Twice in the last two weeks, five students in my evening class have been absent playing for their departmental team in the intra-university competition. At the beginning of yesterday’s class I made a comment in passing about soccer and turned to the textbook when one student said ‘Excuse me, what is socka?’.
I gave a brief explanation of what is officially called rhotic and non-rhotic pronunciation; that is, that speakers of some varieties of English (mostly in North America, Scotland and Ireland) pronounce /r/* wherever it occurs, while others (mostly England, Australia and New Zealand) don’t pronounce it before a consonant or at the end of a word. I said ‘If I just say “Do you like soccer?”, you may not understand me, but if I say “You missed class last week because you were playing soccer”, you should understand me because of the other words in the sentence”.
After I thought about it more, it seemed strange that the student asked me that then. We had talked about soccer at least four times – the class before the first match, the class after the first match, the class before the second match and in a local street the day after the second match – and he had either understood me or not understood me but not questioned it.
Historically, the rhotic pronunciation came first, which is why all those words are spelled with ‘r’. Relatively recently, and for no particular reason I have been able to discover, the rhotic pronunciation fell out of use in the higher prestige varieties of south-east England, but not in those in Scotland, Ireland and the peripheral areas of England. Rhotic pronouncers there are accustomed to hearing high-prestige non-rhotic pronunciation on radio and television (indeed, it is a part of ‘BBC pronunciation’), those in North America hear Boston/New England (generally high prestige) and African American Vernacular English** (generally low prestige) pronunciation. Native speaking non-rhotic pronouncers are accustomed to hearing rhotic pronunciation because of the dominance of American English in world affairs and popular culture. ESL students are exposed more either to standard English or standard American pronunciation. ESL teaching and popular culture in South Korea are dominated by American English. (There are exceptions – the English Premier League is very popular.)
In standard Australian pronunciation, ‘floor’ and ‘flaw’ are pronounced identically, which has led to real estate advertisements referring to houses as ‘floorless throughout’. Does this make Australian English deficient? Possibly, but no more than any other variety. There are some pairs of words which are homophones in any variety of English, and the varieties which distinguish between ‘floor’ and ‘flaw’ possibly do not distinguish between any or all of marry, merry and Mary (which standard Australian English does). Standard Australian English retains ‘linking r’, for example in ‘mother and father’, which in ordinary speech becomes ‘motheRandfather’. (Former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was taken to task for referring to the then Opposition Leader, later Prim Minister, now Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as ‘MisteRabbit’.) Some people (including me, on occasion) have an ‘intrusive r’ – that is, inserting r where it isn’t required. The infamous Laura Norder makes an appearance in most state election campaigns, and classical and church choir conductors are always on the listen out for ‘FoRuntoWus a child is born’, ‘HosannaRin excelsis’ and ‘HosannaRin the highest’. (There are only certain vowels where this happens. /ɔ/ (as in law and for) is one of them.)
Experienced and cooperative speakers and listeners have a number of strategies for overcoming all this. ESL learners don’t necessarily have the knowledge or experience.
* For the sake of simplicity, I will ignore the wide variety in the actual sounds English speakers make.
** The non-rhoticity of AAVE has led to the widespread use of the spelling ‘nigga’. To me, ‘nigger’ and ‘nigga’ have the same pronunciation anyway, not that I ever say it/them.