Phonology 101

On our course Patricia introduced us to two great sites to help with phonology.

First, there’s the excellent online typewriter, the Phonemic Character Keyboard, which is based on the comprehensive IPA character picker, two tools which, taken together, are just what you need to be able to write a post like this!

Then, there’s the University of Iowa Phonetics Flash Animation Project. This lets you go to three languages – American English, Spanish and German – to compare the phonemic characters with animated videos of the organs of speach and the ensuing sounds.

These tools are great extensions to the information contained in the Sound Foundations chart (app available) developed by Adrian Pilbeam, based on Received Pronunciation. While this is obviously a groundbreaking approach, and bible, so to speak, it needs extending when you’re focussing on moving students towards greater intelligibility in the ELF world. So this morning I’ve revisited that practice sentence I gave my students a few weeks ago: As she heard the bird, it occurred to her that the word she had heard was “a third”, not “a turd”. For orientation, I told the students to think “ö”. But the phoneme is not all that simple.

  • heard: BE: hɜːd – AE: hɝd
  • German uses different sounds and symbols: œ (öffnen) – ø (hören)

The sound descriptions from the IPA character picker are

  • ɜ – lower mid-central rounded
  • œ – lower mid front rounded
  • ø – upper mid front rounded

They may sound similar at first, but they’re made at different places in your mouth. The English phoneme sort of sits on your tongue, while the German ones are right up front.

Armin Berger writes: “Although the German vowel sounds differ slightly from their English counterparts, the German vowel inventory is sufficient for ELF communication. The English vowel sound /ɜː/, which is considered important for ELF, does not exist in German and might need some practice. In addition, German vowels are not shortened before voiceless consonants or lengthened before voiced consonants. This will be problematic for ELF.”  (In Robin Walker, Teaching the Pronunciation od English as a Lingua Franca, p.107)

So not only do German learners of English need to practice where the sound is made, they also need to make it long enough to be recognized. The most important thing remains for students to recognize when sounds are pronounced the same way, e.g. despite their divergent spellings, for consistent intelligibility. This allows listeners to tune in to them, and decode the sounds consistently.

Next time students need practice in this phoneme, I’ll still give them sentences containing many instances of it, but I’ll also present the four sounds (long and short ö in German, “heard” with and without the r) in comparision.

Phonemic typewriters:

Text to phonetics: http://www.photransedit.com

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

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