Using a Phonetic Alphabet to Facilitate Pronunciation in an English Class

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1 Using a Phonetic Alphabet to Facilitate Pronunciation in an English Class Mtro. Mario Alberto Tobías Rincón Professor at Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Language Sciences Department, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. San Nicolás de los Garza, Nuevo León, México. Abstract. The International Phonetic Alphabet has come to help second language learners to have an approximate idea of how the target language should or must be pronounced. Pronunciation, by itself, is one of the most challenging skills when learning a second language. Both teachers and students have expressed this difficulty about teaching and learning pronunciation. Teachers say that it is difficult to find the time to teach isolated phonemes in class because there is grammar to teach. Students, on the other hand, say that they find important to learn it, but it is a difficult thing to do so, since they do not have enough practice in class as well as the fear to imitate the sounds of the second language. How can the phonetic alphabet of English help both teachers and students in the classroom? Keywords: IPA, English pronunciation, International Phonetic Alphabet, phonetic transcriptions Background Through the years, it has been pointed out that pronunciation of a second language is one of the most challenging skills to achieve by the students and a difficult skill to address in the classroom by the teachers. Pronunciation is a language skill that cannot be changed just by doing conscious effort and hard work, such as imitating a voice, drilling over and over, etc., because most of the times teachers and students end up avoiding pronunciation practices since it is considered a tedious activity. Most of the times, teachers have to make a greater effort to find a way to teach pronunciation, but as found in a survey, teachers give different reasons to avoid teaching pronunciation in their classes. English is the most widely taught language in the world. It is used in many environments: a lot of schools teach English, businesses are related to English speaking countries, the internet is widely full of information in English, and we can continue numbering the situations in which this language is spoken and/or used. The idea of this paper is to recognize that if students are going to

2 learn English, it should be learned in a degree that English speakers and users might understand these students ideas. When Spanish speakers begin learning English as a second language, they face a main problem when they try to speak the language: there is no relationship between the spelling of English and the way it must be pronounced. Comparing this situation with Spanish, it could pointed out that Spanish spelling of words is most of the times the same as the pronunciation of each phoneme. For example, the word reporte should be pronounced /re por te/ in Spanish. On the other hand, report in English, should be pronounced as /rι 'pͻrt/. As it can be seen, the phonetic transcriptions tell a lot of what Spanish speaker students face when learning English. For Spanish speakers, it is difficult to identify certain phonemes that are used in English, because they are not used in their mother tongue. Therefore, they tend to pronounce words with an approximate phoneme found in Spanish. In order to avoid this and compare words that are similarly pronounced, phonetic transcription is recommended. In order to exemplify this, we can point out the following words: three vs. tree. For some students, it is difficult to distinguish the phoneme /Ө/ with the phoneme /t/. So, a teacher can easily use phonetic transcription to make them realize that / Өriy/ is pronounced differently than /triy/. Similarly, the letter t in rat and ration represent very different consonant sounds, /ræt/ vs. / rey ʃən/; ss occurs in pass and passion, and we can see how the pronunciation varies using phonetic transcription: /pæs/ vs. / pæ ʃən/. It is known that phonetic transcription is just an exact representation of the standard spoken language. It is also known that there are varieties (or dialects) of English, but the purpose of the phonetic transcription is to teach and learn the standard way of pronunciation. It is important to teach it, because phonetic transcription does not lead to confusion of phonemes, there is only one way to pronounce a word, and there are no silent letters in it. The use of phonetic transcription leads to have an ideal way of pronouncing words no matter the way a teacher pronounces. Therefore, it can be added that even teachers can learn or improve their pronunciation just by looking up the transcription of a word in a dictionary, taking into consideration that nowadays there is access to online dictionaries. Why not sharing these transcriptions with students? Taking into consideration teachers opinion on the subject, it was found that even teachers find it difficult to teach pronunciation. Their reason of this is not the same as the students, they mainly express that their problem is to find the time to teach pronunciation in class. Why do they experience this? The syllabus of the course marks the grammar, vocabulary, and listening areas as more relevant. Pronunciation is, therefore, put aside as a skill that has to be learned within the class without any single time of instruction, probably just by listening to the instructor.

3 A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to teach the following learning units at Facultad de Filosofía y Letras: Compared Phonetics and Compared Phonology. This gave me the opportunity to investigate and figure out rules for pronouncing English. I learned the International Phonetic Alphabet focusing mainly in the English and Spanish phonemes. Since then, I have been teaching and / or using the phonetic alphabet with both my content classes students as well as my language students. This has helped my students and me to take the phonetic alphabet as a tool to learn Pronunciation in the class. Do my students find it useful? Description of the study This study began as a concern about students pronunciation in both ESL classes and content classes in English at Facultad de Filosofía y Letras. It was found that most students could communicate easily in the second language, but some consider that they lack of an appropriate pronunciation of the target language. In order to find the source of this matter, both students and teachers were asked about their feelings about learning and teaching pronunciation. Teachers were asked informally about their practices teaching pronunciation in order for them to feel free and being honest about the matter. They were open to share their feelings and practices when they are in front of the class, and they talked about their knowledge of the phonetic alphabet and its use in the classroom. Students, on the other hand, were asked four specific questions with the idea of having similar responses in order to perform the study. Students were asked the following questions. The first question was related about their study of the phonetic alphabet in previous English classes. The second question focused in the idea of their general understanding of the phonetic alphabet. Third, they were asked about their feelings of their own pronunciation when they have to use it in classroom talk and in other contexts. Finally, they were asked about their feelings towards their teacher using the phonetic alphabet in class as a tool to help them improve the so-called skill. Results and Analysis Most teachers agree that teaching pronunciation is difficult to teach, since they consider that there is no time in class to practice it, contradicting themselves that communication is the main focus in their classes. How can it be possible to teach communicative English without teaching pronunciation? Some teachers agreed that they sometimes skip the teaching of pronunciation because they assume that it has already been taught in previous classes, so they consider it as not necessary to do it. Another response is related to what is on the tests; most tests assess only listening, grammar, and vocabulary, so they prefer to focus on these areas in their classes so that

4 their students are ready and prepared to get good scores in these tests. Some teachers accepted that they do not feel confident using the phonetic alphabet and that they even feel insecure about their own pronunciation, so they avoid pinpointing the topic in class. Should we teachers also receive instruction in pronunciation? above. The following tables demonstrate the answers of students to the questions mentioned Question Answers % of students Do you understand the phonetic alphabet of English? Yes 63% No 37% Did you study the phonetic alphabet in previous English classes? Yes 26% No 74% My pronunciation is outstanding. 0% I have some minor mistakes. 24% How do you feel with your pronunciation of English? I make mistakes but I am understood by others. I really need to work on my pronunciation to improve communication with others. 41% 35% How do you feel when your teacher uses the phonetic alphabet in class in order to review the pronunciation of words in English? It s really helpful for me, and I have 84% improved my pronunciation. It helps me, but I forget the 14% pronunciation of words again. It s unclear sometimes. 2% It s irrelevant for my learning. 0%

5 As it can be seen in the table above, a wide range of students understand the phonetic alphabet of English. Most of them answered like this, because they were taught at the beginning of the semester the basics of the alphabet and had some practice with it, they even use it to remember the pronunciation in a written form. On the other hand, it could be interpreted that some students have not understood the alphabet yet. Something that can call everyone s attention is that most of the students have not received instruction in the phonetic alphabet of English. This agrees with what the teachers answered about leaving the pronunciation skill aside because we teachers tend to teach grammar, vocabulary, and listening, rather than pronunciation. This deserves attention from both school administrators and teachers themselves. Even though some students have an acceptable level of pronunciation in English, most of the students do not consider themselves proficient in the skill, they realize that they make mistakes, but they can easily be understood by others in a social environment. However, almost the same amount of students consider that they need to work harder on their pronunciation, since it has an impact in the communication with others. We can point out that even when they are understood, they need instruction to overcome this gap in their language. How do students feel when the instructor of the class promotes the improvement of pronunciation using the phonetic alphabet? The result was outstanding, the vast majority consider that they do really need instruction in pronunciation, because it has had an impact on their learning: they feel that they have improved their pronunciation and have corrected some fossilized mistakes in their speech. Some of them still need to receive more instruction in the topic, for they forget what they learn in class whether because they need more practice or because it is unclear. Conclusion What can be done about this? It is crucial to take into consideration the importance of pronunciation of English in the classroom. Schools and teachers should work together in order to improve this skill in students. All this can be done through committee meetings to study, and discuss the different ways that can be used in order to give this extra help to students need to develop thoroughly in the target language. Gilbert suggests that it is important for students and teachers to overcome such frustrations and difficulties by focusing their attention on the development of pronunciation that is listener friendly. There are different techniques that teachers can use for teaching pronunciation in order to help students to face the different number of challenges when learning a new language. Learners

6 need to be taught pronunciation in a communicative method. However, why not teaching them using a phonetic alphabet? What teachers need is to take some time of their time to teach students the phonetic alphabet, after that, when they think it is needed to remark a point in pronunciation, they just have to write the phonetic transcription. It is not necessary to write the transcription of the whole word, they can only pinpoint the phoneme that is causing trouble. For example, if the troublesome phoneme is the letter d in education, teachers just have to tell students that it must be pronounced with the sound /dʒ/. Obviously, as it was mentioned above, there has to be some instruction on the topic. Students have accepted that they need instruction in pronunciation. They have told us teachers that they do find it relevant and useful to use phonetic transcription in the class, because it has helped them to improve their pronunciation. They have also answered that they have not received this instruction in previous classes. What are we waiting for? Bibliography Atkielski, Anthony. Using Phonetic Transcription in Class. Retrieved on January 15 th, 2015 from Celce-Murcia, Marianne, et. al. Teaching Pronunciation: A Reference for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. New York, Cambridge University Press, Dale, Paulette and Lilian Poms. English Pronunciation Made Simple. New York: Longman, Gilbert, Judy B. Clear Speech. New York, Cambridge, Lujan, Beverly A. The American Accent Guide: A Complete and Comprehensive Course on the Pronunciation and Speaking Style of American English for Individuals of All Language Backgrounds. Utah: Lingual Arts, Mojsin, Lisa. Mastering the American Accent. USA: Barrons, Tench, Paul. Transcribing the Sound of English: A Phonetics Workbook for Words and Discourse. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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