Phonetics and its Uses in Foreign Language Instruction
Phonetics is the study of the physical aspects of speech. It is broken down into three categories: articulatory phonetics deals with the way in which speech sounds are produced, concerning itself with the actual organs involved in speech (vocal tract, tongue, lips, etc.); acoustic phonetics studies the physical properties of speech sounds, such as the properties of sound waves and the acoustics of speech; and auditory phonetics analyses the way in which humans perceive sounds, and involves the anatomy and physiology of the human ear and brain (Nicole Dehe, ?Phonology and Phonetics,? 1-2). Phonetics looks only at sounds themselves, rather their meanings or the context in which they are used, while the study of sound systems or linguistic patterns of sounds falls under the realm of phonology (Phonetics, 1). Used in a wide variety of disciplines, in foreign language instruction phonetics serves as a powerful, yet underused, tool in teaching pronunciation.
The science of phonetics arose as early as 2500 years ago in India, and took its modern form in the nineteenth century with the development of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in 1888 by a group of French and British language teachers who had formed the Association Phonetique Internationale two years earlier (?International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA),? 1). Based on earlier phonetic alphabets of more narrow scope, the IPA was intended as means of representing the sounds of human speech independent of any one language and applicable to all languages (?International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA),? 1). Several revisions to the IPA have taken place throughout the years, most recently in 2005. The IPA provides one symbol for each sound in human languages and today has 107 base symbols and 55 modifiers.
Linguists, translators, lexicographers, speech pathologists and therapists, and foreign language teachers all use phonetics on a daily basis (?International Phonetic Alphabet,? 2). In foreign language instruction, a usually simplified version of the IPA provides a scientific method of describing pronunciation (?pronunciation? includes both production and perception of speech (Michael Ashby, ?Pronunciation in EFL,? 1)). Since phonetic symbols represent objective sounds rather than letters or words, which can have subjective pronunciations, a phonetically written word will be pronounced in the same way by speakers of any language. This is especially useful in teaching non-phonetic languages such as French, Russian, and English, where spelling often has little relation to actual pronunciation, as well as in describing differences in pronunciation within a language, such as American versus British accents.
However, as linguist Patricia Ashby argues, ?Phonetics is not an instant remedy for all pronunciation problems; it offers the means to develop good pronunciation through enhanced awareness of relevant aspects of speech? (Patricia Ashby, ?Phonetics in pronunciation teaching for modern foreign languages,? 1). Phonetics is just one tool of a foreign language teacher; it is not a comprehensive foreign language teaching method, nor is formal overt phonetics instruction even absolutely necessary for the teaching of a foreign language. Learning even a simplified version of the IPA takes valuable classroom time and can be unnecessarily confusing for younger students. The benefits gained from the ability to use the IPA must be weighed against the time taken to teach it. Some teachers may simply prefer to covertly integrate pronunciation practice into classroom activities. In addition, different schools of thought exist on the effort that should be put into pronunciation training, given the realities of time constraints. Linguist Michael Ashby argues, ?Native-like mastery of pronunciation is rare in EFL (English as a Foreign Language), and is an unrealistic goal? (Michael Ashby, 2). In the EFL classroom, for better or for worse, precise phonetic accuracy often takes a back seat to intelligibility. Certain relatively unimportant aspects of English pronunciation can safely be ignored while maintaining intelligibility, while others, such as distinction among vowel sounds, are crucial (Michael Ashby, 2). If intelligibility is indeed the only goal, phonetics instruction appears unnecessary. However, in situations where a high degree of pronunciation accuracy is desired, beyond mere intelligibility, phonetics training becomes much more attractive. Teachers must choose pronunciation instruction methods by taking into account the needs and goals of the students. However, much too often, phonetics is underutilized in the EFL classroom not because of time constraints, a preference for integrating pronunciation practice, or a conscious decision to focus on intelligibility rather than native-like mastery, but because of a lack of phonetics knowledge on the part of EFL teachers. The quality of TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) training varies widely and some EFL teachers have no formal training at all (Michael Ashby, 2). As a result, many EFL teachers lack even the option of employing phonetics instruction.
Even if phonetics instruction may be optional in the classroom, it would be unwise for EFL teachers to consider phonetics to be optional knowledge for themselves. Teachers not well versed in phonetics are limiting their own range of employment possibilities, lacking what some would argue is essential knowledge for an English teacher, and missing out on a powerful classroom tool that, while not applicable to every classroom, is an important weapon for a teacher to have in his or her arsenal. Phonetics has the power to turn something as abstract and subjective as pronunciation into a science, making one of the most difficult aspects of language learning accessible and comprehensible to all.
Author: Ken Muller
Date of post: 2007-01-08