First published in April 1996 as a response to an article in Modern English Teacher, October 1995
There is the normal problem of posting IPA – if the IPA font is not on your computer you can’t read it If I post it as text, WordPress will change it to the theme font.. If I post it as a PDF, I can’t edit it easily. So as in other articles, I’ve removed the original IPA and transcribed words “as in …”
I read the article For and Against: The Phonemic Chart with interest, but I felt Gary Maguire had missed one vital point about the use of the phonemic chart.
I’ve seen some brilliant demonstrations of how to use (a/the) phonetic alphabet in the classroom. I’ve observed teachers using it with great enthusuiasm and success, with young teenage elementary level students in Italy and advanced groups in Britain. BUT … and it’s an all capital letter BUT … there is one major problem.
After one demonstration, the teachers who were observing started asking questions. Around me the vowel sounds of Glasgow, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Bristol, India, Belfast, Dublin, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand took their turn. Had there been any other North Americans present another range of vowel sounds would have been added.
I think we would all agree that users of English attempt some kind of median when conversing with people who have a very different accent. A West Texan might not understand two Glaswegians talking in broad dialect, while a Glaswegian might have trouble with two Texans. However, a Glaswegian needing to converse with a Texan would experience little trouble. Both would avoid extreme dialect forms and both would modify their pronunciation. This goes on all the time.
It’s more difficult to agree on what the median is. In British English there is the concept of RP or “Received Pronunciation”, even though Paul Coggle points out in ‘Do you speak Estuary?’ that RP is changing in the direction of the accent spoken in the lower Thames valley. Examples are cited from a whole range of speakers, including the younger Royals. In the United States there is an even stronger concept of an acceptable standard American pronunciation. When I was discussing recordings of my American English materials I had great initial difficulty in getting American editors and producers to accept even mild regional accents. There is a concept of standard American, which is spoken by a mythical radio or TV announcer somewhere in the northern part of the mid-West. Even given this striving for a median, we still have to accept enormous diversity particularly with vowel sounds. The fact that many regions swallow consonants is a different problem.
There is nothing wrong with regional or foreign accents. There is no such thing as unaccented English. By accident of birth I have a mid south-coast accent. I was born in Bournemouth, right by the dividing line between the south-east accent in Hampshire and the south-west accent in Dorset. My father could tell which part of the Bournemouth conurbation someone came from by whether they had the clipped Hampshire accent (Southampton is pronounced more or less as ‘Szthampn’) or the broader vowels of Dorset (or Darrr-zzzett). Of course we don’t hear our own accents until we remove them to a different context.
I was surprised to hear that all my kids have a Dorset vowel quality. I’d never noticed it until we were in Florida, surrounded by other British English speakers. Later the same day we were on a DisneyWorld bus full of Americans. My daughter (then eight) was asked by the driver to hold his microphone and announce the stops for him. In an all-American context her voice sounded impossibly cut-glass British – without a trace of that slight rounded Dorset vowel quality apparent when we wre surrounded by Brits. This accent caused some good-humoured hilarity among the listeners, as well as offers of instant adoption. In California I’m surprised to hear that what I consider to be my fairly neutral Southern British accent sounds like an uptight British butler in a 1950’s Hollywood movie.
I love accents, and I’ve always said that the only foreigner who should attempt to eradicate their native accent totally is someone who is studying to be a spy in an English speaking country. Non-native speaker accents are as important as native speaker accents. During the Live Aid TV broadcast, speakers in various regions of Britain commented on local reactions to the concert. The programme cut around the British regions then switched to a DJ in Amsterdam. The Dutch DJ had a definite Dutch accent, but was the easiest to understand and had the clearest English of the lot.
Vowel sounds differ enormously. I’m talking about regional accents, not broad dialects. Let’s take the example of can’t.
In Southern British English this has a long-A sound – /karnt/ as in bar or Ah!.
Most native speakers in the world (The USA, the centre and north of England, Scotland etc) use a short-A and say /kant/ with the vowel sound as in cat / ant.
In some regional dialects this becomes /kaint/ as in paint – some song lyrics even spell it out as cain’t.
In ex-Prime Minister John Major’s rather strangulated and peculiar vowels it became a sound that I could only spell out in phonemics, but it rhymes with ‘hunt’.
As a native of southern England I’d agree with the argument that /karnt/ is useful for students of British English as it makes it easier to discriminate between can /kan/ and can’t /karnt/. My Streamline co-author, Bernie Hartley, was from Blackpool in Lancashire and had a Northern-a sound in speech, but used a Southern-ar sound for can’t when teaching to aid aural discrimination. Nevertheless, there wouldn’t be any point in teaching can’t /karnt/ in the USA – you’d be making the student’s task of discrimination when listening to real American English even harder.
Throughout my writing career I have striven to expose students to a wide range of sounds from the very beginning of their studies. I’ve always used British and American contexts, and nowadays divide my time just about equally between British and American materials. When I’ve worked on American versions of my course books I also have to be very careful with Workbook exercises such as ‘Find the word with a different sound’ – they don’t always work! I feel that students have to find a median for themselves. Sometimes the accents on tape were put on by the actors rather than genuine, but they still helped to give a feeling of diversity.
After my first few books had used regional accents, I realised that the voices giving instructions and saying unit numbers – i.e. the voices with authority – were invariably RP. For Grapevine Two and Three we engaged an actor with a light, warm northern accent to do the instructions and numbers. No one has ever commented.
So, what do you do with vowel sounds? A true believer in the phonemic chart would argue that they would explain the problem to their students using the chart to clarify it. As with all teaching methods, the teacher’s own belief and enthusiasm will outweigh any judgment that an outsider can make. I just have a lingering fear that the phonemic chart reinforces the idea of a pure ‘correct’ standard. When I started teaching twenty five years ago a far greater proportion of native speaker teachers had an RP accent than would seem apparent today. I fear that one disadvantage of the phonemic chart is the idea that there is an ‘RP Club.’ I’m not saying don’t use phonemic charts, I’m simply adding an extra item to the ‘Against’ column in Gary Maguire’s article.