I want to start from the most fundamental and hard problem to me (and maybe to everyone).

Two years ago, I had started a project to teach English to non-natives only in English.

Before, lots of them had suffered from ill-linked relationship between their native language and English. I had found this problem fairly early from my first start of learning foreign language and help them to learn more grounded meaning of each morphemes.

Now it turns out to be pretty effective to teach them more fundamental grounded meaning such as not just teach them "prepare" but teach them meaning of "pre-" and "pare" so that these morphemes can work in other places too.

Now I faced another problem to teach the phonemes. I tried to teach them learn IPA symbols and to connect them with its sound, but most of the people just dropped out in the middle of this course.

I need more simpler way of standardized phonemes which is easily interpretable to the public to start with.

I want to listen to your advice and gather each one's intuition so that we could make a progress in teaching pronunciation and also developing standardized way of speech recognition across different languages.


1 Answer 1


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 /ð/ and /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.

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