The Perils of Pronouncing from Print

Like many people, I’ve been doing some language study during the lockdown. On my daily walk, I’ve been listening to a Greek course delivered entirely through audio, with no reference whatever to the written form. It remains to be seen if this has worked, since I haven’t had the opportunity use it. But one thing I can be fairly sure of is that my Greek pronunciation won’t be subject to spelling-induced error.

Learning through the eyes

Most learners of English, certainly the ones I’ve come across in my teaching career, have not learnt entirely through the ear as in my Greek experience. Most have learnt through the eyes too. They’ve used books, not just audio, and most have been both guided and misled by the written form. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of spelling in teaching pronunciation, and not only for the productive (speech) skills but also for the receptive (listening).

Spelling rules

If you are learning a language which shares an alphabetic writing system which resembles that of your mother tongue, the first problem you’re likely to encounter is L1 interference. If you’re an English speaker learning French, you may pronounce an /s/ in Paris simply because you’re following your L1 spelling rules. Most learners quickly become aware of how the target language rules differ from the L1, however, so this tends to be more of a beginner’s issue, relatively quickly overcome.

Non-phonetic spelling

A more serious issue is when the spelling of the target language doesn’t ‘match’ the pronunciation, as in the case of English. Learners may wonder what kind of sadist invented spelling patterns like ‘ough’ in words like rough, through and bought, for example. And who thought that it would be a good idea to have a ‘k’ in knife and a ‘b’ in lamb? On the other hand, there’s often a lot more reason in the madness of English spelling than first appears, and learners can be taught (or simply pick up) rules and patterns such as the ‘magic e’ which distinguishes made from mad, or the doubled consonant that distinguishes bitter from biter.

A hybrid language

English spelling is also complicated by the fact that so many words have been imported from other languages, either historically or more recently. It helps to know that ballet comes from French if you are to avoid pronouncing a /t/ at the end of it, and you could be forgiven for thinking that quiche is pronounced like quickie if you don’t know the word is imported.

Hidden perils

But serious though some of the above difficulties are, I think people tend to be generally aware of them. The most serious problems are the ones you don’t know about, and here I make a special mention of connected speech and the difficulty that it creates for listening.

Mangled words

Learners, and sometimes teachers too, tend to assume that spoken English is like written English, but audible. Not so. In the spoken version, words tend to get mangled and distorted, especially the high-frequency grammatical ones. So, for example, the phrase ‘cooks and meals’ can surprisingly end up being a perfect homophone of ‘cook some meals’, despite the middle word looking completely different in the written form.

Hidden in plain sound

Although features of connected speech pervade the spoken language, many people are only aware of those which have found representation in the written form. These include ‘official’ contractions such as don’t or would’ve, but also more ‘unofficial’ folk spellings like wanna or gimme. However, these are really and truly only the tip of the iceberg. On closer inspection, these kinds of reduction are to be found throughout the ‘sound substance’ (Richard Cauldwell’s term) of spoken English, but speakers of the language are very often unaware of them.

The power of knowing

So what to do? My feeling is that we very much need to make learners (and teachers) aware of the features of connected speech, bearing in mind that this is mainly for receptive purposes. Learners who are unaware tend to blame their listening difficulties on their own ears, and this is the road to despair. But when they learn the reality of linking, elision, assimilation and so on, the reaction tends to be something like,‘Oh, now I understand why I don’t understand!’ That to me sounds like the beginnings of empowerment.

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