Teaching ESL

Phonetic alphabet
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Author:  jonmarks [ Sun Feb 24, 2008 1:26 am ]
Post subject:  Phonetic alphabet

This subject probably gets raised regularly, but I'd be interested to hear what people think about the International Phonetic Alphabet. I've been in this game for nearly twenty years, and I still don't feel very comfortable using it with students, partly because I keep forgetting the symbols myself, and partly because I've never yet had a class where all the students know it, and/or think using it is particularly helpful. But at the same time, I've had plenty of students with terrible pronunciation problems, and maybe I should be using the IPA to help.

Author:  patrick [ Sun Feb 24, 2008 8:50 pm ]
Post subject: 

IPA...personally, I hate it. I don't think it's useful for students here in Japan. These are the two biggest problems I have with it.

1. Using the IPA is biased. The alphabet itself is fine, but when it is attached a word, it becomes biased. The IPA spelling for a word is easily changed by the user's accent. Meaning, because of accents, words are pronounced differently so the IPA spelling will also slightly change. So, when IPA spellings are entered into English textbooks, the spellings are biased because the pronunciation for each word is only correct based upon the person who creates the spelling for that word.

2. Knowing the IPA alphabet doesn't help students read. For example, if you give a Russian linguist who is fluent in IPA and who doesn't know one word of English the following sentence, "This is a pen," the linguist will not be able to read the sentence without the help of IPA superscript. The impact of this without superscripting entire English textbooks with the weird IPA symbols, students are no closer to being able to read or pronounce words.

IPA is nothing more than a biased pronunciation guide that is a waste of students' time to learn.

However, this is my own personal opinion...

Author:  mesmark [ Sun Feb 24, 2008 10:39 pm ]
Post subject: 

I also don't really use it and I'm not that confortable transcribing words in IPA for students. I come from a few places (moved around a lot as a kid) and have lived in Japan for 8 years now (1/4 of my life.) My English has been afffected by so many factors, when I'm pinned down on proper pronounciation, I usually can think of a few 'proper' pronounciations.

IPA is a system designed for linguists to study languages without having to actually learn them. It's a great system for this purpose but not really a system designed for language learning. Although it apparently has a place (earned or not.)

The main problems being, much like Patrick said, whose pronounciation? and without the symbols you can't read. The average person isn't going to break open a dictionary for every word they can't read when trying to read the newspaper in English. Phonics does a lot more for them as a tool for reading.

However, our profession being what it is, I do think it's a good idea to have working knowledge of the IPA system. A lot of students like to use it and many of them expect us to know it. I think dismissing it or trying to point out the irrelevancy of it is drastically weakened in your arguement if don't actually know it.

What I mean is, if you can answer the students question about IPA for said word, and then explain that they'd be better served to learn phonics and also explain that, your arguement carries a lot more weight. More so than, 'IPA? ... Rubish! Don't bother with that. Learn phonics instead.'

John, I'm not sure how IPA will help your students with their pronounciation, but everyone is different and you may find that it's helpful for some.

It'd be interesting to hear from someone who uses it regularly.

Author:  patrick [ Mon Feb 25, 2008 11:33 am ]
Post subject: 

I think this discussion is going to get interesting really fast.

To add to Mark's reason about IPA being used by linguists, I think there could be an argument made that it could be beneficial for students who are studying more than one language simultaneously. It could provide a quick shortcut to pronunciation in the early stages of language acquistion. That being said, I don't think it is needed when studying English because IPA doesn't provide anything outside of rote memorization that helps the students learn and retain English.

Next, I think this is where this thread might get a little interesting. I don't agree with Mark's comment about educators needing to know the IPA alphabet. To give everyone NOT in Japan a quick background, Japan's public school English textbooks regularly use IPA to teach new English words.

I think if you are going to stand up and take a stand against the IPA being taught, it is smart to have your reasons for not thinking it is a good idea to be used in school, otherwise, you are just going to look ignorant and stupid. I think knowing what IPA is, what it is meant for and the advantages/disadvantages of using it is as far as I would go to delving into that symbol alphabet. I don't think you need to actually learn the IPA alphabet. I will grant that knowing it would give you the ability to answer an IPA question if students ever happen to ask one but I don't think it's necessary if you truely believe that it is not helpful to them in their long term efforts of studying English. I don't think it is a strong argument to say teachers should know the IPA alphabet because it is in the textbook. That argument is essentially saying the textbooks are infallible and anyone can easily see that is not the case with these textbooks.

Let me use an example to explain what I mean. If the textbook taught the following grammar point, "I likes apple," would you teach this grammar point just because it was in the textbook? Or, would you tell the students the textbook is mistaken and teach it properly? Learning English has NOTHING to do with the IPA. Like Mark said, it was created for linguists to bypass learning the actual language. If IPA 'bypasses learning', I don't think it it has a place in the textbooks. Also, it has nothing to do with pronouncing words because the spelling of IPA words is biased based upon the IPAer's country's accent, which I believe is an American midwestern accent in Japan's public school English textbooks. If I was from Australia, the U.K., South Africa, etc, I would be offended if I was told I needed to pronounce the word 'dog' as 'dawg' because the IPA spelling in the textbook pronouces the word that way.

In a nutshell, I think knowing everything about IPA up to learning the actual symbols is good enough. When students ask me what the IPA symbols mean, I tell them: "I don't know. That is not English." I do thank the Japanese government, which controls what is put into the textbooks, for inserting IPA into their textbooks because it gives me a chance to show the students NOT KNOWING EVERYTHING is okay and acceptable. ;) I'm not saying that when the student asks an IPA question, you dismiss it with an IPA bashing response. I think a simple "I don't know" is good enough.

That's my two cents...

Author:  mesmark [ Mon Feb 25, 2008 12:26 pm ]
Post subject: 

Ok, I'll bite . :D

I think it's important to add that there are only a couple hundred million native English speakers, but a couple billion speakers of English as a second language. While we don't need pronounciation symbols, they might/do. I also, like Patrick, love phonics and think it's one of the best things we can teach students, but it has its own problems/inconsistancies. Non-native speakers may have problems teaching phonics for lack of indepth understanding of the rules or just reservations about their own pronounciation.

IPA in language teaching is not a tool for teaching reading. It's just a tool for learning how to pronounce a word. In that regard, it does a great job. IPA is a biased system based on one pronounciation, but it's consistant and works for every word. Those who are proficient at it can with great accuracy pronounce words via the system. They will have to memorize the pronounciation, but if that's the route you take, so be it. I think it has a place in language learning.

I've been teaching for 8 years and have done a lot of learning and studying during that time. One of the things I've learned (often via the foot-in-mouth avenue) is that I really need to respect the knowledge and research of the experts and scholars that have spent their lives developing the systems we have. None are flawless and all are suceptable to change, as is language, but we borrow from past successes and venture on with new attempts to better language teaching. IPA has remained solidly fixed in language teaching. I think we need to give it some credit, even if we can't understand its use in language teaching.

Back tracking a bit now, IPA in Japanese textbooks serves the teachers just as much as the learners. The textbooks are designed to be used by Japanese teachers, L2 English speakers. Native speakers shouldn't need the symbols and may find them cumbersome, but the Japanese teachers often rely on them and use them, especially when dealing with sounds that the Japanese language doesn't have, the 'ir' in 'bird' for example.

So, going back to the numbers of native speakers, L2 speakers and now add in all the people studying English, you can see that we are far out numbered. I don't know the figures for teachers, but I think it's safe to assume, similar ratios for native English speaking teachers to Non-native teachers. English is not the property of native speakers any more. It's a global language (different debate.) Native speakers way of learning reading is just learning to read, they already know how to pronounce the words. If the IPA system is helpful to L2 speakers, NNS teachers and learners, it has a place.

(start singing IPA's praises and I'll jump side of the fence and start arguing against it. :P My wife hates that!)

Author:  Linguiismo [ Tue May 13, 2008 3:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Phonics


In response to your discussion about teaching the phonetic alphabet:

As someone who has studied Spanish, currently studies Korean, and is now teaching English to students in large classes with students of different ability, I believe wholeheartedly in learning the sound systems of languages.

I studied Spanish for 5 years at university and yet I could not on my own pronounce many words correctly: had I been given strict instruction on the sounds of the Spanish language I think it would have been a different case.

Currently, at my school I teach the IPA to my middle school students. I do it bit by bit, slowly, depending on what the vocabulary is for the day: like the other day we were talking about jobs, and one job being "photographer" I explained how the letters "ph" in English have an "f" sound and told them to look at the IPA chart I gave them at the beginning of the semester. I think that for my students who can't afford to attend hagwons this is very beneficial knowledge for them.

The students have access to American pronunciation dictionaries and have been told to be aware that this is American pronunciation. Nonetheless, no matter if it's a British or American pronunciation dictionary, it gives them the opportunity to get on the path to speaking independently with confidence: to working out independently how an English word may sound. Something I definitely wish my Spanish teacher had given me.



Author:  jonmarks [ Fri May 16, 2008 3:17 am ]
Post subject: 

Hi Linguiismo - welcome to the forum!

It's extremely interesting to hear your view of the phonetic alphabet, especially as you've used it as both teacher and learner, and I think you've raised some valuable points.

I'm sure we've all had students exasperated by the lack of regularity in English pronunciation - especially if their first language is a "What you see is what you get" language like Spanish.

Sometimes I feel quite apologetic that my students are having to learn such an unreasonable language. In 1953 there was a serious proposal to simplify spelling for British English.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/date ... 801617.stm

(Or see text below)

1953: Spelling bill passes second reading
A proposal to simplify English spelling has cleared its second hurdle in parliament.

After a second debate MPs in the House of Commons voted by 65 votes to 53 to approve the Simplified Spelling Bill for consideration by parliamentary committees.

The private member's bill was introduced by Labour MP Mont Follick earlier this month.

It proposes setting up an investigation into the feasibility of introducing a simpler version of English to make reading easier for younger children.

The children would switch to standard English as they got older.

English is half-way between the alphabetic system of Spanish and the picture-writing of Chinese

James Pitman MP
The new system would be tested in school experiments in England and Scotland paid for by the government.

It is Mr Follick's second attempt to get parliamentary support for a new spelling system.

A bill he introduced in 1949 was eventually defeated by just three votes in spite of opposition by the Labour government of Clement Attlee.

The new bill has also attracted cross-party support - it was seconded by a Conservative MP, James Pitman, whose grandfather devised the Pitman shorthand system.

During a debate lasting four-and-a-half hours Mr Pitman said that around 150,000 of the 400,000 children who started school each year would leave without being able to read properly.


Mr Pitman - a member of the Simplified Spelling Society - used large printed cards with words such as "out" and "ought" to display what he said were inconsistencies in the spelling and pronunciation of some English words.

"English is halfway between the alphabetic system of Spanish and picture-writing of Chinese, " he told MPs.

However, Labour's MP for South Shields James Ede said the bill would only confuse the less intelligent by making them learn two ways of spelling.

But Mont Follick said they had no intention of forcing children to learn two different systems.

Spelling reform was also one of the passions of the writer George Bernard Shaw who died two years ago.

His will set aside money for a national competition to devise a simplified version of English.


Author:  Kiwione [ Mon May 19, 2008 3:15 pm ]
Post subject: 

I question whether IPA is only for linguists, although these days I suppose they certianly use it more than anyone else!

its in most (if not all?) dictionaries and it does help to get a good idea of the pronunciation. But, as pointed out there is no "one standard" of English, so .... hhhmmm? but still its better than nothing.

but I think it does a reasonable job of doing what it is supposed to do

My problems are
1. as pointed out, I also have never had a class where everyone knew it. So that really limits its usefulness for me

2. there is more than one IPA (American one and International one, at least?) so this doesn't help

On the good side
I don't use it as a rule, but I do like to use it when explaining the sounds/phonemes Japanese doesn't have (when I come across it). When I am teaching adults I write it up on the board (IPA schwa) and go over it a few times (pronuncation) and if they see it again in the dictionary etc they might remember it? I don't really expect them to remember it, but some serious students might write it down.

Author:  menohelly [ Fri May 23, 2008 10:17 am ]
Post subject:  a point of view from a non-native speaker

Actually I don't really teach IPA to my students since many of them are already confused by the alphabets. Instead, I teach several rules like Linguiismo does.

Taking '-aw' sound for an example, many Koreans (I'm Korean) adults and children don't know the '-aw' sound as in law is different from the 'ow' sound as in low. That's, of course, because the aw sound doesn't exist in the Korean language. If a student mispronounces the word 'law', I take the chance to introduce the sound. I give examples with the sound and drill the words.

I don't expect students to write down or memorize the rules. Somehow they seem to pronounce the troublesome words(to them) more correclty after learning the rules. Some even self-correct their mispronunciations. I found out that it works better with older students who have studied English for a few years.

In short, I personally think that students don't really need to know IPA, but it definately helps them pronounce words correctly when they know certain rules. And it doesn't really matter whether American or colonial English as long as they are understood when they speak English.

Author:  missionshk [ Fri Jul 11, 2008 2:19 am ]
Post subject: 

personally, I hate the idea. Its not relevant for use. YOu spend all this time learning a 3rd language in order to learn a 2nd language.

Big mistake

Author:  Karineuh [ Wed Mar 04, 2009 5:25 pm ]
Post subject: 

What you all say is pretty interesting.
Here in France, we have to teach them some notions of IPA.
For this, I work with their French teachers ( who also has to teach them IPA, which I actually find quite strange, but well..) - so they're starting to get it, and they even get the point of it (especially for the diphtongues).
I made big flashcards that are now on my wall - so I can point at the correct symbol when necessary.
I didn't give them a whole list of phonetic symbols. They just learn them when we meet them.

Author:  Kiwione [ Thu Mar 05, 2009 9:02 am ]
Post subject: 

missionshk wrote:
personally, I hate the idea. Its not relevant for use. YOu spend all this time learning a 3rd language in order to learn a 2nd language.

Big mistake

it is not a language! its a phonetic alphabet, thats all.

if its a language, then here in Japan the kids learn 4 languages before they learn English in JHS. Because they have hiragana, Katakana, kanji and romanji, and they can all be in one normal sentence!

anyway, .... most of the IPA is very easy, the sounds for the basic consanants are straight forward. eg K, T, S, etc

Author:  Manuela [ Wed Mar 18, 2009 5:10 am ]
Post subject:  Use of IPA

I personally find the use of IPA very rewarding. I introduce the symbols of the sounds that do not exist in Greek from the very beginning. For example the diphthong in "boat" "row" does not exist in Greek. So when I teach them "Row, row, row your boat" I get them to tell me, after we have practiced producing the sounds, in which words of the song we can find these sounds. The kids get the hang of sounding the words in order to identify the sounds quite easily.

The sound in treasure (corresponding to the "S") is difficult for Greek students. I teach them how to say it, explain where the tongue should be, not touching the teeth but backwords in the mouth, give them the IPA symbol and then practise.

With higher level students I think it is very important to get students to recognise the symbols. It's teaching them to fish instead of giving them a fish to eat. They can become independent learners and refer to the dictionary to find out how words are pronounced.

I am not a native speaker myself and I need to check the pronunciation of specific words from time to time. What would I do without the IPA system.

Author:  NicholasRion@siu.edu [ Fri Sep 12, 2014 11:47 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Phonetic alphabet

I am in a university TESL program and Phonetics is a requirement. I have been looking for several weeks for clear and/or explicit examples of how ESL professionals actually use Phonetics in class room situations. This is the first place I have even found a discussion of these issues. At my age I am a bit remiss to have to learn another language--so to speak--in order to teach English. This forum seems to show that a large majority of teachers out there also question IPA's practical uses in the classroom. Everytime I go into my Phonetics class this semester I can feel my Krashen Affective Filter hit the roof and dare I say I can't begin to get this whole ontology into my ever aging brain. I am interested in what others have to say and either encourage me to really make an effort with this project or just "Bank" it away as Paulo Freire said of most ontologies and leave it in the dustbin of other mostly esoteric dribble? Please advise

Author:  mesmark [ Mon Sep 15, 2014 5:41 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Phonetic alphabet

At least in this post, it seems it's the native speakers that don't really care for IPA and the non-native speakers seems to find it useful. I feel like it would be good for my students if I used it more. Like Manuela said, it teaches them to fish, giving them a tool to use and learn on their own.

Phonics can do the same thing, but doesn't cover irregular readings you often see from borrowed words. In addition, "phonics" isn't printed in dictionaries.

I'd say get as much as you can from the course. In the future try to use it and see what response you get. Unfortunately, I've forgotten most of it ...

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