Thursday, 16 December 2010

the old ones are the best

Lecturers involved in training future teachers of EFL sometimes send me very sophisticated queries about English phonetics, anxious that what they tell their students should be exactly right. This is admirable, and I am all in favour of accuracy and avoiding sloppiness. But it is good to be reminded from time to time that there are some very basic issues that many ordinary users of English as a foreign, second, or international language fail to master, partly because teachers fail to teach them.I found this handwritten notice, in English and Greek, on, a website mainly devoted — deplorably — to laughing at foreigners, but also acting as a useful reminder of failures on the part of English language teachers (and, of course, language learners).

We can ignore for the moment the misplaced here (never put an adverb between a verb and its direct object). Our interest is phonetics.

Writing live where leave was meant shows us that those who have no iː-ɪ contrast in their L1 readily confuse the two English vowels not only in speaking and hearing but also in reading and writing.

The pair leave liːvlive (v.) lɪv is particularly tricky, since both words are of high frequency, both being among the thousand words most frequently used in spoken and written English.

Given that they are so frequent, and that their meanings are so clearly different, you might expect them to be relatively well mastered — better so than pairs of rarer words such as keeper–kipper or peach–pitch.

But I can think of more than one highly educated fluent speaker of English from a Spanish-speaking country who, like the person who scrawled this notice, gets them wrong not only in speech but also in writing.

People don’t learn the iː-ɪ distinction merely by being exposed to it. They have to be taught it explicitly. Teachers must bite the bullet and do ear training: drill the learner not just in producing the contrast, but more importantly in perceiving it. In Greece, Italy, Spain there are a few enlightened teachers of English who do that, but I am pretty confident that most don’t. Let’s encourage more of them to do so. It’s the only way.

Παρακαλώ, per favore, ¡por favor!


  1. Specially difficult for languages like Greek, Spanish and Italian, with only one /i/ sound and no phonemic vowel length. Germans, for instance, see no problem in distinguishing leave liːf from live lɪ̈f or lʏf. (They might have other challenges, though.)

  2. "In Greece, Italy, Spain there are a few enlightened teachers of English who do that, but I am pretty confident that most don’t."

    John, you're absolutely right. In Italy in particular, teachers of EFL are usually not willing to teach phonetics because they think that it is useless or too complicated for students. They prefer to teach grammar, instead.

    About a month ago I got a dressing-down from one of my bosses for teaching the importance of stress in English. Can you imagine that?

  3. And you're absolutely right too, Alex. You can also find a lot of resistance from otherwise highly motivated students. When I was young I also thought that good pronunciation would come to me with time. It was hard to realize that things would only get worse by just repeating the same old errors. It seems to me that people (especially those who are "educated") don't like to be told how to move their speech organs.
    Pacheco, from Spain.

  4. I am Italian. I can only confirm that for the vast majority of Italians the distinction between iː and ɪ (among many other things!) is difficult to master.
    In my experience phonetics is very rarely taught in schools, in my opinion for two main reasons: i), most teachers don't know a thing about phonetics and/or are unable to produce sounds correctly; and, ii), a great deal of people, perhaps the majority, feel very hostile towards phonetics and pronunciation. I don't know why it is so but in my experience this is a very common attitude. Many students think "fine points" (in their view) of English pronunciation are unimportant, irrelevant or just incomprehensible.
    Also, especially at school, attempts to imitate correct English pronunciation are often seen by fellow students as affected and ridicule.
    I'll give another example of this attitude.
    My girlfriend is Polish, and I tried a few times to teach her the basics of English phonetics (the IPA symbols, for example). Her reaction was of utmost revulsion, and I had to give up on that.
    As a side note, I expected that for Polish speakers the iː/ɪ opposition would have been less of a problem as this pair is rather similar to Polish i/ɨ : e.g. English beat/bit is somewhat alike Polish bit/byt. Alas, it is not so and as far as I can tell Poles and Italians have pretty much the same problems with telling apart English vowel sounds.

  5. As a Greek (actually a Cypriot, but lets not get into that), I can confirm that no one teaches English phonetics. No teacher ever bothered to correct as when we were using /i/ for /iː/ and /ɪ/, /u/ for /uː/ and /ʊ/, /e/ for /ə/ or /a/ for /a-æ-ʌ/. Even /ɣu/ for /w/!

    But, when I started learning French, from the very first lesson, the professor printed as a chart of the French vowel and "tortured" us with the pairs of fermé-ouverte pairs.

    Around that time I decided to learn IPA myself and get an English dictionary with IPA annotation. I guess now I speak with something resembling the RP :P

  6. Coincidentally, the Clinicallinguistics blog has today a posting on instructors of phonetics in communication disorders programs in the US being unable to produce non-English sounds.
    See: clinicallinguisticsDOTwordpressDOTcom

  7. Right on, Martin! Here's an easier link.

  8. Well just let me say I spend a LOT of time as a teacher and teacher trainer in Greece on phonetics! Once my students were on about the necessity of putting beans on the bitches for people to put their rubbish in, so that had to be tackled along with the other Greek favourite, 'come in and shit down'.

  9. @Anon (Italian): I find the same to be true in Russian. In my experience, speakers of Slavic languages with i-ɨ often reproduce and ɪ as as short i. Exacerbating this is the fact that in Russian at least only one of the two is possible after certain consonants. This is especially problematic when it comes to English words like sheet and beach.

  10. I know it's OT but if Dr Martin J Ball puts an adverb between a verb and its direct object, does that mean it's not quite so hard-and-fast a rule...? ;-)

  11. For some reason GOOSE/FOOT is even harder for me (another Italian). I typically get FLEECE/KIT right most of the time, but most of the last times I tried to say skull, people understood school. Before getting native speakers to tell me "ok, that's right" the vowel had to be so open it sounded more like Italian /o/ than /u/.
    (Other things I frequently get wrong in English unless I'm very careful -- some of which I have no idea why: pronouncing "year" as "ear" or vice versa, pronouncing "read" as "red" even in the present tense, pronouncing /r/ as a flap or trill or (by hypercorrection of this) intervocalic syllable-coda /t/, /d/ as an approximant. I've given up with the dental fricatives as here in Ireland not even native speakers always use them, but in very careful speech I do use them.)

  12. army1987: Everywhere except in the north of England, skull has ʌ, not ʊ. That is, it should sound not like Italian /u/ or /o/, but almost like /a/. It does not rhyme with pull.

  13. An hour ago there was a long and useful contribution from David C here. Somehow, it’s disappeared. I didn’t remove it.

  14. @JW diolch yn fawr John!

    @accidentobizarro Yup

  15. PART TWO
    2. On the other hand, my subsequent teaching career coincided with the rise of communicative language teaching. Several principals of this new orthodoxy are in conflict with the Schenker approach.

    • The principle of early surrender value (based on insurance policy practice) insists that students should not have to wait to the end of a long course before gaining usable skills. Even the shortest course should leave the student fluent in a small way. There's no room for phonemic training in an ultra-short course, and so there's no room in the initial stage of a more extended course,

    • Although the failure to make the phonemic contrast is ultimately a communicative failure, it's pretty low on the scale. Italians who speak English with a strong accent are understood more often than not.

    • The types of exercise that train the ear to make phonemic distinctions are alien to the body of exercises that practise communication.

    This is not to say that ear training and pronunciation practise has no place in a communicative language course. It can be done, but the teacher and course-writer have to judge carefully when and how to introduce this unusual element.

    There's also the question of motivation. My Schenker students were Air Force personnel — an easy type of student to motivate. Other Schenker students were motivated by the fact that they had paid, and that they had a constant numerical statement of progress though 75 achievement levels. I believe that the Schenker method has far less success at a school attached to the Naval Academy, where the students were non-voluntary, young and impatient.

    Today's students demand to be entertained, refuse to be bored, expect early results in the form of usable language. I don't see any alternative to approach that aims for fluency first, accuracy later.

  17. David -
    we appear currently to be missing Part 1 of your informative comments. Could you re-post them?

  18. What I find strange is that having good pronunciation is the easiest (read: cheekiest) way to convincing native speakers that you can speak their language.
    Vocabulary is more slow release, and grammar in between. But if more emphasis was put on pronunciation, the confidence that brings would fast-track learning.

  19. I teach English to Portuguese teenagers and I've explicitly taught the difference between those two sounds, with examples like live/leave, chip/cheap/ship/sheep. Students understand the difference and most are able to repeat the sounds correctly. However, when they speak, they forget the distinction and simply use /i/ for both /I/ and /i:/.

  20. Not only "in the north of England"; I've meet quite a few people with FOOT = STRUT here in Dublin, too. (It seems to me this is more common in people from the west of Ireland than in those from the east, and more common in females than in males, but I'm not so sure of that).

    @Des Ryan: On the other hand, if someone asks a question with a perfect accent the interlocutor is likely to assume they are a native speaker (or at least very fluent) and so answer speaking quickly and using non-trivial vocabulary; if this assumption is wrong, the asker is likely to understand very little.

  21. This is slightly OT.

    On some BBC podcast a while back, one of the people who'd been invited to share their views was a Brazilian woman studying in Britain. When she was asked to introduce herself, she spoke quite fluently; but what was most remarkable to me was her accent, which sounded very close to RP to me. 'Either somebody's taught her really well, or she has a good ear for accents (or both)', I thought.

    However, the moment she was asked to present her views on whatever was the day's topic, she became a hesitant, unsure, repetitive, and vague speaker. She just couldn't find the right words. The host's voice betrayed her worry at having to fill in the time that had been allotted to that woman, because the woman sure wasn't speaking enough to use all of it.

    This is like the other end of the spectrum. Excellent pronunciation, all the essential distinctions made, but no communication achieved.

  22. @army1987: Given its absence in much Scottish and Ulster English, I don't think the GOOSE/FOOT distinction is as important as FLEECE/KIT.

  23. Martin

    Since you wrote to me, I've twice re-posted PART ONE by pasting and once by re-typing.

    I've now been challenged by Google to verify my account. It seems that my repeated posting has triggered a spam filter. Perhaps I'll try again later today.

  24. I think the problem goes even deeper - it is not just the lack of enlightment of teachers but also curriculum designers who seem to believe that anything beyond the barest essentials in phonology is too much for students.

    Having said that I am somewhat skeptical about the efficacy of mere drilling as a solution. But it certainly has its place.

    The consequences can be much more dire. I once had to console an American teacher of English to Czechs who thought he was called the 'c' word by one of his students. What the student had been trying to say was 'You can't' with an RP pronunciation. And this was a Czech native speaker where vocalic length is phonemic for all the instances where it plays a role in English, as well.

  25. @ Army1987
    I think your observation of the FOOT-STRUT merger being present in Ireland is correct, though I would say the merger is more typical in the east than the west.
    By the east I mean in paricular Dublin and the towns it influences.

    Here down in Cork, all in my family have the split, though sometimes one hears younger middle class women who sound like they have the merger.
    I don't think the merger is evaluated the same in Ireland as England. There's no stigma attached to it. In fact there may be a slight degree of prestige owing to its association with the capital, or at least for younger speakers.

    Most middle class people in Dublin sound like they have the merger at least some of the time.
    John's AoE comments on the merger in Dublin, though I would go further than him and say that even in formal settings, even most middle-class Dublin speakers still have the merger. What seems to happen in formal settings is that they lower their this merged FOOT-STRUT vowel somewhat.

    And for nearly all Dubliners FOOT and STRUT are definitely merged before /l/ thus 'dull' rhymes with 'bull'. I even heard Ann Doyle (RTÉ newsreader) once say 'bulldozer' with a hypercorrectly lowish vowel, which even invoked conscious comment from my non-phonetically-trained family.

  26. Yeah, I meant more in the east than in the west. I should not post when I'm not fully awake...

  27. I've given up on my PART ONE. It's clearly tainted and judged by Blogger to be spam.

    What I said was that I have in the past taught Italian students to distinguish i: from ɪ using not only oral drilling but actual phonetic transcription. I posted a more extended account back in February here.

  28. David Crosbie said…

    Many thanks for that description, John! Fortunately I have a copy of my post ...

    I have two very different perspectives.

    1. On the one hand, I know from experience that one can teach Italian students form the very start to make distinct English i: and ɪ — through oral drilling, and even through reading phonetic transcription.

    I've published here a fragment of an impression of me preparing a student for a Phonetics Test. The actual test involved the student reading from transcription with no more than the odd pronunciation mistake. So any student who couldn't distinguish i: from ɪ would fail the test and would not be allowed to proceed to the next lesson.

  29. So far so good. The original 'here' was

    One gauntlet too many?

  30. Gee, thanks mallamb!

    Every time I pasted, or even re-typed that text, something in the Blogger software registered that it had been posted and rejected before. The difference now seems to be that your posting hasn't come from my computer.

    You may have notices that the chart in the link has been corrected. Schenker did use the symbol ɪ. I originally simplified to i: and i, but I saw that this was inappropriate, especially in the current dicussion. But my software played up during the the correcting process. It finally produced the right result, but apparently left an invisible blemish that Blogger doesn't like.

  31. Well David, your original post was up for several hours before John noticed it had gone missing, so it may yet prove that the taint is contagious as well as hereditary!

    All I did was to copy your post as Unformatted Unicode Text and toggle Show/Hide to ascertain that there was nothing there that obviously indicated the unloved blemish, and then, greatly daring, post it as text.

  32. mallamb

    Where can I find out about this Unformatted Unicode text and this Show/Hide toggle of which you speak?

  33. In the help files of Word, David. I capitalized these options as Unformatted Unicode Text and toggle Show/Hide because that's what Word calls them. I believe you said at some point you used Word for Mac, which I imagine is pretty much of a clone. It would probably not be too OT to say that you can put a Paste Special icon on the toolbar as well as the Paste one, giving you a pop-up of options for pasting, or you can use Shift+0/Ins. I think I may have had to set that up too, but I don't remember how. If you use the standard Paste icon or Ctrl+v for anything other than plain text you can click the formatting pull-down on the Paste icon that appears at the end of it immediately after pasting, and select Keep Text Only. That probably doesn't do anything different, but I sometimes do that for a belt-and-braces job, such as seemed to be indicated for the suspected taint.

  34. Meant to say you can put a Show/Hide button on the toolbar too.

  35. Meant to say further that I had not in fact noticed that the chart in the link had been corrected since I checked it out after your February posting about it, which you linked to earlier in this thread. Thanks for that. It was a delight to reread that discussion between you and me and Amy. I didn't remember Schenker's use or non-use of the symbol ɪ ever coming into question, but what I did notice was that although you were using that, you had ai for I. Did you have some reason for that, or does it still need changing? I also noticed that you were writing Instituto Schenker, when I would have thought being in Rome it was an istituto.

  36. @ Italian commenters: Well I'm a NS of English who can't do the alveolar trill if it makes you feel any better and that sound is present in most languages I've even considered learning (including Italian).

  37. Dublin Foot-Strut cont.
    As a Dub, I also don't have this split and it drives me bonkers trying to work out who in Dublin has. Northside (aka 'local') accents have no distinction, and their realisation is very rounded, high and heavily stigmatised.

    As for the Southside accents, I often feel that I am listening out for a non-existent split. Perhaps they pick up a bit of a split from the larger rural influence on the southside (Nearly all southsiders have at least one parent from outside Dublin).
    One thing I notice is that the Dublin-girl-living-in-London accent frequently hypercorrects the STRUT vowel so that sounds much like LOT, yet I don't think I have heard any of them do this to a FOOT vowel.
    Why this is, I don't know, and I wonder if the spelling plays a role, despite the orthographic overlap between them.

  38. i think that the notice is supposed to say 'please don't leave your rubbish', thus 'here' isn't misplaced, it is misspelt

  39. There is absolutely no way you can teach to Greek students the difference in pronunciation between leave and live, due to the huge difference in how we pronounce vowels in Greek. Its vowel has its own distinguished sound and there is no other vowel that resembles another to the slightest.
    (e.g. α=a as in father - ε=eh as in pet - η,ι,υ,οι,ει=ee as in feet) To a Greek ferry, fairy and fury are all the same word.

    I'm personally capable of pronouncing the words correctly after a lot of practice, but the truth is that none of my teachers went into details about correct pronunciation and two of them were native English speakers. I had to ask myself how can people tell if someone says "bitch" or "beach" to get a brief explanation. The part of our brain that processes speech is dead when it comes to detecting those differences that don't exist in our language. It takes a lot of practice to get it.

    Another thing that makes English quite confusing imo is the fact that each vowel can be pronounced randomly rather having an assigned sound to it.
    Take i for example and how many different ways there are for it to be pronounced.
    irritate, tip, firm, isolate
    or u... hurt, hurry, put....