IPA: Symbols of Power?

I argue for a more democratic use of the IPA symbols in this article, which first appeared in Modern English Teacher 29.3 (July 2020).

There seems to be a love-hate relationship between the English teaching community and phonemic symbols. Some teachers love them, others won’t use them. A third category uses them under duress, but do not feel comfortable in doing so. This article is for anybody, but especially teachers in this third category.

A teacher’s feelings about the material they’re teaching with are often perceptible to the class. If a teacher uses phonemic symbols with confidence and pleasure, that will communicate itself to the class. If on the other hand a teacher uses them but dislikes doing so, it’s likely that this dislike will be part of what the learners take home from the lesson. I would like, if at all possible, to help teachers feel more at home with the symbols – to feel as if they ‘own’ them.

Pronunciation teaching: doing your homework on the L1

Why the myth about ‘native speakers’ being better language teachers? If you want to learn a language, you’d be well advised to look for a qualified teacher who shares the same first language as yourself, or at least knows it well. I can testify from my own experience that teaching pronunciation to someone whose language I know nothing about is like wading across a river when you can’t see the bottom: you just don’t know where the slippery boulders are! I will call this situation, ‘teaching blind’.

Whiskey versus Güisque

For a Spanish speaker, it seems perfectly natural for a [w] sound to be closely associated with a [g]. The Spanish dictionary entry for hueso, for example, gives the pronunciation as [(g)wéso], the bracketed (g) indicating that it is optional. Similarly, there’s an optional [g] at the beginning of huevo (egg).The g may be explicit in the spelling too. For example, the loan word for whiskey is often written güisque. For an English speaker, by contrast, this g comes as a surprise, and teachers are mystified as to why Spanish learners sometimes insert a g before words that begin with a w.