IPA is a wonderful tool once you become familiar with it, but before that happens, it often feels like reading mathematical formulas or a different script. It is important for you to introduce IPA slowly and in a way that is immediately useful.
Mark Hancock, On Using the Phonemic Script in Language Teaching, tested the efficacy of using IPA to teach English pronunciation to Spanish speakers. He found that
The results of both the experiment and
the questionnaire lean in favour of the IPA, but it would take further research to establish
the superiority of the IPA against L1-based transcription (‘imitated pronunciation’). It was
suggested that the decision of whether or not to use the IPA depends crucially on the
specific learning context. The following factors are significant here:
a. the orthography of the L1
b. the age of the learners
c. the capacity of the learner to intellectualize the learning process
d. the confidence of the teacher to use and continue using the IPA
His article also includes a questionnaire with these relevant pieces of data:
- 6 out of 14 adolescents and 10 out of 27 adults think phonetic script is too difficult to use
- 8 out of 14 adolescents and 6 out of 27 adults prefer writing the word as it would be spelt in Spanish
These results support the position held by Łukasz Furtak (In Defense of the Usefulness of a Polish-Based Respelling Phonetic Transcription System in the Elementary to Lower-Intermediate EFL Classroom) that respelling may be better than phonetic transcription for beginners.
Joonas Pelttari, Use of phonemic transcription as a teaching method in
Finnish schools, adds the following caveat to his research:
Although the results seem very positive, it
should be noted that the experiment was conducted on first year university students, and it is unlikely
that these results could be replicated with younger and less enthusiastic learners of English.
Before I finish, I'd like to add some of my personal observations and conclusions.
Since last year, I've been taking a university course that has given me a lot of insight on how English learners deal with having to learn IPA. Nearly everyone felt that IPA was just one more difficult thing that they had to learn rather than a tool to help with pronunciation. This year, I haven't seen any of my classmates use IPA to check or note down the pronunciation of a word, even though most of them have access to a dictionary with IPA transcriptions.
Another issue is that IPA was presented as something unambiguous and universal. Then in some classes we were shown transcriptions where
/e/ stands for the vowel in get and in others where it stands for the vowel in gate. One particularly confusing textbook used
/ə/ to transcribe the vowel in but whereas all other materials used
/ʌ/. You have to make sure your students understand that there are different standards for phonetic transcriptions, even for IPA transcriptions.
I think the ideal way to teach IPA is to introduce new symbols slowly and in a way that makes its usefulness immediately obvious. The following situation happened during a class this year, and it served as an aha! moment for several classmates: a student was reading from a text and pronounced the word southern as
/saʊθərn/; after he was done, the professor explained that, surprisingly, southern was not pronounced like south (she wrote the words on the board rather than pronouncing them); we asked her how it is pronounced; she didn't answer but told us to find the transcription of both words in our dictionaries; she wrote the transcriptions on the board and had us read them correctly. Not only did the distinction between the symbols
/θ/, and to a lesser extent the meaning of
/ʌ/, become ingrained in most of our minds, the saw how we could make practical use of our knowledge of IPA. This is something that the previous approach (dumping a bunch of alien-looking symbols on us all at once) failed to achieve. If only all classes had had something like this, I think my classmates would be much more enthusiastic about IPA.