Developing a Positive Attitude Towards Phonemic Symbols

After Magritte

This article first appeared in the TEIS Newsletter (TESOL Teacher Educator Interest Section Newsletter), December 2022

Know weigh!

Learners are sometimes amazed to discover that words which look completely different in written form are sometimes pronounced exactly the same. It seems almost unbelievable that know weigh sounds the same as no way! With English spelling being so unreliable, it’s no wonder that learners and teachers look for alternative ways to represent pronunciation in writing. One popular option is to write the word using the spelling conventions of your first language. For example, I once noticed White House written as guait haus in a piece of graffiti in Madrid. I often see learners using similar kinds of informal phonetics in their notebooks. I’ve done the same thing myself, representing French enfant as onfon. Seeing the pronunciation in a written form can help to understand it and fix it in the memory – ears and eyes are better than ears alone. But these kinds of informal spellings are very personal – each learner will have their own version – and they are often inaccurate. It’s useful to have something more reliable, and this is where phonemic symbols come in.

IPA symbols

In the world of English Language Teaching (ELT), it’s common to use a set of symbols to represent pronunciation, and the most widely used symbols come from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Becoming familiar with these symbols is a rite-of-passage for trainee teachers, but too often we fail to understand what they are and how they work. There’s a widespread and unhelpful belief that the symbols somehow only represent one specific accent, and I think this derives from a confusion of ‘phonemic’ and ‘phonetic’.

Phonemic versus phonetic

The first thing we should understand about the IPA that we typically use in ELT is that it’s not the full set –that is designed to cover all languages – but only that small set of symbols needed to represent English. It’s also important to note that in ELT, we normally use the symbols phonemically rather than phonetically. Let me explain this with a concrete example. There are two kinds of L – the clear L and the dark L, and there is a different phonetic symbol for each of these – [l] and [ɫ]. English does have both of these sounds, but there is no meaningful difference between them – they are simply different ‘flavours’ of the same phoneme. We use one phonemic symbol /l/ to represent this phoneme. In other words, the phoneme /l/ includes both sounds [l]and [ɫ]. Trainees should know that a phonemic symbol does not represent one exact and specific sound. By the way, make sure they notice that phonetic symbols are shown between square brackets and phonemic symbols between slash brackets!

Love them or hate them?

There seems to be a love-hate relationship between teachers and the IPA symbols. Some teachers love them, others won’t use them, or only ever use them for the observed lessons they did as trainees. So what’s the problem? The main objection which I’ve heard to the IPA goes like this: ‘My accent is not the same as the accent shown by the IPA, so I can’t use it!’ I believe this worry is based on an important misunderstanding. Phonetic symbols may represent one specific accent, but phonemic symbols don’t.

Symbols and accents

I think the phonemic symbols are best regarded as accent-neutral. Take for example the word bet in a typical English accent and a typical New Zealand accent. The vowel sounds quite different in the two accents – New Zealand pet sounds like bit to English ears. Or from the opposite point of view, English bet sounds like bat to New Zealand ears. However, we can use the same phonemic symbol /e/ for the vowel sound in both accents. This is because the symbol represents a phoneme, not a sound. If we wanted to represent a sound, we would use a phonetic symbol instead.

Phonemes are like chess pieces

The pieces in different chess sets often have slightly different shapes. For example, in one set, the knight may look like a horse’s head; in another set the knight may be a more abstract shape. But despite the differences in shape, both of these pieces play the same role in the game. Phonemes are like this. The /e/ in UK English sounds different from the /e/ in New Zealand English, but they both play the same role in the system as a whole. You could define it this way: /e/ represents the vowel sound in ‘bet’ whatever your accent. As a teacher trainer, this is the message I try to get across to trainees: phonemic symbols don’t represent only one accent; if you are an intelligible speaker of English, they can represent YOUR accent too!

Why do UK and US books often use different symbols?

If phonemic symbols are accent-neutral, then why would British and American books use different ones? I think the answer is that the differences more about academic tradition than accent. Take for example the vowel phoneme in boot, which is often given as /u:/ in UK texts but /uw/ in US ones. This difference has nothing to do with a contrast between the British and American pronunciations of boot; it is merely a different habitual use of symbols. The symbols in themselves are arbitrary – it’s the role they play in the system as a whole which matters.

A chart as a box of chocolates

Phonemic charts often look rather like a box of chocolates – a collection of intriguing symbols, each one in its own separate compartment. Naturally, our attention is drawn to the symbols, like the chocolates in the box, but what if the box itself is actually the important part? I think that’s the case with a phonemic chart – the system as a whole is more important than the individual symbols within.

A system of distinctions

So how is the box more important than the symbols? Well, it’s this: the system of phonemes in English is a system of distinctions. What matters about the vowel in bet is not so much its intrinsic quality, but more the fact that it is distinguishable from the vowels in bit, beat or bait, for example. What is important is not the precise quality of the occupant of each cell in the chart, but the fact that it is different from its neighbours. English and New Zealand speakers may pronounce those individual vowels differently, but they can still distinguish the words and that’s what counts. We have to keep the chocolates separate from one another!

What if you don’t have a distinction in your accent?

I should acknowledge a difficulty with the phonemic chart. Unfortunately, it can’t always be as accent neutral is we might want. Some accents have only one phoneme where other accents have two. It’s as if two of the chocolates in your box have melted together into one. Take for example the two vowel phonemes in full and fool. For many Scottish speakers, there’s only one phoneme here and these two words are homophones. If you are a Scottish teacher and your class asks you to explain the difference between these two symbols in the chart, you will be obliged to say something like, ‘Well, they are the same in my accent, but different in some other accents’. It’s not ideal, but nor is it a reason to reject the entire IPA. That would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The big picture

No doubt difficulties arise from time to time when we try to use the same set of phonemic symbols for a variety of accents of English, as illustrated with the full and fool example above. But I think the essential point to bear in mind in teaching and teacher training is that the IPA symbols that we use in class are phonemic and not phonetic. This means that they do not represent specific, precise sounds but rather a range of sounds, for example, /l/ represents both the clear and the dark L. It also means that they don’t represent one specific accent, but are flexible enough to accommodate a range of accents – for example, /e/ can represent the vowel phoneme in bet in both British and New Zealand accents. Dear teacher educator, the phonemic symbols can represent your trainees’ accents too; encourage them to feel that they can own them!

This article first appeared in the TEIS Newsletter (TESOL Teacher Educator Interest Section Newsletter), December 2022