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The English Phonetic Alphabet is a Tool For English As a Second Language (ESL) Learners
Spoken English is made up of forty individual sounds, including twenty-four consonant sounds and sixteen vowel sounds. With only twenty-six letters in the ABC, the Latin alphabet has never accurately represented English speech.
Although the ABCs have worked adequately for written English since 1476, there was no proper phonetic alphabet to indicate the sounds of the language until 2001.
The English phonetic alphabet
/b/, /d/, /f/, /g/, /h/, /j/, /k/, /l/, /m/, /n/, /p/, /r/, /s /, /t/, /v/, /w/, /y/, /z/
/CH/, /SH/, /TH/, /th/, /ng/, /Zh/
/Ay/, /a/, /Ey/, /e/, /Iy/, /i/, /Ow/, /o/, /Uw/, /u/, /^/, /Oy/, /Aw /, /Er/, /Ar/, /O/
The impact of ABC on ESL – The story of May Chan
The secretary burst into my class. “You can come, now,” she pleaded and disappeared back into the hallway. I motioned to my class to work on their own and followed. From the computer lab at the far end of the school, I could hear the sound of a man screaming. As we entered the lab he stopped “I don’t understand what he’s saying” the repairman snapped as he walked away from a young Chinese woman.
The computer lab at our adult community school downtown was filled with second-hand office computers. May Chan, a graduate of our school, worked there as an assistant. His job was to load the appropriate software onto the computers for each class. That day she was left alone pointing to a bulky old unit. A single tear rolled down her cheek. In my experience, the Chinese are model students: they are proud and quiet people. I had never seen a Chinese student cry and it broke my heart. May Chan pointed to the monitor and whispered, “Ring. Eyychoo. Ring.”
She was embarrassed by her Chinese accent and the rude technician had humiliated her. I asked him what was going on and he repeated: “Ring. Eyychoo. Ringing.” But I could not understand his answer. “Can you write it?” I asked and handed him a pen.
ECHO, he printed, and it all made sense. The computer sent two sounds; it resonated. She knew the right word, but in English knowing the right word doesn’t always help. What May Chan didn’t understand was English, letters don’t represent sounds. The connection between English letters and sounds is so weak that no one can speak English after reading it.
The lesson: Spelling is random
May Chan was making the classic ESL learner mistake of pronouncing a word as it sounds. English doesn’t work like that. Understanding the differences between written English and spoken English is the key. Alphabet, spelling, grammar and punctuation are all about writing and have nothing to do with speaking. In English, spelling is random and speaking is not writing out loud.
When a student’s ability to read and write English far exceeds their ability to speak it, writing it is a great strategy for communication problems (pronounced /hik ups/, for example). Something that ESL students are surprised to learn is that native English speakers can’t pronounce words by reading them either. English spelling has been hopeless for a long time.
The old problem
English as a spoken language has been developed since AD 450 and commonly uses 40 sounds. The Latin alphabet (or ABC) with its 26 symbols has only been used by the general public to print the English language since 1476 AD when William Caxton set up his printing press in London. English uses more sounds than letters! The Latin alphabet has never accurately represented spoken English.
For example, what is the sound of the letter ‘g’ in beige, garage and gender? What is the sound of the letter ‘s’ in Asia, common and televised? /Zh/ is a French sound and there is no specific letter for it in English.
The solution that didn’t work
Dictionaries often use a set of symbols known as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Unfortunately, this alphabet does not work well for English. The origin of IPA is French, where the letter “e” is known as “euh” and “i” is known as “e”, and so on. Despite the inherent confusion, the IPA did well and survived for over a hundred and twenty years. Today there is little tolerance for the system, because the obscure IPA symbols have no representation on the standard computer keyboard.
The solution that worked
In 2001, English finally got its own computer-friendly 40-symbol phonetic alphabet, where each symbol represents one and only one sound in the English language.
Students must learn their ABCs for reading and writing and the English phonetic alphabet / ingli SH funedik alfabet / for speaking. When students can see what words sound like, they pronounce them with confidence!
· Writing it down is an acceptable strategy if talking doesn’t work
· Written English and spoken English are different languages
· The Latin alphabet does not represent English sounds
· The English Phonetic Alphabet (EPA) is a working phonetic system
And be sure to fire the bastards who make your students cry.
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