Saturday 25 August 2012

A gold medal transcription

I haven't got time to write a proper blog entry this week, so instead I'm referring you to Jack Windsor Lewis' comments on my article of the 4th August 2012 about the Olympic Games in London. 

Next posting: Saturday 8th September.

Saturday 18 August 2012


Do you get this joke? 

Italians will certainly have no difficulty understanding it; non-native speakers might find it a bit more challenging, instead. The message on the bag, Non basta, ma juta!, if read aloud, means 'It's not enough but it still helps!', that is, using biodegradable jute bags instead of plastic ones is not enough for saving the environment but it can be of great help.

Why did I have to add the phrase if read aloud? Because it's only by pronouncing the sentence printed on the bag that you can get the real meaning of it. The spelling is misleading as juta (sometimes also spelt iuta in Italian) is not the third person singular form of the present tense, aiuta ('(it) helps'), from the verb aiutare ('to help'), but simply the word jute, the material used for making rope and rough cloth. So the stress is on using jute bags for helping the environment.

This witty game of words is phonetically very interesting and can be of special interest to many foreign learners of Italian. It shows how Italian connected speech can be tricky as it very often displays no clear separation of syllables across word boundaries. Non basta, ma juta!, once said aloud, sounds like this:

nom ˈbasta (|) maˈjuːta ||.

If we replace the word juta with aiuta, what we're likely to get is exactly the same thing:

nom ˈbasta (|) maˈjuːta ||.

Why this then? That's because, except in emphatic speech, Italian makes frequent use of elision, dropping one of two adjacent identical vowels when both of them are in unstressed positions:

(Non basta,) ma aiuta!

ma aiˈuːta → ma aˈjuːta → maˈjuːta 

Here we see that the two [a]s from ma and aiuta have been compressed into one syllable, thus creating a rising diphthong. Now you see why the spelling ma juta has been used: the expressions Non basta, ma juta! and Non basta, ma aiuta! are phonetically equal in Italian, though only the latter is grammatically correct and means 'It's not enough but it still helps!'.

This kind of simplification process is also to be found when non-identical vowels are involved, as in, for example, Bisogna evacuare Amalfi ('We have to evacuate Amalfi'):

biˈzɔɲɲevaˈkwaraˈmalfi ||.

Marguerite Chapallaz, in her book The Pronunciation of Italian: A practical introduction (Bell & Hyman, 1979; p.147), clearly states that

"[w]hat is of major importance from the very beginning (...) is that when there are two vowels at word junctions within the same sense group, [the foreign learner] should go smoothly from one to the other without ever making a pause between them or introducing a glottal stop".

This I find one of the hardest things for foreign learners to copy, but it is essential if you want to sound more like a native speaker of Italian.

Saturday 11 August 2012

A guest post by John Maidment

How to listen (or Lend Me Your Ears)

Not everyone learning a language other than their native tongue has the ambition to achieve native-like competence in pronunciation. For many learners the ability to make themselves understood is enough. However, I am convinced that all learners can benefit from paying attention to improving their pronunciation skills. Every little step towards perfection is a step away from potential misunderstanding. So how does one best go about this?

One problem for the learner is that they may have their work cut out simply understanding what they are hearing and can’t afford the time and effort involved in concentrating on how the speech they are hearing is pronounced. This primacy of “meaning” can be a very resistant barrier to attempts to concentrate on details of the pronunciation. One possible way of overcoming this is a technique called Analytic Listening (AL). The technique was introduced by my colleague Michael Ashby and me. We started using it in our teaching of first-year linguistics undergraduates at UCL quite a long time ago. Then it was also introduced in the undergraduate course for Speech and Language Therapists. There is no reason why the technique cannot be used for the learning of foreign languages.

Perhaps an example is the best way of explaining how AL works. One of the things that many learners of English find a problem is the occurrence of /ə/.  The use of a “full vowel” where most native speakers of English use schwa certainly makes the learner’s speech sound “foreign”. And of course English orthography is no help at all. Using AL to tackle this problem involves targeting schwa in simple utterances and asking the learner to make a simple yes/no decision about its use. A typical AL question might look something like this:

You will hear utterances of English words all of which normally begin with /ə/. You are asked to decide for each word whether the speaker produces initial /ə/ or some other vowel. Underline your choice in each case.

1          allow               begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
2          ago                 begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
3          omit                begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
4          offend            begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel
5          attract             begins with /ə/          begins with some other vowel

The stimuli for a question like this can be delivered live in the classroom, on a recording, or indeed online. A typical script for this question might be:

1 əˈlaʊ, 2 æˈɡəʊ, 3 ɒˈmɪt, 4 əˈfend 5 əˈtrækt

Each item should be repeated a number of times before continuing to the next. Experience has shown that three repetitions are usually sufficient. Of course, the question can be re-used with different stimuli. Other questions focussing on /ə/ could ask about word-final, or word-medial positions, or indeed whether a word or phrase contains a /ə/ at all.

I hope you can see that the technique can be used to draw learners’ attention to all sorts of features that they might find difficult to hear, both segmental and suprasegmental. For instance, rising versus falling nuclear tones can easily be practised. Lexical stress placement too could be the target of a number of AL exercises. 

It is probably good practice to limit the amount of time spent on AL exercises to about ten minutes per session and occasionally to revisit exercises already used.

A further advantage of AL is that it furnishes a simple and objective method of testing a learner’s perceptual ability. A test of a few AL questions is pretty easy to concoct and very easy to grade. A test of this sort is, I think, a lot less stressful, for both teacher and student, than most other forms of assessment. 

This technique obviously needs a teacher, or at least a question setter. However, I think learners can also be encouraged to take charge of their own “ear-training”.  Nowadays it is very easy to find recorded speech online. If you are a learner of English, for example, and you want to get more practice at recognising /ə/, try this activity. Find a bit of speech online and listen to a short section of it, about 10 seconds should do, listen to it a number of times and try to spot the occurrence of /ə/. This is probably more fun if you do it with a friend. Don’t try to go on too long. A little practice often is probably better than a marathon once every month. And vary your target regularly. /ə/ today, /θ/ tomorrow, /w/ next Friday…

If learners can manage to hear the correct targets reliably, then they are much more likely to produce the correct sounds in their own speech.

A fuller description of the Analytic Listening technique can be found at

Saturday 4 August 2012

The London Olympic Games

Some days before the start of London 2012, Cambridge Dictionaries Online published an article on their blog About Words entitled The Opening Ceremony to London, 2012. The article, written by lexicographer Kate Woodford, is essentially aimed at teachers and students of EFL who want to improve their knowledge of the language or use classroom material that is 'original'.

The passage Cambridge offer online is extremely useful for foreign learners of English, and I thought it might be a good idea if readers could be provided with a phonetic transcription of it as well.

So what you'll find below is the full text of the article linked to above completely transcribed in IPA, representing the way I would pronounce it myself in contemporary RP.

A note of caution: although all of the pronunciations represented below can be regarded as belonging to current RP, they are not always recommendable to the EFL teacher as these may sometimes have distinct disadvantages for the student to copy. 

ði əʊpnɪŋ serəməni tə lʌndən twentitwelv
ɒn fraɪdi ðə twenti-sevtθ əv dʒulaɪ tuː θaʊzn̩d ən twelv, ən estɪmeɪtɪd fɔː bɪljəm piːpl̩ wɜːlwaɪd wl̩ wɒtʃ ði əʊpnɪŋ serəməni tə ðə lʌndən twentitwelv əlɪmpɪk əm pærəlɪmpɪk ɡeɪmz. ði əʊpnɪŋ serəməni ɪz ði əfɪʃl̩ stɑːt tə ði əlɪmpɪk ɡeɪmz. ɪts ɔːlsəʊ ən ɒpətʃuːnəti fə ðə həʊs neɪʃn̩ tə ʃəʊ ɒf ɔː ʃəʊkeɪs ɪts meni tælənts əŋ kwɒlətiz. sʌm pɑːts əv ðə serəməni ə prezn̩t ɪn ɔːl əlɪmpɪk əʊpnɪŋ serəməniz. (ðer əblɪɡətri əkɔːdɪŋ tə ði ɪntənæʃnəl əlɪmpɪk kəmɪti tʃɑːtə.) ʌðər æspekts əv ðə serəməni ə juniːk tə ðə həʊs neɪʃn̩, ənd ər ɪntendɪd tə reprizent wɒts speʃl̩ əbaʊʔ ðæʔ kʌntri.

meni æspekts əv ði əʊpnɪŋ serəməni fə lʌndən twentitwelv ə biːɪŋ kept siːkrət ɔːr ʌndə ræps səʊ ðəʔ wil ɔːl bi səpraɪzd ən dilaɪtɪd ɒn ðə naɪt. wi nəʊ əbaʊt ʌðə diːteɪlz bɪkəz ði ɑːtɪstɪk dɪrektə dæni bɔɪl, ɒskə-wɪnɪŋ dɪrektər əv ðə haɪli əkleɪmd fɪlm slʌmdɒɡ mɪljənɛː, həz tɒʊl ðə pres əbaʊʔ ðəm. wi nəʊ, frɪnstənts, ðəʔ ðə serəməni wl̩ stɑːʔ wɪð ðə saʊnd əv ðə lɑːdʒəs bel ɪn jʊərəp, weɪɪŋ twaɪs əz mʌtʃ əz bɪɡ ben. wi nəʊ ðəʔ ði əlɪmpɪk steɪdiəm ɪn stræʔfəd, iːs lʌndən, wl̩ tɜːn ɪntə ə siːn wɪtʃ reprizents ðə brɪtɪʃ kʌntrisaɪd, taɪtl̩d ɡriːn əm plezn̩t, frəm ə pəʊəm baɪ wɪljəm bleɪk. ðɪs siːn wl̩ fiːtʃə medəʊz, fɑːmjɑːd ænɪml̩z, ənd ə rɪvə reprizentɪŋ ðə temz. ɪtl̩ ɔːlsəʊ ɪŋkluːd ə replɪkər əv ðə ɡlæstəmbri tɔː. ɑːtɪfɪʃl̩ klaʊdz wl̩ reɪn ɒn ðɪs rʊərəl siːn əz fæmliz pleɪ krɪkɪt ən tʃɪldrən dɑːnts əraʊm meɪpɒʊlz.

əz menʃn̩d əbʌv, ðə serəməni wl̩ ɔːlsəʊ fiːtʃər æspekts ðət ər ə pɑːt əv ɔːl əlɪmpɪk əʊpnɪŋ serəməniz. frɪɡzɑːmpl̩, ðə prezd̩n̩t əv ði ɪntənæʃnəl əlɪmpɪk kəmɪti wl̩ welkəm ðə hed əv steɪt əv ðə həʊs kʌntri, hə mædʒəsti ðə kwiːn, əʔ ði entrənts əv ði əlɪmpɪk steɪdiəm. neks, ðl̩ bi ə prəseʃn̩ əv ɔːl ði æθliːts u ə teɪkɪŋ pɑːt. ðə tiːmz wl̩ entə ðə steɪdiəm ɪn ælfəbetɪkl̩ ɔːdə, ɪn ðə læŋɡwɪdʒ əv ðə həʊs kʌntri. ðə tuː ɪksepʃn̩z tə ðɪs ruːl ə ðə ɡriːk tiːm, wɪtʃ, əkɔːdɪŋ tə trədɪʃn̩, liːdz ðə pəreɪd, ən ðə həʊs neɪʃn̩z tiːm, (ɪn tuː θaʊzn̩d ən twelv, ðə brɪtɪʃ tiːm ɔː 'tiːm dʒiːbiː' əz ðe kɔːld), wɪtʃ entəz lɑːst. wen ɔːl ðə neɪʃn̩z tiːmz ər ɪnsaɪd ðə steɪdiəm, spiːtʃɪz wl̩ bi ɡɪvn̩ baɪ ðə tʃɛːr əv ðə lʌndən ɔːɡənaɪzɪŋ kəmɪti əv ði əlɪmpɪk əm pærəlɪmpɪk ɡeɪmz, səbæstjən kəʊ, ən ðə prezɪdənt əv ði ɪntənæʃnəl əlɪmpɪk kəmɪti ʒɑːk rɒxə. ðeɪl ðen fɔːml̩i ɪnvaɪt ðə hed əv steɪt tu əfɪʃli diklɛː ðə ɡeɪmz əʊpən. ði əlɪmpɪk flæɡ wl̩ ðen bi kærɪd ɪntə ðə steɪdiəm ən lɪftɪd ɪntə ði ɛːr əz ði əlɪmpɪk hɪm ɪz pleɪd. 

ənʌðə fɪkst æspekt əv ði əʊpnɪŋ serəməni ɪz ði əlɪmpɪk əʊθ. wʌn æθliːt, reprizentɪŋ ɔːl æθliːts, wl̩ stænd ɒn ðə rɒstrəm ænd, hɒʊldɪŋ ə kɔːnər əv ði ɪntənæʃnəl əlɪmpɪk kəmɪti flæɡ ɪn ðe left hænd ən reɪzɪŋ ðe raɪt, teɪk ði əʊθ, ɪm wɪtʃ ðeɪ vaʊ tə kəmpiːt əkɔːdɪŋ tə ðə ruːlz əv ə spɔːt əm wɪðaʊʔ teɪkɪŋ pəfɔːmənts-ɪnhɑːntsɪŋ drʌɡz.

ðə klaɪmæks tə ði əʊpnɪŋ serəməni ɪz wen ði əlɪmpɪk fleɪm entəz ðə steɪdiəm. æθliːts wl̩ pɑːs ðə fleɪm tə ðə faɪnl̩ tɔːtʃbɛːrə, hu wl̩ laɪʔ ðə kɔːldrən, mɑːkɪŋ ðə bɪɡɪnɪŋ əv ði əlɪmpɪk ɡeɪmz tuː θaʊzn̩d ən twelv.