The Communication Factor

North American Pronunciation of Technical Vocabulary Course

Sciences and engineering have become international disciplines; about fifty percent of graduate students in engineering speak English as a second language, and many have third or fourth language knowledge as well. Few had an opportunity to take conversation courses that featured technical vocabulary. As a result, graduate students are often knowledgeable about the meaning of English words for thermodynamics, genetics, or similar terms but have had little instruction in pronouncing terms.

Sometimes the difference in pronunciation cannot be detected from reading. For example, French, Russian, and English all use the word “valence” to describe the combinatory power of an atom but French applies a rule of equal stress on syllables, whereas Russian emphasizes the second syllable and North American pronunciation accents the first syllable. The word is so common that the differences in pronunciation can provide a distracting dissonance when graduate students lead laboratories or talk with colleagues.

This summer two Rice alumni, Woods and Patsy Martin (’49), sponsored a special 8-week course to help graduate students deal with pronunciation differences in their own technical field. Jamie Cluff taught the course on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in two-hour sessions.

As part of the course, native speakers of North American English read aloud passages that participants selected because of the technical vocabulary relevant to their field. Sharon Gibson-Mainka, the Cain Project’s instructional designer, videorecorded their readings and will place digital excerpts on the Project’s Web site so students can watch and listen to authentic pronunciations and refine their use. Over time, the site will become a unique resource for technical pronunciation.



Cain Project Celebrates Five Years

In May, Cain Project members celebrated completion of the fifth year of the Project’s

implementation and the fifth year service anniversaries of Dr. Tracy Volz and Dr. Jan Hewitt with a luncheon and service awards.

Dr. Volz is the assistant director for the Project and has won awards for her teaching and service to graduate students. Dr. Hewitt developed the thesis writing groups for graduate students that have won her accolades from faculty and students alike.

Friends also bid farewell to Dr. John Polking, former Cain Project Faculty Advisory Committee Chair, who is retiring from Rice, and Dr. Julie Zeleznik, who has accepted a tenure-track position in Wisconsin.

The national recognition the Project is receiving demonstrates the importance of all the Cain Project’s members and their advisors’ contributions. It has been a truly remarkable five years for everyone.

Dr. Volz
Dr. Hewitt
Dr. Zeleznik
Dr. Polking
Mr. and Mrs. Martin have provided funds for a second session this fall. Ms. Cluff has decided to expand the session by two meetings to provide additional opportunities. Native speakers who participated in the recording sessions have volunteered to continue their work in developing the on-line resources. Students from this summer’s waiting list have priority for the fall session, but interested students can go to the Cain Project Web Site at to find out more. Julia Amborski, the Cain Project coordinator, will send information by e-mail to all graduate students.

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