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Sound and nonsense

To a nonnative speaker, what a difference a misheard word makes.

By Jennie Chu / June 27, 2013

Baltimore Oriole – in Indiana

Bob Wellinski/The LaPorte Herald-Argus/AP

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I used to dream of a stadium filled with fans, everyone on their feet and holding a chocolate sandwich cookie, chanting, "Oreos, Oreos, Oreos," as Baltimore's baseball team won the World Series.

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I should be clear that (a) I know nothing about baseball, (b) I love Oreos, and (c) English is my second language. It is incredibly easy for me to mix up words that sound similar.

My Oreos dreams persisted until one night when I was having dinner with my friend Dave, a sports fanatic, and the subject of baseball came up.

"How cool is that?" I said. "A baseball team is named after a cookie!"

"What team is named after a cookie?" Dave asked.

"Oreos – you know, the Baltimore team."

Dave cast a long, silent glance at me and then said: "The Orioles are named after a bird, not a cookie." He proceeded to spell it, trying to get me to pick up the difference between orioles and Oreos. I could hear the laughter in his voice.

This business of mixing up words is embarrassing, especially when I mispronounce people's names. Craig and Greg; John and Joan; Marian and Myriam. A few years ago, I worked with a Gail, who sat across from me, and a Gil, who sat next to me. When I called out to Gail (or to Gil), nine times out of 10, both would reply, "Are you talking to me?"

My son Alex laughed his pants off (not pans or pens, but pants) when I told him I had a "sneaker" for a snack. "Mom," he said, "Snickers, S-n-i-c-k-e-r-s, is a candy bar. Sneaker, s-n-e-a-k-e-r, is the shoe."

At least I am not swimming alone in this sea of mispronunciation. According to englishforums.com and collegenet.com, both native and nonnative speakers have trouble pronouncing words like nuclear, Realtor, jewelry, library, and rural. Nuclear is often mispronounced "nu-cu-lear," Realtor becomes "Rea-la-tor," and jewelry changes to "jew-le-ry." Dr. Language at yourdictionary.com lists the 100 most often mispronounced words and phrases in English. For all intents and purposes (not "all intensive purposes"), here are some words to watch out for.

•Carpal tunnel syndrome is a medical condition, not an instance of carpooling in a tunnel.

•While a card shark sounds more dangerous, the word is cardsharp.

•Bob wire did not fence off the American frontier, barbed wire did.

•A blessing in the skies may refer to a rainbow, but you probably misheard "a blessing in disguise."

"Take your time speaking, correctly enunciating each word," is Dr. Language's advice.

An added bonus is that pronouncing words correctly helps you spell them accurately, too, says Dr. Language. A friend of mine, who is a Venezuelan living in the United States, once wrote "see me before you live" on a note to one of his staff. Had my friend pronounced "live" and "leave" properly, he could have avoided ever having to employ a dead person.

"Pay particular attention to new sounds," says Linda Miller, associate director at the Emerson College Writing Center, who has taught English as a second language for 30-plus years. Many English sounds don't exist in other languages, so nonnative speakers like me often substitute unfamiliar sounds with sounds they know from their own language. Linda was sometimes called "Rinda" because the "l" sound doesn't exist in the speaker's native language. And I had once announced my intention to memorize a "ple-teho-la" of English vocabularies in an ESL class. Chinese, my mother tongue, does not possess the sound of "th" or "r," after all.

Armed with tips from the experts, I asked Alex to demonstrate the correct pronunciation of orioles and Oreos. Unlike Eliza in "My Fair Lady" who was able to enunciate "rain," "Spain," and "plain" with clarity after some training, I never arrived at the epiphany of correctly distinguishing orioles from Oreos. Granted, Alex is no Professor Higgins and a two-minute lesson is all we could handle as mother and son.

I no longer dream about a stadium full of fans chanting "Oreos, Oreos." I now dream about a flock of little bright orange birds singing to me like a church choir with a mission: "Orioles, orioles, orioles...."

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