As it turns out, Henry Higgins was onto something. “The Rain in Spain” makes quite a creditable lesson in pronunciation.
This week I did five shows – essentially the same set of pronunciation exercises with different classes — and by the end, I felt as if I had done five complete performances of “My Fair Lady.” No, I didn’t sing or dance a tango, nor did I tell the students their lesson was really a song from a Broadway show (a concept they have yet to grasp). I would have, if I’d loaded it on my iTunes before I left home or been able to play the number on YouTube, which is technically banned in China. Thanks to a borrowed mobile wireless card with a British connection, I can actually get to YouTube, but for a video the connection is excruciatingly slow, so I didn’t bother carrying my laptop to class. Anyway, why not let the kids think I’m a serious teacher?
“The Rain in Spain” consists of two sentences, both of which contain legitimate pronunciation points. In the first – The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain – the sound in question is obviously the long-A sound. The students had no trouble pronouncing “rain” perfectly, but after that, something happened, possibly fatigue setting in; it came out sounding more like The rain in Spen stehs menly in the plen. I had them practice exaggerating the wide-open-side-to-side lip movement, and while they were never perfect all the way through, they did improve.
The second sentence – In Hartford, Hereford and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly (in the original Shaw, ever) happen – was devised, of course, to help Eliza Doolittle overcome her Cockney tendency to drop her H’s. The Chinese seem to have no problem with the H sound; it exists in their language. (Ni hao ma? Wo hen hao.) But the sentence offered several examples of the weak-vowel sound on unaccented syllables. The students overpronounced Hart-ford and Here-ford instead of saying them the way English-speakers would – Hartferd and Hereferd. It also served up an instance of differences between American and British pronunciations, a subject on which the students are very curious. So I could invoke the rain-Spain-plain sound of the American version and then counter it with the more British hurrikuns.
These lines are also good for practicing word linkage (rain in pronounced like raining, not rain/in; hardly ever more like hardliever) and the short-I sound of in and if, which, here as in Europe, tends to come out as een and eef. After several rounds of drilling, I almost sounded a little too much like Henry Higgins – “a-GAIN” – and didn’t want to have to explain that I was dangerously close to breaking into song.
But in at least one class, I did get a round of applause. After a series of minimal-pairs exercises addressing sounds with which the Chinese often have trouble – for example, river versus liver — I gave them four tongue-twisters: “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” (good for P sounds and short I); “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” (wood and would, not wooed); “She sells seashells by the seashore” (three difference S sounds); and my personal nemesis, “rubber baby buggy bumpers.” I demonstrated by saying the complete “Peter Piper” as fast as I could without tripping over it and, in the week’s final performance, got a round of spontaneous applause. I took a bow.
Postscript: In the course of using Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire to prompt discussion, I posed one of its more intriguing questions — “On what occasion do you lie?” – and encouraged students to tell me the truth. They admitted lying to their parents, occasionally, when they had done something bad or didn’t want them to worry. I took it one step further: “Do you ever lie to your teachers?” When they admitted yes, they do, from time to time, I seized the opportunity and introduced them to that perennial American excuse for late homework, “The dog ate it,” which produced peals of laughter. And then I told them every New Yorker’s excuse, which is never questioned, for lateness or a no-show: “Stuck on the subway.” (I used it myself on my last day at The Times to skip the hated 10 o’clock meeting.) I hear that nearby Changsha, the provincial capital, is building a subway, so who knows? It may come in handy someday.