TEFL Phonetics and Phonology

Humans speak with each other by creating sounds. That is how we communicate with each other. Over the centuries the different languages have created systems of grammar to explain how the words in their languages work. Sometime after that, they began to create systems to explain how the sounds, or phonemes, of the different words work. Two disciplines arose out of this: phonetics and phonology.

Phonetics is the study of the sounds themselves. In the world there are a limited number of possible sounds which the human vocal tract can produce. Of these sounds, the distinctive pronunciations of the different languages are produced. But how are theses sounds produced and represented? The answer to this question is the area of study of Phonetics. Generally, Phonetics is subdivided into three further categories. Acoustic phonetics is the study of the physical properties of the sounds themselves. Auditory phonetics is the study of the way listeners perceive these sounds. Articulatory phonetics is how the vocal tract produces the sounds of a language. Most manuals on phonetics deal with the last of these three categories.

The sounds, as learned in Articulatory Phonetics, are labeled according to the place in the vocal tract in which they originate. For example, bilabials, [b][p][m], are created by brining the lips together. Labiodentals, [f][v], use both teeth and lips. These are only two of the different kinds of consonants. Others are: Interdental, alveolar, palatal, velar, and glottal. Joining all of these are also the vocals, which differ according to the position of the tongue in the mouth. To further complicate matters each of these sounds can be qualified as voiced or voiceless, nasal or oral, fricative or affricative, and liquids. The standard orthography of any language, be it English, French, German, or Greek, is incapable of representing all of the differences and nuances of these sounds. Take for example the following sentence: My father wanted many a village dame badly. With the standard English orthography, each of the different ?a? sounds in the sentence are represented in the same way. Yet the ?a? in dame and badly is by no means the same. Hence an international phonetic alphabet was created. It utterly disregards the spelling of the words and assigns each sound a symbol which is used only for that sound. As this system is international, it has only one sound associated with each symbol, allowing it to be applied to every known language in the world. Had the ancient Greeks and Romans known this system, we would today be able to still pronounce the languages without arguments about whether it is correct or not. They would have been able to leave testimony as to how they themselves said the words and how dialects differed amongst each other. This is what we are able to do today. Someone taking a Cockney accent can explain exactly in how far it differs from an RP accent by using Phonetics.

All of the previous paragraph deals only with the how of sound production. Phonology, the second discipline, studies the ways in which speech sounds form systems and patterns. It looks at the mental representation of linguistic knowledge and attempts to describe this knowledge. This allows speakers of a language to produce meaningful sounds or to recognize a foreign accent. It is also this knowledge which allows to make up new words which respect the phonetic conventions of a language or to add the appropriate sounds at the end of a word to form a plural or the different verb tenses. Most of these things are done unconsciously by a speaker, but by understanding how the choices a speaker makes in using the sounds and words of his language, someone attempting to learn can better grasp the fine nuances which sometimes escape understanding. All in all, between Phonetics and Phonology, a learner, and a teacher, can begin to understand the difference between his language, and the language he is attempting to learn, and come that much closer to a better understanding.


Fromkin, Victoria, Rodman, Robert, Hyams, Nina An Introduction to Language, 7th Edition,Wadsworth and Thomson, Boston, 2003.

Author: Rebecca Feller

Date of post: 2007-04-04