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How Basic Understanding of Phonetics Can Help Your EFL Teaching

How Basic Understanding of Phonetics Can Help Your EFL Teaching | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Say the word ‘hat’ to yourself out loud. Now say ‘mouth’. Was it easy? If you are a native English speaker you did it without thinking. You didn’t have to contort your face into all sorts of funny shapes or feel self-conscience during the process. The reason is that you already know the phonology of those two English words. You may not understand exactly how you said those words; whether they were plosives or voiced or non-voiced, whether or not the tongue was forward touching the teeth or raised touching the soft palate. You don’t need to know. You have heard and said these words hundreds if not thousands of times in your life. You already can say them easily without thinking. But what if you are learning English and your Native Language does not have those sounds much less the words. You have never heard them before. What if you are the English teacher trying to help that contorted faced, self-conscious student who simply cannot properly pronounce those words? With a good fundamental understanding of phonetics, you will be able to help your student achieve the monumental task of pronouncing English properly!

Table of Contents

What is Phonology?


Teaching Experience

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This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Samuel S. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

What is Phonology?

It is the study, science, analysis, and classification of the physical properties of sound. The terms phonetics and phonology are often used interchangeably, although the term phonology is increasingly used to indicate the whole sound system of a particular language e.g. the phonology of English. 1. While there is some ambiguity between the two terms phonology and phonetics, there is one key difference worth pointing out. Phonology deals with the theoretical aspects of the sound whereas phonetics deals with the physical and practical aspects of sound. Phonology is concerned with the abstract, whereas phonetics is concerned with the physical properties of sounds. 2 I want to focus this paper based on phonetics and a particular subset called Articulatory Phonetics.

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There are three aspects of articulation; Voice, Place of Articulation and Manner of Articulation. The voice is whether or not your vocal cords vibrate. Say ‘p’ and ‘b.’ The only difference between them is that ‘p’ is unvoiced and ‘b’ is voiced. You can tell the difference by placing your hand on your Adam’s apple. If you feel a small buzz, it is voiced, if you don’t, it is unvoiced.

The second aspect of articulation is the Place of Articulation. Place of articulation refers to how you manipulate the speech organs to produce different sounds. Your tongue, teeth, and lips are used to change the shape and speed of the air which changes the pitch and timbre of the voice. The larynx contains the vocal cords. These are called speech organs and are easily located. Some of the lesser-known and sometimes harder to locate speech organs include the soft pallet, hard pallet, and the alveolar ridge. 3. (See image below.)

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Place of articulation refers to how you use the organs of speech to change the airflow and shape making different voice sounds. There are 19 different points but we will look at 8 of them starting from the front of the mouth moving backward. 4 The first is dental. The word dental means of the teeth. So when the tongue touches the teeth it is called dental. The sound ‘th’ is an example. The tongue is in between the teeth so it is called interdental. ‘Thick’ and ‘the’ have the same articulation, but ‘thick’ is unvoiced and ‘the’ is voiced. Labial means of the lips. Labio-dental means lip and teeth. Good examples of this are ‘f’ and ‘b’ Bilabial means two lips so ‘b,’ ‘p’ and ‘m’ are bilabial. You can find your Alveolar ridge right behind the top row of teeth. It feels like a small bump with the tip of your tongue. This gives rise to the Alveolar articulation. The English ‘d’ sound is an alveolar articulation. In palatal-alveolar, the tip of the tongue is between the alveolar ridge and the palate. (see image below) The last syllable in ‘garage’ is produced from this. The Palatal is when the middle of the tongue is on the roof of the mouth. There is only one palatal in English and it is the ‘y’ sound in ‘yes.’ The final one is the Velar. The back of the tongue rises to the back of the mouth. The ‘ng’ of ‘song’ is an example.

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The Manner of Articulation is how the airflow is manipulated in speech. There are six, but we will look at the three most common. They are plosive, fricative, and affricative. Plosives are where you let the air pressure build until you let it ‘explode.’ Plosive sounds like explosives. ‘P,’ ‘t’ and ‘d’ are all example of plosives. Fricatives are where the air is restricted but not completely stopped. This causes ‘friction’ where it gets its name. ‘Sh,’ ‘s’ and ‘v’ are examples. Affricative is the combination of a plosive that leads into a fricative. The ‘ch’ sound begins with a ‘t’ plosive and morphs in the fricative ‘sh’ sound.

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Teaching Experience

I had the opportunity to teach English pronunciation at an English School in China this summer. Hanging out with some of the teachers one evening, they kept talking about ‘Big Mouse’. They said he talked a lot and had an outgoing personality. He wasn’t afraid to say what he thought. They said his nickname fit him perfectly. I thought that was an interesting name. Later on in the summer during a class, we were singing the song Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, when it came to ‘mouth’ they said ‘mouse.’ They don’t say “thousand,” they say “sow’zand.” After noticing this and asking about it, they said that there is no ‘th’ sound in Mandarin Chinese. I was able to help them by telling them to put their tongue between their teeth and breathe through it. (It is an interdental,non-voiced phoneme.) It worked!

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While you will undoubtedly not remember all 19 places of articulation and 9 manners of articulation and their many combinations, becoming self-aware and having a basic knowledge and vocabulary of Articulation will greatly aid you in teaching English pronunciation.

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