Monday, September 24, 2007

Language Acquisition #1-Alphabet and Phonetics

I’m starting a series on my observations of successes and mistakes when studying a foreign language.

Rule #1: There is always an exception to the rule!

I was going to start out by saying that learning the alphabet is the first step, but I realize that it’s not a complete piece of advice. What need to be addressed first are not only the individual letters, but the phonics, or building blocks of a language.

Now if you’re learning English, I don’t know if any of this advice is actually going to help you. I’m still learning how people learn English. I’m always impressed by non-native speakers who are fluent in English. I have many students come to me and say “I want to read in English. Please help me. Don’t you have any rules?” Sure, there are rules. “I before E, except after C, or when sounding like ei as in neighbor and weigh.” However, the long e represented by “ie” in “piece” can also be spelled e, ee, ea, i, and ei. In addition, the long a sound can be spelled ay, eigh, a, ai, or ea. So you’re stating a rule that compares two sounds that are not constant. When you add examples to clarify, you have to actually know the words that you’re using as examples. Do beginning readers know “neighbor” and “receive”? It comes down to memorizing multiple small groups of words. English has 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, more than any other language...Read more here from: Absolutely Ridiculous English Spelling!

Despite difficulties when a language has many sounds, I think the key to learning to read another language is learning how to read and represent the sounds in the context of that language, not in the context of your own language. If you define a sound as “like the English a in father,” you are probably not going to learn the pronunciation correctly.

I have a confession. I teach ESL, and I don’t know the international phonetic symbols, or whatever they’re called. Terrible, isn’t it? I don’t like reducing a language into phonetics symbols, nor into another language’s symbols. I do recognize that perhaps it is useful when you are plunged into another culture where you don’t have time to learn the alphabet and must make do with transliterated phrases. I’ll address this in my “survival phrases” segment in a later article. We used to come to Russia on short-term trips, and learned several Christian songs using transliteration. Now I realize how far from accurate our pronunciation was. But, we were singing the songs with native speakers who could sing correctly, and hopefully weren’t bothered by our mistakes.

When I was a freshman in university and taking Russian 102, I asked my friends to quiz me before tests. Not knowing Cyrillic, they had a tough time knowing if I was correct or not. Sometimes they could guess by the first letter or the length of the word.

So we sat there and my friend said “okay, the preposition meaning ‘in’ or ‘at.’”
I uttered a barely audible “ffff.”
“Ffff. It looks like an English ‘B,’ but is actually V, but gets softened when mixed in with nouns that start with a consonant.”
“Ohhhh, okay.” But the fact is that it’s not an F or a V, it’s a Russian letter with its own sound, and you have to contort your face differently than when you speak English. Explaining in relative terms is useless.

When we’re writing down new words, my students often ask, “How do you spell it?” And I show them where they already wrote it in English. “But how do you spell it in Russian?” “You don’t, you spell it in English.” “But how do you say it?” I tell them how to pronounce it and they try to write it anyway in Cyrillic. I often encourage drawing a picture rather than writing the translation. Then we end up with creations like this:

So how do you learn the proper pronunciation of a word if you can’t write it down using your native language? Pronunciation needs to be memorized, and memorization comes with repetition…. preferably daily. Kids have good memories though, so they can get away with a few times a week. Living in the culture also helps, of course. You may hear too many words to remember them all, but you will hear the sounds, and that is the beginning.


  1. Wow, I am in awe of the job you do everyday! What a challenge it must be, although it sounds like you have really great techniques and ideas. On another note, I saw your mom today at church and just had to tell you how much I love talking to her. And I can't wait to see you in December! Nothing will get in my way this year, we will spend time together!!!!

  2. Ha ha, which job? Teaching English or writing long nonsensical articles about it? :)

  3. Teaching english, of course. Haha. :) Although I do admire your literary talent as well. You have a knack for making anything enjoyable to read about and you do a great job at giving your readers a window into your life.

  4. "So how do you learn the proper pronunciation of a word if you can’t write it down using your native language?"

    Stop moaning about "reducing a language into phonetics symbols", go out and meet IPA. Befriend it.

  5. IPA may be helpful for translation or diplomatic purposes, but for learning to speak a language it may actually STUNT progress because it teaches someone to constantly be translating between different symbols rather than really listening to the SOUNDS. In addition, it becomes a crutch. Learning to read using the actual alphabet of the given language needs to be a priority. With advances in technology, it is possible to look up an unknown foreign word on the Internet and get an audio file.

  6. " addition it becomes a crutch".

    Liz, let's just agree to disagree on this one. One man's crutch is another man's perfect learning aide :-) IPA has helped me a lot in learning to read and speak English as well as understand spoken English but I suppose there are many ways of going about it.

    P.S. What did you mean when you said IPA could be helpful for diplomatic purposes?

  7. It is just obvious from someone's speech when he/she has learned to speak using transliteration, although enough immersion will fix that.

    By diplomatic purposes I mean the pronunciation of names and places, international words that are used in the news and such.

  8. So you're saying you're not in favour of using transliteration for fear that it might be obvious later on that your student learned to speak that way but at the same time you're saying transliteration would be good for getting right the pronunciation of 'international words' (that would be what 100% of words that English owes to Greek and Latin?) and place names. Well, I hope you understand what you mean by that. Now, if the purpose of IPA is to help get your pronunciation right (whether you do get it right or not is another question and has nothing to do with IPA per se) then how on Earth can it produce worse results than learning to speak by figuring out the sounds using the actual alphabet? You are comparing apples and oranges.


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