English Pronunciation Training and the IPA: Our charted territory

It has a pretty sterile feel to it, doesn’t it? The IPA (International Phonetc Alphabet)? And the vowel and consonant charts? Hmmm….are they really necessary for the learning process? I acknowledge it: When a student first sees the charts on the table in front of us, their eyes somewhat glaze over…..But, I suggest, yes….they are really necessary. I refer to these charts constantly during lessons. I roll them out, place them on the table half-way through the very first lesson. I lay them out at the start of every following lesson. And they are the last things I put away at the end of a lesson. I teach the students the lay of the land of those charts, and students relate to them, with increasing curiosity and ownership of their learning. It really does help.

The symbols are the merest bit unusual, but it always heartens me when a student starts warming up to the process, and voluntarily learns the symbols that are key to their individual accent modification. In studying together, the charts become a focal point for movement between and among sounds. A goal, an adventure, an effort supported by the documented reality called “pronunciation.” It seems to offer students the support of knowing they are not alone in this learning process, this strenuous effort for change. Frequently, after some familiarity with the IPA, a student asks about the origins of the IPA…”Who came up with this?” they ask with amusement and delight.

My IPA charts are old, raggedy, stained, crumpled, but visible, and I leave them that way, so students know – really know – that others have come before them and struggled, studied, and made progress. Okay, yes, I do replace them after a while, but the ones I’m using now are ten years old. That’s ten years of shared curiosity and amusement, countless students who have handled these particular charts, pointed to the karat symbol, asking, “Is that what I’m going for?” I nod. “Oh!” they say. “I get it!” That karat’s presence helps them nail that phoneme. Very exciting.

So I look forward to sitting with you, the student, or with your family member, friend, neighbor, or colleague, who is making the effort to modify their accent. Peering together at this system, these charts, these worn tools of reference and learning. “Oh, I get it!” And you will get it. You will.

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