Englishes MOOC

2019–ongoing Massive Online Open Course

English is the dominant language of instruction, distribution, and evaluation in the globalized art world. As a result, the variety of English that has emerged in the profession also finds its way into actual works of art, regardless of the language background of the makers. It can be said that art translates the world to English, and so the question arises: Which English and whose English should artists work with?

This course was originally taught in person by Nicoline van Harskamp for Master of Arts students in six modules: English varieties, phonetics, postcolonial language, intonation, professional language, and invented language. The aim of the thematic classes was to develop awareness and practical skills toward the shaping of an inclusive and varied use of English as an artistic medium.

In the subsequent Online Open Course, the qualities of the multilingual classroom are maintained. Female actors from different language backgrounds teach, or rather perform, classes in different types of English. Actual students and alumni from affiliated institutions take the classes– in a way they are “performing” the process of learning. The course material is presented as short videos and video transcripts. Additional research material is available as text, audio, and weblinks. Englishes MOOC was initially offered for fixed groups over a six-week study period, and is now available for continuous use by the wider public. Participation is free of charge.


Realized in co-operation with the Sandberg Institute and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and co-hosted by HEAD in Zurich, Central Saint Martins in London, and Pratt Institute in New York. Presented at HKW in Berlin, Kunstraum D21 in Leipzig, and Edith-Russ-Haus für Medienkunst in Oldenburg.

With Ayca Ekim,  Paula Juan Lima, Pilipili Bwanga, Yurie Umamoto, Catherine Lord, Zoénie Liwen Deng.

Darling Good Night

2016 Video

In 2015, while over a million people entered Europe in search of refuge from war, national governments set up ad hoc support systems according to their political priorities at that moment. In Norway, people were sent to the underpopulated northern part of the country, where they had the chance to obtain a residence permit after six hundred hours of language training. The Norwegian language Nynorsk was taught there, rather than the more commonly used Bokmål. Since most people expected to be using English in the first place, this was perceived as a major setback.

In Darling Goodnight, people describe their experiences fleeing from their homeland via (or through) the stories of the languages they used.  These “linguistic journeys” from Eritrea, Syria, Ethiopia, or Sudan to Europe are clearly marked by the proficiency in English, as can be heard in the different registers and pronunciations of English. Most interviews were conducted in their remote, temporary home: the now-closed Jølster refugee center in Norway. While the interviewees remain invisible in Darling Goodnight at their own request, the video shows the still Jølster lake, surrounded by mountains.

Co-produced and acquired by the Sogn og Fjordane Kunstmuseum in Førde (Norway). Presented at the Galerie UQO in Gatineau (Canada), CCAC in Córdoba, and BAK in Utrecht.

Every Minute a Language Dies

2016 Video

The 1996 Barcelona Declaration is a statement of intent between non-governmental organizations worldwide that aims to protect linguistic rights in general, and those of speakers of endangered languages in particular. Since then, Barcelona is home to many NGOs working in the field of language preservation, notably the Catalan language. In this short video, Spanish and Catalan nationals can be heard disagreeing about the lifespan of a language and its attachment to place, and about what happens when two different language groups come into contact. In their attempt to convince the interviewer, they can be heard exaggerating the facts. The audio track is accompanied by a simple animation of drawn hands using a very different—and arguably more “universal”—form of language, namely, that of gesturing.

Co-produced by the Barcelona Art Residency (BAR). Presented at the Galerie UQO in Gatineau (Canada), CCAC in Córdoba, and BAK in Utrecht.

Apologies and Compliments

2016 Video

Discourse Analysis is field of linguistics that investigates, in great detail, how spoken language functions beyond its content. From conversation transcripts, marked with time codes that are sometimes accurate to the fifth of a second, analysts can extract patterns and social conventions around speaking.

Apologies and compliments can be used as effective, but rather unsubtle, language tools to change the course of a conversation or to establish power in a relationship, even more so where the conditions for conversation itself are concerned.

The Discourse and Rhetoric Group at Loughborough University was given a number of video excerpts from the Englishes series, in which someone is complimented on or apologizes for their English. Students and instructors interpret and analyze these using the Jefferson Transcription System, which is specific to discourse analysis. The video shows the annotated documents used during the session, while members of the group can be heard speaking.

Made in collaboration with the Discourse and Rhetoric Group and the Radar Programme at Loughborough University. Presented at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, CCAC in Córdoba, BAK in Utrecht, and Radar in Loughborough.


2016 Video

Esperanto is an international link language, designed by LL Zamenhof in 1887. Although his project is now mostly referred to as an experiment, it has been a contender to become a world language. A proposal to make Esperanto the working language of the United Nations was narrowly rejected in favor of English and French after the First World War.

Esperanto’s structure allows a basic word to be expanded in meaning with prefixes and suffixes, and it can therefore achieve a high level of abstraction. As a result, it could very well be what “art English” is today: a professional jargon for the art world to generate overall discourse and create new terms.

For Esplorobjektoj—meaning “case studies”—a group of curators took a beginner Esperanto course, and then translated their curatorial statements from English into the language, with the help of a proficient Esperantist. The video shows a working session in which the curators struggle to take apart their own English terms, and then gradually rebuild them in Esperanto.

Made with De Appel Curatorial Programme and Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, with the aid of Leston Buell. Presented at Project Arts Center in Dublin, CCAC in Córdoba, BAK in Utrecht, and De Appel in Amsterdam.

Portrait of an Englishes Collector

2015 Video

The working life of a fictional character with the profession of ‘Englishes collector’ is presented in this thirty-four-minute video. From his home in a small Romanian village, he makes random calls around the world via international phone cards and a poor Skype connection. He asks respondents to converse with him in English and thus to contribute to his “independent research.” As a self-taught user of English, he manages to persuade many complete strangers to accept his request, and he even receives unsolicited language-learning tips.

Co-produced by the Salonul de Proiecte in Bucharest. Presented at the Galerie UQO in Gatineau (Canada), Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Waterside Contemporary in London, CCAC in Córdoba, BAK in Utrecht, and the Institut français and Salonul de proiecte in Bucharest.

With Voicu Radescu.

A Romance in Five Acts and Twenty-One Englishes

2014–15 Live events, stage performance, installation, and book

The play Pygmalion: A Romance in Five Acts by George Bernard Shaw, set and written in 1912, is a story about two linguists who make a bet on the possibility of teaching an uneducated young woman to speak as if she were a member of the British upper class. The play became famous in 1964, when the musical and film My Fair Lady, which was based on it, was released and subsequently translated into countless languages.

For a live event at Kunstraum in London, twenty-one translations of the book were collected, and twenty-one native speakers of those languages were invited. The participants sat around a large table and took turns translating a paragraph from the book back into English. Due to the direct, spoken way of translation, traces of the original languages appeared in the new version of the piece.

Onomatopee published the play as a book, and a cast of native English-speaking actors later staged the second act of the play in its non-native English adaptation. Recordings of the performance and creation of this stage performance were shown as a video installation.

Co-produced by Kunstraum London. Staged live at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, Onomatopee in Eindhoven, and De Theaterkamer in Amsterdam. The video was presented at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery in Montréal, CCAC in Córdoba, BAK in Utrecht, Onomatopee in Eindhoven,  and Kunstraum in London. The book version was published by Onomatopee in Eindhoven.

With Mark Bellamy, Claire King, Mark Kingsford, Ralph de Rijke and Cézanne Tegelberg.

Her Production

2014 Video

International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a notation system for sounds that humans can make in speech, and is largely attributed to the phonetician Daniel Jones, also the initiator of the yearly Summer Course in English Phonetics (SCEP). The SCEP still brings together hundreds of English teachers and scholars from all over the world at the to the University College in London every year.

Nicoline van Harskamp, who taught herself IPA with online courses, attended the SCEP and conducted an experiment using her fellow students and her instructors. She played them an audio clip with her own voice and asked them to comment on her English or, in linguistic terms, her “production”. The various critiques are collaged into an audio track and subtitled using IPA.

Produced at the 2014 Summer Course for English Phonetics at the University College London. Presented at the Galerie UQO in Gatineau (Canada), West in Den Haag, Project Art Center in Dublin, HEAD in Zurich, CCAC in Córdoba, BAK in Utrecht, and Onomatopee in Eindhoven.

She Put Me in Complexity of Words

2014 Video

Four proficient, predominantly self-taught English speakers were invited to the remote Swedish island Gotland. The women, who came from Korea, Cuba, Serbia, and Iran, spent three days in an isolated house and tried to familiarize themselves with each other’s English, using existing linguistic experiments as a tool. The video is the result of one of such experiments, in which the women rephrase each other’s sentences in English, appropriating them to their own variety of English rather than creating more “accurate” versions.

She Put Me in Complexity of Words was filmed by a local crew on Hammar’s Beach, the exact location where Ingmar Bergman shot Persona in 1966. In this film, two women famously get entangled in each other’s identities.

Co-produced by the Baltic Art Centre in Visby (Sweden). Presented at Kunstraum in London, and Onomatopee in Eindhoven.

With Jinjoo Kim, Setareh Fatehi Irani, Katarina Popovic and Susana Pilar Delahante Matienzo.

New Latin

2010 Live performance and video

For this work, linguists, artists, politicians, language teachers, and NGO workers in Romania were interviewed about the influence of English on their working fields since the end of the dictatorship in 1989. From the transcribed conversations, a discussion was scripted between a curator and an artist. They were subsequently performed live by the Romanian actor Daniel Popa and Nicoline van Harskamp, who, as a non-Romanian speaker, needed to memorize her lines phonetically. New Latin was performed for a mixed-language audience and an English translation was provided on handouts. Recordings of the live event were later subtitled in English.

Presented live at the 2010 Bucharest Biennale. Video presented at the Silent University at Tate Modern in London, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Not Only Arabic Language School in Amsterdam, Yapi Kredi Cultural Center in Istanbul, and Jackman Humanities Institute, Toronto.

With Daniel Popa, Nicoline van Harskamp, Alice Gancevici and Remus Pecariu.

The video series Englishes (2013–16) is an investigation in the modification of the English language by ‘non-native’ speakers. Each work was produced in collaboration with an art institution or university, broaching a particular area of linguistics such as phonology, pragmatics, or translation. The extensive research behind the works was made available on the online course Englishes.

Her Production – full length video
Darling Goodnight – video excerpt

Darling Goodnight

I travel from Syria. I know only: “Hi, goodbye, ticket, money, translator, darling goodnight.” First county Libya. We can’t speak English. We live in Libya for three year. When we learn before English, easy travel. I have someone help until Belgium. After Belgium I have big problem. Stress. I can’t speak until Norway. Some face Arabic I go: “Can you speak Arabic?” When I speak Arabic, help me little bit. In Norway I start learn myself English.

I studied in the university of Aleppo. I didn’t study the English language to communicate with others. I studied just to get a job. But I was obliged to run from Syria, to fetch another country. So I found myself in need for this language. In Turkey they don’t use English, even if they know. They love their language and English is not suffice. So I choose to go to a country which speak English language. It was hard to go England so I come here. I went by foot and some cars.  I passed through Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Hungaria, Austria, Germany, Sweden, then Norway. My friends, all the way they depended on me. They call me ‘translator’ or ‘teacher’. I feel myself useful for others. But a problem facing us here in Norway is that they have two languages. The formal language is Bokmål but they want us to learn Nynorsk. You can say Nynorsk is the language of the villages. And they want us to spread this language. It make us feel pessimistic. No one want to learn. I go to school only to take the 600 hours that is needed for me to get a permanent residence in Norway.

Wat times does the train go? You can help me?

How are you? I am fine, and you?

You must go to football. It’s today, time five o’clock.

I am an old generation. Teachers from England, they come to Sudan. I remember it till I die: “Where is it going, that big British ship? It’s going to India, China, Malay. For me, for you, for cotton, for rubber.” Every man, everybody in the world, he know the important of English. In Norway, they want you to speak Norsk. But if you are in the station or in the supermarket, they will tell you in English. Because they want you to pay.

I love the letter O. Because name for me beginning letter of O. I come to Sudan and Egypt and after that Libya, after that travel by boat to Italia, then Switzerland, Germany, Sweden. Come to Norway. Italy speak English language little. Hotels, restaurants. There is not anything you can say and translator for me that is so bad one. Now I am study Norske Sentrum, but I like to learn English. I listen to songs Bob Marley, sing by English.

First country, which country you? Ethiopia.

How many time Norway? I am asylum seeker.

From Syria to Bangkok, Bangkok to Oslo. I should continue to New York. I got a visa to America but I decide to go to Oslo because I heard the process here is faster than others country. Still I have nothing. No document. I studied in Malaysia and I worked in South Africa, and English you can find everywhere. It solves all your problems and your issues. Three things important when you travel: English, dollar and McDonalds. And to say: “thank you, thank you” and “please”.

Freedom. When I write or I listen for that word, I feel happy. Just I feel I am released from any confusion. I speak in Tigrinya fluently and I had spoked English little. I got the English from elementary to high school. We have a problem of English because most of our teachers are came from India. Indian English is broken. Sometimes people learn English by payment. I didn’t done it. It is a mistake. I did so mistake! If I communicate by that English, now I’m sure I can speak fluently. I have spoken English for the first time when I have words with some Chinese people. Three guys, they speak English fluently but they speak simple words with us: “Wall. Take. Put.” I have used English from from I escaped from my country until I come to Norway. I communicate with all the people that I have meet by English and they understood me and they cooperate me. They receive us in Oslo from the police station. And they ask so many questions and then like that: “You are free, you can make interview and better for you to say here.” We are so happy. Most of the people, they treat us as much as their life. They give us all the things that we need. They give us a chance to learn English or Norsk, the language of the country. I am sure I get a job.

I watch mobile TV from English movies. For example, I like the Prison Break. I watch in Eritrea. My first language is Tigrinya. English is my second language in Eritrea. And I speak Amharic and Arabic. From Eritrea to Ethiopia, speak by Tigrinya. And in Sudan Arabic. From Sudan to Libya, the same. Italia, first meet in small town, me and my friends are very hungry, and we ask the church. But the priest of the Catholic not understand English. So at the last we met people from Eritrea and we take a ticket to Milano. From Milano to Bayern München. From München to Hamburg. From Hamburg to Malmö, to this country. My plan from choice is England but for myself I changing my plan.

One thing what I believe: I am not dependent of language. I am not depend of people speak language, not even body language. I believe always when I talk, I talk with myself first. Before it comes something, there is something going very fast in my brain. You don’t know what I am thinking, but you listen what I am saying. If you love someone, you understand before what he think. There is a mysterious language, you see. You don’t see it but you call it by your brain. How it’s beautiful.

The people, when they say: “I know”, it makes me laugh. Because knowing? For me impossible, knowing. Let us say one example. “I know war.” War? You seen in the movie, in the newspaper. But you have never been in the war. So you understand not as I know.

Interview excerpts from Darling Goodnight

Portrait of an Englishes Collector – video excerpt
New Latin – performance view

New Latin

DANIEL  Nicoline. Am vorbit puţin ieri. Am vorbit şi prin email. Şi am căzut de acord asupra unor subiecte pe care le vom discuta azi.


DANIEL  Am lucrat împreună de câteva ori dar ieri m-am uitat încă o dată la câteva din lucrările tale video. Şi ce am remarcat, (ca) de fiecare dată, este cât de mult sse vorbeste în lucrarile tale! 


DANIEL  Limbajul este fundamental pentru toate lucrarile tale.

NICOLINE  Da. Ioana, mi a sji prezentat activitata, ka find una axata, pe limbazj. Sji din poenktoel de vedere, al oenor aspekte formale, atsjest loekroe, este adeverat. Dar essensa loekrarilor melle, este examinara polititsjije. Ekziestensa, sa atat, la nivel individoewal sji kollektiv. Sji limbazjoel, este vehicoeloel prinsjipal al polititsjie.Binentseles, koe exceptsia violentsi. Sji asa ka pentroe, loekrarile melle, am alesj limbazjul ka principal vehikoel.

DANIEL Cum este şi cazul lucrării pe care o prezinţi aici la Bienala?

NICOLINE  Da, ekzakt.

DANIEL Poţi să vorbeşti un pic despre asta?

NICOLINE  Adekke, despre lukrare?

DANIEL Sau în general?

NICOLINE  Pwie, lukrare atsje, sjee bazezze, pe transkriera oenor conversatsie, la kare, am loewat parte. Lejam transformat, introen senarioe. Sji atsjest senarioe, a foest apoei, interpretat de aktorie.

DANIEL În cadrul unui eveniment live.

NICOLINE  Da. Desji, noe folosesk, limbazjoel, pentroe a analiza o idee abstrakt, de a me. Noe soent dzenoel de persona, kare skoate oen tekst, noe din nimiek, dintroen Word File gol. Mai degrabe, preloekres tsja, tsje sa spoes dezja. 

DANIEL Şi apoi faci un scenariu din asta?

NICOLINE  Oen senarioe. Da. Pentroe, ka existe, o poveste, a orikerei intalniri publice. Eksista probabil o poveste, kar she aieste, in atsjesta sitoeatsie. Intodeauna eksisto o poveste, o reprezentatsie de teatroe.

DANIEL Dar nu una exersata.

NICOLINE  Noe. Noe neaporat. Dar kateodata da.

DANIEL  Nicoline, eşti o artistă de naţionalitate olandeză dar lucrările tale sunt întotdeauna în engleza.


DANIEL  Cum asa?

NICOLINE  Madzoritata materialoe, loei pe kare il koeleg, este in engleza. Sji poeblikoel mejoe, koenoasjte engleza. Detsji, skrioe oen senarioe, sji apoei, il trimit, pentroe korrektare, oenoei editor vorbitor natiefde engleza. Sje apoei, treboeje, sji keses, aktorie vorbitori de limba engleza, koe kare soe loekres.

DANIEL  Şi-aici incep problemele, din câte îmi amintesc, nu?

NICOLINE  Asja e! Pentroe, koe doepatsje, a treboeje, soe moe desida, in lektoeroe, koe natsjonalitata aktoroeloei. Pardon… dar kiar sji, oen aktor amerikan, kare a lokoet in Europa, mai toata viatsa loej, va porea tot, ka oen persona, dintroen film de la Hollywood. Sji atsjest, loekroe poate, reprezenta o problema.


NICOLINE  De ekzemploe… Kand loekram, koe tine, anoel trekoet, am avoet atsjesta problema, kand intserkam saleg, pe sineva, pentroe roloel oenoei om de stat “oeniversal”. Detsji, oen aktor amerikan, sau britanik, noe ar fi mers. Mai tsji minte?

DANIEL  Da. Da, binenţeles.

NICOLINE  Panala oerma, am angazjat, un actor Frantsjes, kare vorbea eksellent engleza. Loekrase pentroe BBC. Dar printsjipala reaktsie, pe kare, am primito in lektoera, koe atsje loekrare, a foest “kare e faza koe frantjezoel?”

DANIEL  Normal.

NICOLINE  Sji, moelt mai tarzioe, am intzeles, koe problema, noe era faptoel, koe el era frantsjes. Problema a fuoest senarijoel. Am foekoet, asjea sji greal, pe kare, tind so fakoe, senarisjti amerikani. Noe sjioe, daka koenosti serialoel “West Wing”? Este oenoel, din favoritele mele.

DANIEL  Nu, nu cred că-l ştiu.

NICOLINE  Este, oen serial amerikan de televizjioene, despre the White House. Este, despre autori de diskoersoeri, sji ofitseri de press sji…

DANIEL  Sună interesant.

NICOLINE  Kiar este! Dar serialoel, fase, o mare eroare. De exemploe, o sena tipika, ar fi….Soe spoenem, ka predzidintele Statelor Oenite, intra intro inkapere, sji il intalnesjte, pe ambasadoroel Frantsei. Da? Sji ambasadoroel frantsez, vorbesjte o engleza perfekta, sar puta spoene kijar, native English, dar koe, aksent frantsjez.

DANIEL  Şi asta este o gresheala?

NICOLINE  Da. Pentroe, koe oen frantsjez, orikat de sus in ierarkia politika, ar folosi, alte kuvinte, o gramatika oen pik diferite, sau o alte, ordine a koevintelor. Melodik, ar soena diferit…

DANIEL  Şi ai făcut şi tu acelaşi lucru în cazul textului pentru actorul francez?

NICOLINE  Ekzakt. Replitsile lui, noe au foest adaptate, faptoeloei, ka limba, sa maternera frantsjeza.

DANIEL  Am întseles.

NICOLINE  Sji atoentsj, am intsepoet, sa ma gandesk, la eksistensa, acestoei fenomen, sji in alte prodoektsie coeltoerale. Shi la engleza, pe kare, o folosesk, kiar i-e-oe. Kum ar fi: a ki engleza, o folosesk, i-e-oe? Pot sa mi insoesjesk engleza, pe kare o vorbesk?


NICOLINE  Engleza imi apartsine, in atsea masoera, in kare apartsine, sji oenoei amerikan. Intseles?

Script excerpt from New Latin, with transcription in Dutch/English phonetics for Nicoline’s lines

Five One-Day Experiments in Hearing and Producing Englishes


Pronunciation is crucial to intelligibility in interlingual communication. When people use English as a vehicular language, pronunciation may become a marker of proficiency and status.

In order to understand what you hear in other people’s Englishes, to converge or diverge with others in conversation, you need to listen and analyse carefully. Phonetics can help you do this. It deals with production of speech – how you actually make sounds in your mouth – and also with the perception of speech – how you hear what other people say. Phonetics makes use of the international phonetic alphabet, or IPA. Every sound that you can make with your human breath, translates into a unique symbol.

IPA is built around two concepts: consonants and vowels. To understand the difference between them, I want you to consider the unique sound schwa. Schwa is the sound that you make when you do nothing with your mouth. You just let air pass. The symbol for that is /ə/. Everybody has their own non-sound, their own middle sound /ə/.

When your schwa leaves your body and is obstructed by a part of your mouth or throat, you produce a consonant. Your lips can make a P-sound transcribed as /p/, your tongue makes a T-sound transcribed as /t/, your throat makes a K-sound transcribed as /k/.

You can change the tone of your schwa by changing the inside shape of your mouth. When nothing obstructs the air and you use your mouth as a kind of musical instrument, you can make different vowels. In some ‘native’ varieties of English, the majority of vowels is replaced by schwa. In most other varieties of English, vowels are pronounced in a stronger form.

Today, listen out for schwa in other people’s speech and in your own.  

  • In conversation with somebody using Englishes, listen to the pitch of their schwa. Then try to adapt your own schwa to that pitch. What happens to your interaction when you converge to your conversation partner in that way?
  • Again in conversation, try to replace as many of your vowels with schwa, without becoming unintelligible. Again, what happens to the interaction?


Streams, puffs, and breaths of air become consonants and vowels, that form phonemes, that form words. And these spoken words make up phrases that can be timed and intoned in ways that make meaning. This ‘song’, generally known as ‘intonation’, can lend to the most basic or insecure speaker of a language an impression of fluency or authority.

Intonation patterns are anything but universal, but there are patterns that are well recognized among speakers of English as a link language. Here you see examples of intonation notation, that  analyses intonation through rhythm and pitch.  In the majority of languages syllables are stressed in a regular rhythm. In other languages, like ‘native’ varieties of English, syllables are stressed according to quite complex grammatical rules.

Examples of common stress patterns are:

Mid-level pattern: you stay in the middle pitch of your voice and sound a bit staccato. It’s how you finish a statement.  “I’ve just stated my opinion.”

Rise-fall pattern: you go up a little with your voice and then you fall. It results in more authoritative, argumentative sound that is likely  to provoke some kind of response. “It’s true because I say so.”  

Low-rise pattern: you start low in your voice and then you go up. “Do you?” The low-rise carries a subtext of disbelief. Repetitious use of the low rise can also result in something called ‘uptalk’, with which you may give the impression that you don’t believe your own words or that you need to seek permission to say what you say. “Is this what you want to hear?”

Today, listen out for these three patterns in other people’s or your own speech.

  • Do you agree with their descriptions?
  • Are there other patterns do you, yourself, use?

DAY 3: R

A consonant is made when two parts of your mouth create an obstruction for your breath on its way out. One part is active and one is passive. The places of air obstruction have names. BILABIAL: the upper lip is passive, the lower lip is active /b/.  LABIODENTAL: the upper teeth are passive, the lower lip is active /f/.  ALVEOLAR: deals with a little ridge just behind your front teeth. When this alveolar ridge is passive and the tip of your tongue touches it, you can make a sound like /d/ or /t/. POST-ALVEOLAR: the passive bit is just behind the alveolar ridge, your tongue tip is active /ʃ/  PALATAL: your soft palate is passive and the middle of your tongue is active /j/. VELAR: the back of your soft palate is passive. The middle of your tongue is active /k/. UVULAR: the little thing in the back of your throat is passive. The back of your tongue is active /x/.

We need to consider not only the place of obstruction but also the manner. When air escapes in little puffs, you produce a plosive. When air escapes through a small opening, you produce a fricative. When air escapes through a slightly bigger opening, you produce an approximant. When the active and the passive parts of your mouth trill together, you make a trill. When the active and the passive places touch briefly, just once, you make a tap.

The International Phonetic Alphabet identifies a consonant by combining a place and a manner of obstruction. The result is, for example a range of ways to produce a sound which orthographic transcription is usually an R. An alveolar approximant or /ɹ/ is produced in, among others, American English. A uvular approximant or /ʁ/ is produced by, among others, speakers of French. An alveolar trill /r/ and an alveolar tap /ɾ/ are produced by, among others, speakers of Spanish.

Languages that have been canonized to serve as so-called national languages, still have regional and social varieties when spoken. The pronunciation of R is a marker of difference in many languages, including all types of spoken English. In types of so-called rhotic Englishes, every R is pronounced. So a word like ‘writer’ can sound like /ɹaɪtɘɹ/, /raɪtɘr/ or /ʁaɪtɘʁ/.  In types of non-rhotic Englishes, the R is not pronounced after a vowel at the end of a word, resulting in /ɹaɪtə/ or /ɹaɪda/.

Today, try to identify the use of R in your own and other people’s spoken Englishes. Pay special attention to how consistent that use is. People who alternate between the manner of production, or between rhotic and a non-rhotic Englishes, tend to be multilinguals. What else do they have in common?


The IPA in a dictionary shows you how something should be pronounced by a national or academic standard. It is a phonemic transcription of a word. An IPA notation of detailed, individualized features of one person’s speech is called a phonetic transcription. It doesn’t prescribe what should be there, but it describes what is there,  resulting in something as subjective and personal as a drawing or handwriting.

There is no such thing as neutral hearing. Our own language background has as much influence on our hearing as on our speaking. Our hearing has an ‘accent’. My phonemic transcription of your speech can tell not only how you have said something to me, but also how I have heard you. Phoneticians have to take so-called ear training as part of their education. An interesting way to do you own ear training, is by concentrating on people’s names.

In situations where very complex ideas are conveyed in link languages, names are usually the only words that remain untranslated. Yet personal names are words that exist in particular languages. Your name is language. When somebody calls your name, you probably respond not to its meaning, but to its sound.

Speaking a name from an orthographic transcription in, say, the Roman alphabet, is notoriously problematic. But even when you say your own name out loud as part of an introduction, people may not be able to repeat it, because they are unable to reproduce your sounds, or even to capture them with their ears.

So today, when somebody tells you their name, take a moment to write it down as you hear it from their mouth. If you are already familiar with IPA, make a phonetic transcription. If you aren’t, write it in any other way that helps you to remember the sounds. When you back-check with the person whose name you’ve transcribed, you may discover that there are sounds that you are not able to hear. 


Incomprehension between speakers of English as a vehicular language is not often caused by the quality of the grammar, lexicon, or intonation of the speaker, but rather to the quality of the pronounced consonants.

An example of a problematic consonant is the TH transcribed as /ð/. Not everybody is able to produce or even hear that sound, and the majority of English speakers today uses  S, T or D instead.

Another cause of incomprehension are consonant clusters. In standard English, it’s possible and very common to place several consonants in a row. But in many other languages it is not. When such speakers need to pronounce a consonant cluster, they tend to insert short vowels to assist pronunciation. ‘Film’ becomes /fɪləm/, ‘lecture’ becomes /lɛgətjəɹ/, ‘months’ becomes /mɑntəs/. Other speakers tend to omit consonants altogether, especially at the beginning or  the end of a word. ‘Art’ becomes /aɹ/, ‘instant’ becomes /ɪstɑn/, ‘test’ and ‘text’ becomes /tɛs/. Many people tend to combine insertion and omission:  ‘script’ becomes /səkəɾɪp/, ‘program’ becomes /pogəɾɑm/. When you have trouble comprehending somebody’s spoken English, try to identify one of these cluster strategies.

Today, try to adopt one of these strategies to your own English.

  • Insert a vowel
  • Omit a consonant

Are you understood differently?

Text as published in Toward the Not-Yet: Art as Public Practice, 2022