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Understanding Phonemes

Popularity 3Viewed 3590 times 2017-2-22 02:38 |System category:Life| English, linguistics, pronunciation

This blog is  for people whose aim is to speak and converse orally in English.  When I teach immigrants to the USA to speak English, oral conversation is their most important priority.  That is also the most natural way to learn a language, it is how babies learn.   But most Chinese will probably have little occasion in their lives to converse with an English speaker, so their priorities and reasons for learning English will be different -- the most important priority would be to read English, since the ability to read English opens the door to vast information. In order to read, it is not necessary to worry much about pronunciation.

However, some Chinese people will want or need to learn to converse orally.  Then pronunciation becomes an issue. 

In order to learn pronunciation in a foreign language, it is necessary to understand the phonemes of the target language.  "Phoneme" refers to what speakers of a particular language hear as one sound.  "Phonemic boundaries" can be wide or narrow with regard to different sounds.  For example, English speakers (until taught differently) will hear the initial sounds of "qi" and "chi" as the same sound.  This is because in English, they are the one phoneme.  A Spanish speaker will hear the vowel sound in "fit" and "feet" is one phoneme, because in Spanish those sounds are one phoneme.    In English, on the other hand, they are two phonemes.   That doesn't mean that a Spanish speaker may not hear the sounds as different; it means that, in Spanish, those differences only mark different accents, they don't change the meaning of the word.  But if two sounds are considered to be different phonemes in a language, changing them means changing the meaning of a word.  In Chinese, tones are "phonemic" -- that means that changing the tone changes the meaning.

The difference between speaking intelligibly in a foreign language, even though with a foreign accent, and being unintelligible or misunderstood, has to do with how your pronunciation fits in with the phonemes of the target language.  For example, Spanish and English pronounce "r" very differently, but both of them have wide phonemic boundaries for this sound; despite the very different pronunciation, both languages recognize both pronunciations as being a form of "r."  That means that if a Spanish speaker pronounces "horse" with a Spanish r, it will have a huge foreign accent, but an English speaker will still understand the word.  Similarly, if an American English speaker pronounces a Spanish word like ""roder" with an American English r, it will be understood by Spanish speakers, even though it will sound like an atrocious gringo accent.

No two languages, or even dialects of the same language, have precisely the same phonetic system, even if sometimes the differences are very subtle.  Different languages, for example, may pronounce "t" with the tongue placed in a slightly different way.  Substituting the sounds of your native language for the similar (but not identical) sounds of the target language is what creates foreign accent. 

A good example of this is the fact that the sounds represented in pinyin by b, d, and g are not the same as the sounds represented in English.  English speakers use the vocal cords when pronouncing these sounds, whereas Chinese speakers do not.  Nevertheless, the English "d" and Chinese (pinyin) "d" are a single phoneme in both languages.  So an English speaker can substitute an English "d" when pronouncing a word like "dao," and it will be understood by a Chinese, but it will sound like a foreign accent, not like a native Chinese.

But sometimes a target language may contain sounds that -- rather than being subtly similar to the phonemes of your language -- are outside of the phonemic system of your own language completely.  Then, instead of substituting a similar sound from your own language, the learner may substitute a sound that is grossly different.  And the learner will say that that is a hard sound to pronounce.  For example, in my Chinese class in college, most students found the Chinese "r" as in "ren" difficult to pronounce because there is no sound in English that uses the tongue that way.  Many English-language learners consider unvoiced "th" to be a difficult sound because that sound is found in few other languages.  In reality, there are no sounds that are harder than others to pronounce; a babbling infant can easily make all sounds of all languages.  But as we grow up, the neuron paths of our brains are "pruned" to the sounds of our own language and we grow to consider other sounds difficult to pronounce.

The point of all this is that it is not necessary for a language learner to have perfect pronunciation in order to be understood in the target language.  Some sounds are more important than others when it comes to being understood by a native speaker.

Even if you don't get much chance to orally converse with real live English speakers, for those who use  American TV shows and movies to improve their understanding, understanding the sound system of English can help with comprehension.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Comment Comment (4 comments)

Reply Report SunnyWang2004 2017-2-22 22:18
Wow, this passage really helped me on my pronunciation! Fantastic!
Reply Report HailChina! 2017-2-24 08:16
I think it would be best for Chinese to learn English from an English person than an American. I do not understand why so-called 'American-English' exists and in my opinion not only do Americans spell words incorrectly they also do not pronounce a lot of words correctly. It is pretty funny hearing an American try to say the word Hyundai. Americans say something like Hyndee. Americans also cannot say the name Craig. When Americans try to say Craig it comes out as Creeg. Until recently I thought that Creeg was an American name. Indians that are taught English by English people speak the finest English and I am sure you would agree with that. Is it really a great idea for Americans to be teaching English? In my opinion it is not.

And how about how Americans say Nissan. Americans will say NEEESahn. Whats up with that?


I agree that pronunciation does not need to be perfect. I think the idea for China to hire a heap of Filipinos to teach English to Chinese is a good idea. Most Filipinos seem to have an American accent though you know.
Reply Report Gayle 2017-2-24 08:39
Aesthetically, I would agree with you about British accents and Indian accents.  I actually think that most Americans would agree that British accents are more appealing from an aesthetic standpoint.  But some Chinese may, for whatever reason, want to study American English, and I am going to teach what I know, not what I don't know, and anyone is free to take it or leave it.  You could make a blog teaching British English.
Reply Report mauriciomunhoz 2017-3-6 09:35
The blog can be very useful to me

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