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 engrishfunny.failblog.org, 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 liːv — live (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!