Teach English in Dazhang Zhen - Zhuzhou Shi

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It seems that the teaching of phonology to students of all levels is still typically centered on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The ITTT online material and Vantage offline classes are no exceptions. Despite seeing such introductions many times prior, it was still remarkable when the video narrator began mentioned “Alveolar, Retro­flex, Palatal, Velar, and….fricatives.” As an outsider to this system (I have either passively forgotten or purposefully expunged the IPA table from my mind on many occasions), I cannot help but notice the ever accumulating evidence against such conventional methods of teaching for all students beyond A1 beginner. First, I should acknowledge the clear benefits of systems such as the IPA and its necessity for absolute beginners who do not know how to even make the basic sounds of the English alphabet: “J” for juice; “c” for cat. So yes, demonstrating the IPA for the very first time how each letter or letter groups commonly sounds can speed things up versus just letting them figuring it out for themselves “naturally”. But the long-standing question remains: if very young native learners can get by without the IPA, then why must be the systems be adopted for ESL learners? While the way the table is laid out is quite clever, with the voicing of the sounds going from the back to the front of the mouth, one cannot help but think much of the preoccupation with the IPA seems to be academic enthusiasm and ingrained momentum rather than truly considering things from the perspective of the ESL learner. The history of the International Phonetics Association should be educational. In 1886, Paul Passy was the leader of a small group of language (not solely ESL) teachers in Paris whose aim was to encourage the use of phonetic notation to facilitate school children in acquiring “realistic pronunciation of foreign languages”. In other words, the best way that Dutch child might learn the Italian language, was an indirect factor in the development of the IPA, as was the experience of a German learning French. Neither may have any direct relevance to a non-English learner studying English, and indeed the influence of non-English European languages is clear to see: a “j” for “y” in yellow Whenever I mention problems with the IPA, the most common initial response, from both native and non-native speakers is “but what else can you do?” Well, you only have to look as far as dictionary.com to see. The word pronounciation is simply ‘phoneticised’ as “pruh-nuhn-see-ey-shuh n” rather than the unnatural “prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃn” which could be unintelligible for those not versed in IPA . The former a pronunciation respelling system that avoids phonemic orthography and quickly becomes self-apparent as the learner picks up new words. One response may be “how does the learner know the pronunciation of “pr-“ and “uh”? This chicken-and-egg argument does not hold once learners pass a very basic level when they have various ways to get to grips with basic letter sounds. Those adamant with themselves should see how modern phonics classes are taught to school children – the variations are numerous but none involve an IPA chart, a sure way to put off an impressionable young learner. An out-dated criticism was “but what if you forget, or what if you needed to know for sure how this word sounds?” when there isn’t a teacher around? But this problem is becoming increasingly irrelevant today, in the age of smart phones and mobile internet. In fact, I would argue that the focus on IPA does the greatest damage indirectly. Even when students are effectively practicing and improving the sound of syllables (“static pronunciation”) they are directing valuable time and attention away from the much more important area of “dynamic interpretation” that can be defined as anything beyond the pronunciation of single sounds: word stress, intonation and other speech ‘techniques’ such as linking elision and contraction. ESL students often underestimate how misplaced word stress can completely throw a native speaker: sub-BURB vs. SU-burb especially if the former’s second vowel sound is inaccurate. Instead, many cultures seem to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on hiding obvious L1 interference. This problem seems to be especially acute for East and Southeast Asians who preoccupation with saving face can be really counter-productive: not only is it not that big a deal, but it wholly detracts from their truly weak awareness of dynamic pronunciation issues. Even non-linguists are aware that Japanese have problem distinguishing their “r” from their “l” and Koreans struggle with the “f” sound, but these have very little impact on understanding. However, some cases are much more problematic and much of the systematic culture-wide problems, ought to be laid right at the feet of the IPA. Take the example of typical Chinese ESL learners, many of whom say instinctively “feet” when they mean “fit” and easily confuse “he’s” and “his”. Given that the IPA for feet is fiːt with a recognizable lower case ‘i', it is not surprising that such systematic errors persist. Here, the simultaneous existence of the pinyin system in which the letter “I” makes an “ee” sound exacerbates the issue. But there would no chance of this had the IPA not used an i: to denote the “name” of an entirely different letter: E. Such problems are commonplace and much more detrimental to understanding given the prevalence of both ‘i’ and ‘ee’ sounds in the English language. When there is lack of peer correction, or even correction from non-English academic teachers for whatever reason, embarrassing situations arise whereby a soon-to-graduate business students thinks her major is pronounced “beezneez” and an economics major thinks she has been studying “econORmeeks”. From my own – admittedly unscientific experience – the attitude towards the IPA or “yinbiao” as it is known in Chinese is almost always neutral (apathetic) to strongly negative. I have heard countless (unprompted) complaints about how the IPA the crushed interests of adult ESL learners when they were in primary school to such an extent that they never really recovered their interest. Conversely, I’ve never heard of any positive feedback on how efficient and useful the IPA is, no matter how much I try to coax the answer out of respondents. I think it is a real shame that so much emphasis is placed on static pronunciation issues such that otherwise very able intermediate students lose confident in oral English. If the entire school system put other aspects of pronunciation in its place and adopted a more rules-based approach, they might realize that many of the headaches of practicing phoneme pronunciation automatically disappears. One only needs to teach the fact that two syllable and non-conceptual nouns and their modifiers (adjectives) have a stress at the beginning alongside the concept of the schwa for neutral unstressed phonemes, and the problem of how to pronounce borrowed words like “foreign” takes care of itself: “fo-run” In most curricula with their over-emphasis on analyzing grammar, such rules-based pronunciation lessons (obviously with common exceptions highlighted) would go a long way to correcting the unhealthy focus on IPA and static pronunciation. As increasingly more English learners aim for higher proficiency to study abroad, the importance of spoken English ability that balances accuracy with fluency (IELTS, TOEFL, PTE-A requirements) will only grow. In order to improve fluency, students go beyond the reading-as-word mentality, which itself requires one to take off the straitjacket that comes with an over-emphasis on phoneme pronunciation and pronunciation of unnatural, unspecialized, inaccessible systems such as the International Phonetic Alphabet.