My Fair Lady: Great play but bad accent coaching methods!

By | 2019-01-21T14:28:51-06:00 May 30th, 2017|


A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing My Fair Lady, the classic Broadway musical, based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 play, Pygmalion. It was performed at the Lyric Opera here in Chicago.

It was a great performance.

The singing was outstanding, the actors perfect, the set design creative and engaging. As you might recall, the story is about Eliza Doolittle, a poor flower girl from the East side of London. She speaks with a strong Cockney accent.

After an encounter with Professor Henry Higgins, he agrees as a bet to teach her to speak like a “proper lady” in six months time.

All was lovely with this play until Professor Higgins began his teaching with Eliza. He had her repeat the vowel names over and over (“a – e – i – o- u”). She said them with a Cockney accent and he reprimanded her. She tried again. Same result.

His teaching method was atrocious!

He simply asked her to repeat. Same with “The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain,” the famous phrase meant to each the /e/ sound. While the phrase made for a jaunty and lovely show tune, poor Eliza had no further help with this exercise than being asked to repeat and being reprimanded for incorrect pronunciation!

Okay, okay. I am an accent coach who helps people change their speech patterns. This was a Broadway musical. Nonetheless, I was squirming in my seat as I watched his teaching methods.

It was nothing short of miraculous, that Eliza Doolittle learned to speak in the “proper British manner” at all!

Can I point out another poor accent coaching method?

At another point, Eliza is attempting to say ‘cup cup cup of of of ’. The professor tells her to put her tongue in the front part of her mouth. What??   What could he have been referring to? The sounds in ‘cup’ are not made with the forward part of the tongue. Neither are the sounds in ‘of.’

The /t/ sound in the word ‘tea’ is made with the tongue up behind the front teeth, but this was not what the good professor appeared to be saying.

Professor Higgins also stuffed Eliza’s mouth with marbles and had her speak. Presumably, this was to help her enunciate more clearly. Utter failure. And, she even swallowed a marble!

One of Professor Higgins’s accent coaching methods was clever, though.

To learn not to drop the /h/ sound at the beginning of words, Higgins had Eliza speak the phrase, “In Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire, hurricanes hardly ever happen” with a lit candle in front of her. If the flame wavered (i.e., she was aspirating the /h/ sound properly), she was pronouncing the /h/ correctly.

I use a similar method with my clients, though not with a lit flame!

Amazingly, in a short time, Eliza begins speaking with the accent Professor Higgins desires, and all is well. She not only does it for a few phrases, but in very short order her spontaneous speech, as well, is flawless!

Lest you think I am a bit of a curmudgeon, let me reassure you that I am not. I love My Fair Lady. I can sing most of the songs and play them on the piano frequently (my favorite is On The Street Where You Live).

We cannot fault George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion.

At the time it was written, he was trying to make a statement about class culture in England and women’s independence versus treating them like an object, albeit an object that could come to life. And accent modification has evolved with the advances of science, specifically speech pathology and neuroscience. Methods today are based on the knowledge that the auditory system is intricately interconnected with the speech system; we cannot say what we cannot hear.

Auditory discrimination can improve with careful explanation and practice. Description of articulator positions and movements during sound production can be a useful method, as well. From neuroscience we also have learned much more about how the brain creates new automatic habits, which can be applied to speech training.

While we can learn many new things on-line nowadays by ourselves, learning new speech behaviors still requires feedback from a trained teacher in real-time to elicit the best results. There is, as yet, no substitute for a trained human ear giving feedback to a student.


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