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Why Phonetics and Phonology are Fundamental for Pronunciation

Why Phonetics and Phonology are Fundamental for Pronunciation | ITTT | TEFL Blog

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, pronunciation is “how words are pronounced. Pronunciation can be an intimidating prospect for English language learners, especially since English phonetics and phonology hardly seem consistent. The difficulty of English pronunciation should not be underestimated as speaking is a vital component of language learning. Confidence in this skill can be closely linked to students' accuracy and fluency. Therefore, a teacher should understand the basics of phonology and phonetics to help build students' confidence in their speaking skills.

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

Phonetics is useful in explaining how words are pronounced.

According to the Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: An Introduction, phonetics can be defined as “the study of how speech sounds are articulated and perceived.” While it should not be an objective of a teacher to teach phonetics, their understanding of it can certainly help guide them in teaching pronunciation. For example, the word “tolerable” is phonetically written as [tɑlərəbəl], beginning with the voiceless alveolar stop t. To pronounce this phoneme, students can be instructed to put their tongue at the top of the back of their teeth, and release a short, forceful puff of air. The teacher could then breakdown how to pronounce the rest of the phonemes in the same manner. Similarly, if teaching English liquids (l and r), which are historically more difficult for Asian language speakers to pronounce, videos and diagrams showing tongue placement can be introduced in addition to drills and tongue twisters. Phonetics can aid a teacher in breaking down phonemes that prove troublesome for students, helping to build confidence in speaking sooner rather than later.

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While phonetics and phonology seem interchangeable, they are linguistically different.

According to Contemporary Linguistic Analysis: An Introduction, phonology is defined as “the patterning of speech sounds.” (2) Concerning pronunciation, phonology contributes by helping to define the syllables in a word along with stress and intonation. Determining syllables and the phonemes within them can aid in breaking down complex words and build student confidence in their accuracy. For example, the pronunciation of the word ignominious can be made more surmountable by breaking it down into its five syllables (in-no-min-i-ous), taking the time to pronounce each syllable in choral drills, and providing students with a reference to practice with. Stressed words and intonation are difficult, if not impossible, to convey in written text. However, students must understand and practice these phonological skills. The words that are stressed in a sentence while speaking can clarify its meaning. For example, depending on which word is stressed, “She didn’t mean to throw the book” has five meanings when spoken but in the written text the exact meaning is ambiguous. Intonation, whether the pattern is rise/fall, fall/rise, or flat, gives more context to the message as it provides emotions and feelings in ways that text cannot. The phrase “good morning,” for example, if it had a fall/rise pattern, may indicate an expectation of a return in greeting; if it had a rise/fall pattern, it may be the response; if it had a flat pattern, it may indicate that the person may not want to converse. Stressed words and intonation may be nuanced but mastery of them by students will contribute greatly to confidence in fluency.

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Pronunciation is a challenging aspect of teaching and learning English but phonetics and phonology lay down the foundations for success in this skill. They are necessary for accuracy and fluency, adding significant value to an otherwise bland combination of grammar and vocabulary. Therefore, the mastery of these skills will make the difference between an intermediate learner and an advanced one.

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