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Charlie Swinbourne

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Charlie is a writer and filmmaker, and was responsible for the award-winning Coming Out, which sees "a deaf boy go to his hearing mother with a surprising revelation" - watch it to find out what it is. He then went on make his directing debut with Four Deaf Yorkshiremen, and followed it up with a sequel. You can check out Charlie's personal website too.

More from Charlie Swinbourne

Talking the talk

20th April 2009

Born deaf, Charlie Swinbourne learned to speak via the conversations he heard through his hearing aids. So how was he to know that for 27 years he had been saying certain words the wrong way?
Close-up of Charlie Swinbourne's mouth forming a word
It began innocuously. A couple of weeks back, I was preparing to go to the park with the baby. Having packed the pram with changing gear and wrapped up our little bundle of joy, I turned to my partner and told her that we were "going for a walk".

She started laughing. Nothing unusual about that - she laughs at a lot of things I do. But then she said something. "Walking!" she said. "Walking!"

I was missing something obvious, but I had no idea what it was. I attempted to move on. "We'll be back in an hour," I said. She smiled some more, knowingly. I facially expressed confusion with a quizzical brow, as if to ask "what?" Then she told me - "You don't pronounce the 'l'".
Close-up of Charlie Swinbourne's mouth forming a word
"Sorry?" I spluttered. Convinced I knew how to say 'walk' perfectly, I strolled off with the pram, feeling self righteous and a little smug. Halfway round the park, doubt set in. Could 'walk' really be pronounced a bit like 'folk', using a silent 'l'?

Later that day I got my answer. Older adults (older than me, at least) came round to see the baby, and listened to me saying the word 'walk' over and over again. They looked at me as if I was a very interesting specimen, before confirming that my partner was, annoyingly, absolutely right.

You say 'walking' without even a trace of an 'l'. 'Warking' would be a more accurate way of writing it phonetically, but my hearing aids had never picked this out. Worse, other words with a silent 'l' were 'talking', 'stalking,' and - in case I ever go into the teaching profession - 'chalking'.

My deafness has been rated moderate to severe since I was born, and I learned to speak largely by saying things the way I heard them - though what I heard was via bog-standard NHS hearing aids: blunt instruments that, in my case, seem to have totally missed out these subtle 'l's. Pronunciation is something I've had to work at.
Close-up of Charlie Swinbourne's mouth forming a word
Eager to correct how I say 'walk', I spent the rest of the weekend trying to rewire communication lines between my brain and my mouth. I repeated the words hundreds then thousands of times – 'wark', 'tark', 'chark' – hoping that the new version would become second nature to me and 'walk' could be forgotten. I hope you're following this.

In Mothercare on Sunday, the checkout assistant asked me "would you like a store card?" and I swear, the word 'wark' nearly popped out in reply.

Though it took a weekend to hard wire the new 'walk' into my mind, it took me longer to get over a general sense of betrayal. Why hadn't anyone mentioned this silent 'l' during my twenty-seven years on this Earth? Through school, sixth form and university, numerous jobs and social encounters, teachers, friends, colleagues - was no-one brave enough to put me right?

Or is noticing an error of pronunciation a bit like seeing a giant ready-to-burst yellow spot on someone's face? It's difficult to talk to them because you're distracted, but you don't want to be the one to tell them it's there.
Close-up of Charlie Swinbourne's mouth forming a word
Annoyingly, my brush with 'l' is just one of a host of scrapes I've had with elocution. At secondary school, I had a friend called Charlotte. Every time I said her name, people would raise their eyebrows. It soon became apparent that the 'Ch' part of my name, Charlie, and the 'Ch' part of Charlotte are pronounced very differently. You say Charlie with a 'Ch', but annoyingly, you say Charlotte as 'Sh' - so it sounds like 'Sharlotte' rather than 'Charlotte'.

This wasn't the first time that 'Ch' had proved problematic. When I was in primary school, I went with my class to a recording of the Children's BBC programme Take Two. We were to be part of the studio audience putting questions to the actor Dexter Fletcher, one of the stars of Press Gang, a popular kids' series at that time.

I was incredibly proud when one of my questions – in which I asked Dexter how he got into character – was featured in the final broadcast version of the show.

My delight was short-lived, however. Ten minutes after the programme ended, I got a call from a relative correcting me for pronouncing 'character' as it is written, rather than how it should be said. 'Character' is said as if it starts with a 'k' – 'karacter'. I was mortified. Luckily, being only ten years old at the time, my embarrassment faded away as quickly as I could pick up my Thundercats figures and start playing with them.
Close-up of Charlie Swinbourne's mouth forming a word
In between 'karacter' and 'Sharlotte', when I was around 13, I went through a phase of saying words that began with 's' very bluntly. It's hard to describe, as I didn't even know I was doing it, but the learning support department at school heard it a few times and referred me to a speech therapist. Every Tuesday for a year I'd go along and speak to a kindly old lady who reminded me of Miss Marple.

She explained that when people say 's' they make a very slight hissing noise at the start. A hissing noise I'd never picked up on. So each week I'd go and hiss, and after what felt like a long time, I was released back into the wild. I must have been the only kid in the country who'd go and hiss at an old lady every Tuesday, and actually get complimented for it.

When you don't hear so well, you get a bit unsure how to speak. Every now and then, in conversation, I realise that I'm about to say a word that I can see on a page in my mind, but can't remember quite how to say. So without consciously deciding to, I find myself adding a rider in anticipation of getting it wrong - "I'm not sure how you say this, but, er, the word I'm looking for is loquacious?"

My difficulty in hearing the nuances of speech have made learning a new language difficult - I once went on a German exchange for two weeks and taught my host family how to speak English, but I came home knowing barely more German than I'd left with. And French … don't even get me started on French. 'Merci' was as far as I got. When I'm in France, I'm very polite, which is all I can be.

I've got 'warking' set in my mind now, but what worries me is the next time I realise I've been getting it wrong. Where will I be? How old will I be?

I've got this nightmare scenario of being 83 years old and someone saying to me: "Charlie old boy, you don't say 'can you say that again?' quite like that!" 83 years of getting it wrong – that would be hard to take.


    • 1. At 4:55pm on 20 Apr 2009, capyboppy wrote:

      Don't worry charlie, (or should that be sharlie;-)). When I was little I loved the Petula Clark song "Down Town." I was well in my thirties before I actually found out that was its real title. For years I had been singing "Dow Tow" and not one person had ever corrected me. The same with words that begin with "th" I had always pronounced them as "f" So "thorough" with the "th" done with sort of pulling the tip of the tongue backwards, became "furra." Again, nobody had corrected me untl later years. The weird thing though is that I was always top in English in school!

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    • 2. At 2:47pm on 21 Apr 2009, Deafian wrote:

      My favourite example from my own experiences is over the pronunciation of the letter g. Until last year, I had no idea it was pronounced as a j in a few cases rather than as a hard g. This manifested itself in me saying the word 'gibberish' with a hard g instead of a j.

      My friends now joke that I've spent 25 years of my life speaking complete gibberish...

      The sad thing is that I'm still told from time to time that I am mispronouncing a word so it will probably continue to my old age. I blame the English language!


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    • 3. At 2:56pm on 21 Apr 2009, Deafian wrote:

      Totally sympathise. My own favourite example is the letter g in the word gibberish which I now understand is sometimes pronounced as a j.

      I only found out about this last year and my friends now joke that I've been talking complete gibberish for 25 years.

      Depressingly, I know there are still a lot of words that I mispronounce and accept that I will continue to be corrected as I get older. I blame the English language!


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    • 4. At 00:03am on 23 Apr 2009, Zimteach69 wrote:

      Hi, I have had hearing loss late in life, and only in one ear, and so I have been able to develop my speech without the difficulty of hearing impairment - so my comment is from the perspective of a hearing person.

      You may have heard of that song you say toma(r)to and I say toma(e)to. Featuring the different pronounciation of English between here and the USA. It's an accepted fact that people with hearing impairment do have slightly unusual pronounciations of words - but I do not think there is any reasonfor you to feel self-conscious about it.

      We have to ask ourselves - Do I understand what this person saying? and 2. Is the incorrect pronounciation likely to cause embarrassment - i.e. you are saying something that could bemistaken for something rude. If your answer to the first question is yes and the second is no, then it may be necessary to correct the person, but otherwise - I see reason to make comment at all - at least you are talking (Incidently I was brought up to pronounce it more like torking - so there is no one correct pronounciation anyway.

      Ian - I have heard the word gibberish pronounced both ways by hearing people and so I am not sure which is more correct. We pronounce the word gin - with a soft g - i.e. j. while we pronouncel the word gills as in the fish's gills with a hard g. What determines the difference - I have no clue.

      To me, people laughing at how people with hearing imairment pronounce words is like laughing at how a person with cerebral palsy walks or a person with dyslexia spells.

      I do have a tip though and it is only a suggestion - if you are not sure how to pronounce a word - look in a reliable dictionary like the Oxford Dictionary, and they usually have a pronounciation guide that appears right after a word.

      Next time somebody laughs at your pronunciation of a word, use sign language and ask then if they know what you just said. Even if they have learnt it, I doubt they would be as fluent as you.

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    • 5. At 2:49pm on 25 Apr 2009, UnflusterableTig wrote:

      Even now I get ribbed about how I used to say "I'm watching da ewes" by my Mum (love her, honest!) :-D

      I regularly come across mispronunciations I have used for years, unknown to me that they were wrong.... :-? I try to put them to memory in their correct form.. But... Still get it wrong at times..

      Only a year ago I learned that the term for pulling a sickie is "swinging the lead" and not "swinging the leg" as I had thought it was for years! :-D

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    • 6. At 4:45pm on 08 May 2009, DynamicDeesse wrote:

      Charlie! You make me laugh so much - the crazy thing is i feel like u r talkin about me! Have gone thru the same experience numerous times :)
      Thankfully, i have friends who r keen to straighten out my pronounciations - obviously an informal speech therapy group in some way! :)
      Keep the articles coming - its nice knowing am not the only one! :)

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    • 7. At 4:46pm on 08 May 2009, DynamicDeesse wrote:

      Charlie! You make me laugh so much - the crazy thing is i feel like u r talkin about me! Have gone thru the same experience numerous times :)
      Thankfully, i have friends who r keen to straighten out my pronouns - obviously an informal speech therapy group in some way! :)
      Keep the articles coming - its nice knowing am not the only one! :)

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    • 8. At 4:46pm on 08 May 2009, DynamicDeesse wrote:

      Charlie! You make me laugh so much - the crazy thing is i feel like u r talkin about me everytime i read ur articles!

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    • 9. At 4:47pm on 08 May 2009, DynamicDeesse wrote:

      Charlie! You make me laugh so much - i feel like u r talkin about me everytime i read ur articles!

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