Feb 12

Pronunciation: the Phonemic Chart

Teaching pronunciation
The Phonemic Chart
The International Phonemic Alphabet is often taught in English language teacher training courses and you are expected to have some knowledge of this if you are doing CELTA. But how useful is it in class? In this video I explore that question. 

For more information about the IPA, there's a video here that takes you through the phonemic chart, how it's arranged and how you and your learners can learn it.

PS. A small apology. The Macmillan Sounds app, whilst it still works on my phone, doesn’t seem to be available on the App store anymore but you can download the British Council Sounds Right app for free to learn the sounds.
Video transcript

Using the IPA in class, with learners, is it useful? That's the question I want to address in this video.

Let's make a start. So the IPA, the International Phonemic Alphabet, those funny symbols that you see in dictionaries, they come from a chart like this, which describes every sound it's possible to make with the human voice in any language.

But you might be more familiar with this one that just has the sounds that exist in English. Note that this is the sounds for Received Pronunciation, that's the Queen's English if you like. So don't worry, if you make sounds that you can't find on this chart, it's entirely possible.

It's split into three sections. And that's vowels over here. diphthongs over here, and consonants down here. And then the consonants are split into voiced sounds like b and d and v; and unvoiced sounds like p and t and f. And you can see that these come in pairs. You do the same thing with your mouth. You just add voice to it.

So this is all well and good. And you might think it's interesting. But is it useful?

The idea of phonetic spelling in English is a bit of a joke in the rest of the world. If you've got words like this -cough- and words like this -bough- then you can understand that it can be a bit frustrating for learners. And so it can be quite comforting to have a system that tells you how things actually sound. In the past, this was very useful.

So you might ask, why am I making a video about this now?

Well, I watch a lot of trainee English teachers in different centres. And I often see them using the chart with learners. And in many cases, I've got to wondering whether it's actually in the learners' best interest or not.

These days in the context I work in, it's easy to Google the meaning of a word. And this will give you the phonemic transcription, and a link to let you hear the word play. Most learners will have this on their phones as well. So they'll never need to read the transcription, they can just listen for a good model.

As with any teaching advice, though, there's not only one way to do anything, and it's about what's appropriate in the context. If you're teaching in China, or Taiwan, or Japan or South Korea, it's really likely that your learners will know the symbols. So use them, they're useful.

But if you're working with learners who have low literacy levels already, maybe ESL learners who are just learning the Latin script, then don't use it. One script at a time is really enough.

What about all the rest of your learners? Who don't know the symbols? Should you teach them the chart? It seems to me that judiciously is the right approach. This symbol for example, 'schwa', I would teach all my learners. It's quick to learn and it's really useful.

If you're looking at the sound of unstressed syllables, here's the vowel which is stressed. This one says, /Ə/  adjust.

For connected speech issues, where pronouns and auxiliaries and modals and prepositions all have a weak form. It's really useful. This doesn't say 'can you swim?' There's a weak vowel here and one here.

How about the other symbols? Some of them are really useful too. If you've got something like this, then it's very helpful to know that this sound actually says /k/ and we've got the forward slashes here to show that that's not how it's spelled.

So am I really saying that teachers shouldn't know this chart? No, I'm not saying that. Scott Thornbury reminds us that language teachers should know a lot about their subject, just as we'd expect doctors to know a lot about medicine. But he also reminds us of Wright's thought that it's very dangerous when you've got specialist knowledge that you want to tell people and you have to think, I think, about what's appropriate.

So my feeling is that it can be useful. But that, as with anything, you should use it with some thought.

If you do want to learn it and you're not sure about it, then this app from Macmillan is a really good way to do that. You can have it on your phone and it's really convenient. 

But what do you think? Do you use the chart? Do you think it's helpful for your learners? Feel free to disagree with me. I look forward to your comments.

Thanks for listening. Bye bye

PS. A small apology. The Macmillan Sounds app, whilst it still works on my phone, doesn’t seem to be available on the App store anymore but you can download the British Council Sounds Right app for free to learn the sounds.
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