with the way that Czech works as a language. And it works both ways. When spoken with the more pronounced melodies of English, Czech tends to sound rather artificial, even insincere. All this can and does lead to misunderstandings. A team at Charles University led by Professor Jan Volín has decided to study the phenomenon systematically. I went to the Institute of Phonetics to find out more from Professor Volín.

“Foreign accents are patterns of pronunciation that are different from the ways that native speakers of a language pronounce words and phrases, and we’re interested in the differences themselves – how is it different, can we describe it without just having impressions, can we have some specific descriptions of what is different? But then, importantly, what effect does this have on the listener.”

Which languages are you working with?

“Right now we’re working with English, because many of our students want to learn English as their second language and we want to know which aspects of the Czech pronunciation of English may hinder understanding on the processing level.”

Can you give me examples of typical features of Czech English?

“Many people notice very quickly that Czech speakers have problems pronouncing certain speech sounds – dental ‘th’ is sometimes pronounced differently, very often as ‘d’ or ‘v’. Teachers focus on this, but we want to know if it is really damaging, is it really important to focus so much on dental fricatives. Maybe yes, maybe no. Some linguistic extremists would say that you have to be perfect: ‘Just pay us the money and we’ll teach you to sound just right’, and other extremists say, ‘It doesn’t matter at all. As long as you can buy your postcard and hotdog you can speak the way you want to.’ But we want to know the real situation. “

Another example that native speakers notice among Czechs is the difficulty they sometimes have pronouncing the English letter ‘a’ as ‘e’, or saying ‘t’ instead of ‘d’ at the end of a word…

Photo: Radio Prague International
“… and interestingly people notice these little differences more than the so-called prosodic aspects [rhythm, stress and intonation]. If we look at the word ‘accent’ itself, what is accent? It’s not individual phones or phonemes. It’s the rhythms of speech, it’s the different melodies, and that is what I personally am focusing on.”

That’s interesting, because I think quite often English spoken by Czechs can sound slightly monotonous. I think that probably has something to do with the more regular rhythms of Czech, doesn’t it?

“Yes. In Czech the word-stress has a different role. It does not serve as much as in English to identify the word, so it’s much less contrastive. We do not have as much movement with the melodies and some other factors of prominence as you need to have in English. So this monotony is one of the things we want to model, because it’s one thing to notice the monotony, but another to find out whether it really affects the processing of speech in the brain of the listener.”

That brings up all sorts of questions as to whether the accent that someone has might even feed prejudice among native speakers. Because a Czech is speaking English and it sounds slightly more monotonous than it would if a native speaker were speaking, they might come to the conclusion that the person is bored or uninvolved.

“Yes. To show involvement in the other person’s business, whatever they say, is very important in interpersonal communication. But how do you show involvement if you have flat melodies and very narrow pitch range?”

Do you think it works the other way round, that when a Czech hears a native English speaker speaking Czech with an English accent, that having that extra melody which isn’t there in Czech might make is sound slightly false or strange?

“Yes. If the melodies in Czech are exaggerated, it very often leads to the impression of non-genuine statements, or pretending something. But these are informal observations and our task is to find their limits and their exact description.”

So how can you go about measuring these things scientifically?

Illustrative photo: Ambro /
“It’s time-consuming, but current technology allows for very specific measurements. The instruments can measure thousands of different features every second, but we have to find out what it is that the listener listens to.”

All this sounds very scientific, but it’s very important, because there must be hundreds of thousands of Czechs who are involved in business in some way or another, who are speaking English with their business partners or whoever they get in touch with around the world, and who want to get their message across as clearly as possible. And they might not be doing so.

“Exactly. Some people suspect that we are too technical and too scientific in our research, but that’s not the case. Our main objective is human communication. We want people to talk to each other and understand each other as smoothly as possible without misunderstanding. That’s the ultimate goal. How do you make the person understand what you really want and how do you understand what they really want without unnecessary conflicts and silly presumptions. So it’s the communication that is our focus. But to do something with it, because it’s so complex, we have to go into technical detail.”

Could you give us an example?

“What we did last year was to take some fairly neutral sentences pronounced by professional book readers or news readers or actors who act in radio plays, and we manipulated durations of vowels. Stressed vowels were shortened and unstressed vowels were lengthened. And then we had pairs of sentences. One was always as it would usually be pronounced in a news reading, a book reading, or on the radio, and the other one sounded almost the same only the timing of vowels was different. So it was barely noticeable, but if you listened closely you’d notice that it sounded a little bit strange. And then we jumbled the sentences, put them in random order and we asked people various types of questions which contained our hidden agenda. It was about how nervous this person sounds to you. We wanted to know if this effect will do anything with perception of how nervous or self-composed the speaker is. And we found that it really did have an effect. We had various questions, but to all of them we always received a higher score for the sentence where the timing of vowels was slightly different from natural, fluent speech.”

As a non-native speaker of Czech, one thing that fascinates me and that I have always found very difficult is the fact that you always put the stress on the first syllable, but quite often, later on in the same word, you have a long syllable that isn’t stressed.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Stress is an abstract category and individual languages fill it with their own requirements. So in English it’s very typical to stretch the length of the stressed vowel. That’s part of it and almost one of the most important aspects of the stressed syllable. In Czech we can’t do that because we need duration to differentiate between short and long ‘a’ which can lead to lexical differences, to different meanings. We have words like ‘pata’ and ‘pátá’ and it’s not about stress. It’s about different words [‘pata’ =‘heel’, ‘pátá’ = ‘fifth’]. So in Czech the stress has a different signature, not stretching the timing. In Germanic languages, like Swedish, German, Dutch, English, you have to stretch the stressed syllable and you build different expectations.”

You have said that the aim of learning a foreign language isn’t necessarily to get everything right…

“Yes. But people very often want us to tell them what is correct. They’re disappointed if you tell them that there is no universal correctness. You always have to ask who is listening, what their expectations are and also what time you’re living in, because there were periods when various features were attractive and prestigious and thirty years later you find out that people don’t like them anymore. There were periods in the United States when in certain circles British ‘received pronunciation’ was preferred. Now they laugh at it. And the question always is: Is the difference superficial, is it just fun, or does it affect the outcome of communication if you speak in a particular way? You may understand what the other person is saying, but if you’re not willing to work with them, to cooperate, then it is a serious problem.”

Czechs are being exposed a great deal to English at the moment. Is there also some influence of English – or American English – on the way Czechs speak Czech?

“There is some influence but mainly it’s in vocabulary – we are importing words. It is in some phrases that are directly translated. It is words that we accept and we just add Czech endings to them. But the accent itself, the sound, the pronunciation – that is much more resistant to the influence. You will not easily implant American intonation, American melody of speech, onto Czech, but you can easily take an American word or an American phrase and you distort its sound – you pronounce it with Czech sounds – but yes it is the influence of American English at this level.”