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Phonetics and language learning?

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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jmlgws
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 5577 days ago

102 posts - 104 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: French, German, Spanish, Mandarin

 
 Message 1 of 15
08 October 2007 at 8:59am | IP Logged 
Professor Arguelles,

Thank you for the many posts you have made on this forum. You have taught me much, including largely introducing me (with fanatic's posts) to Assimil, now one of my favourite methods.

Is a systematic study of phonetics worthwhile for language learning? If so, how would I go about learning this? So far I have never formally studied phonetics, I have only tried shadowing language tapes plus trying to imitate the sounds given on certain pronounciation tapes ("The French letter <letter1> sounds like the English letter <letter2> in the words <word1, word2,..>" etc.).

However one of the polyglots on this forum had in an older message mentioned that a solid base in phonetics is useful. Also I have personally met a Russian native speaker who mentioned a language learning method by a Russian professor (whose name I cannot recall) which involved study of the sounds of each language, and that this method helped him learn several languages (English, German, French in his case) quickly. Would studying phonetics be useful to me, or should I focus on shadowing tapes, talking to native speakers, reading literature in the target language etc.?
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Iversen
Super Polyglot
Moderator
Denmark
berejst.dk
Joined 5178 days ago

9078 posts - 16471 votes 
Speaks: Danish*, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, Romanian, Catalan
Studies: Afrikaans, Greek, Norwegian, Russian, Serbian, Icelandic, Latin, Irish, Lowland Scots, Indonesian, Polish, Croatian
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 Message 2 of 15
08 October 2007 at 4:40pm | IP Logged 
I think that several members have recommended that budding polyglots get a solid foundation in phonetics. I have personally made the recommandation several times that the sounds of a certain languages should not be learnt by comparing them to sounds in other languages, but rather by placing them in a theoretical framework based on the shape of the mouth. In many books about phonetics you find a polygon that illustrates a 'wowel space' based on oppositions like back-front and open-closed (with a second polygon for the nasal vowels). Simple vowels can be identified with one dot in such a figure, while diphtongs can be identified with a short line from one position to another. The consonants have rarely been described in the same succinct way, probably because there are all kinds of tongue shapes, flaps and pressure points to take in account. However I tend to think in such graphical terms when I compare different languages, rather in the traditional terms like apical, velar, spirant, fricative and so forth. Back in the seventies I learnt all the words needed to describe the French language, and I still remember most of the terms, but I don't use them, and they don't help me to remember how to make a certain sound in a new language.

So after this long prologue let me ask you, professor Arguelles, how do you prefer to describe the different sounds in all the languages you know (including those that are implied by your insistence on learning whole language families rather than just single languages)? Do you use the traditional scientific terms, some kind of phonetical alphabet, a graphical system as the one I sketched above, or do you simply remember the sounds as sounds? In the last case, how do you communicate a certain sound to a pupil - apart from just saying it, of course? And have you got a system to describe tones, both those of single sounds and those of whole sentences? I know that Vietnamese uses a plethora of diacritical signs for single-sound tones, and that people who write Chinese with Roman letters often add numbers for the diffferent tones in that language, but in my mind I would find tiny red lines going up and down more telling than any other system.


Edited by Iversen on 09 October 2007 at 9:18am

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marto
Triglot
Newbie
Argentina
Joined 4752 days ago

13 posts - 14 votes
Speaks: Spanish*, EnglishC1, GermanC2

 
 Message 3 of 15
19 October 2007 at 8:52am | IP Logged 
jmlgws wrote:

(...)
Is a systematic study of phonetics worthwhile for language learning? If so, how would I go about learning this?
(...)
Would studying phonetics be useful to me, or should I focus on shadowing tapes, talking to native speakers, reading literature in the target language etc.?


Shadowing and talking works for a lot of people, but it involves a certain hearing ability not everybody has. It is that ability to mimic sounds that children have, and we adults loose. So, unless you are good at mimicking sounds (playing musical instruments always helps), there are some sounds you just will not acquire through shadowing (or through exposure). If that bothers you, then you will have to study some phonetics.

However, studying phonetics will not make you sound like a native. It will make you conscious of the sounds around you, the ones you hear and the ones you produce with your mouth.


Iversen wrote:

(...)
I think that several members have recommended that budding polyglots get a solid foundation in phonetics. I have personally made the recommandation several times that the sounds of a certain languages should not be learnt by comparing them to sounds in other languages, but rather by placing them in a theoretical framework based on the shape of the mouth.
(...)



I politely disagree with Iversen; you can tell someone how to position his or her tongue and mouth, but that will only help him or her to produce the sound in isolation. To add the sound to the students everyday speech, you have to teach the so called "discriminatory skills": the student has to judge sounds according to their differences or similarities. So, to learn the Spanish simple "r" (the one in puro), it helps for the student to become aware of how the sound resembles the English "d" (as in ladder), and how the sound is similar in position to the Spanish "n" or "l", but different regarding articulation. After that, drills and drills.

Amazingly, after studying English phonetics, my German phonetics improved a lot -I was able to hear sounds from German speakers and identify them more accurately, which is the first step to produce them properly.



Iversen wrote:

(...)
So after this long prologue let me ask you, professor Arguelles, how do you prefer to describe the different sounds in all the languages you know (including those that are implied by your insistence on learning whole language families rather than just single languages)? Do you use the traditional scientific terms, some kind of phonetical alphabet, a graphical system as the one I sketched above, or do you simply remember the sounds as sounds? In the last case, how do you communicate a certain sound to a pupil - apart from just saying it, of course? (...)


We´ll be waiting for that answer professor Arguelles!


Martin V.
www.Spanishpronunciation101.blogspot.com


Edited by ProfArguelles on 21 October 2007 at 5:20pm

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Captain Haddock
Diglot
Senior Member
Japan
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Joined 5243 days ago

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Speaks: English*, Japanese
Studies: French, Korean, Ancient Greek

 
 Message 4 of 15
20 October 2007 at 3:36am | IP Logged 
marto wrote:

Iversen wrote:

(...)
I think that several members have recommended that budding polyglots get a solid foundation in phonetics. I have personally made the recommandation several times that the sounds of a certain languages should not be learnt by comparing them to sounds in other languages, but rather by placing them in a theoretical framework based on the shape of the mouth.
(...)



I politely disagree with Iversen; you can tell someone how to position his or her tongue and mouth, but that will only help him or her to produce the sound in isolation. To add the sound to the students everyday speech, you have to teach the so called "discriminatory skills": the student has to judge sounds according to their differences or similarities.


I think it goes both ways. I'm skeptical that anyone who hasn't learned to produce the new sounds distinctly can be able to hear them properly. People tend to hear (or think they hear) only the sounds they are capable of producing.

Edited by Captain Haddock on 20 October 2007 at 3:36am

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Volte
Tetraglot
Senior Member
Switzerland
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 Message 5 of 15
20 October 2007 at 4:26am | IP Logged 
Captain Haddock wrote:

I'm skeptical that anyone who hasn't learned to produce the new sounds distinctly can be able to hear them properly. People tend to hear (or think they hear) only the sounds they are capable of producing.


I can clearly distinguish -some- sounds that I'm not capable of reproducing. The three contrasting s sounds of Basque are one example. I could distinguish them easily the first time I heard them, but my attempts to reproduce any of them were comic at best. An even more clearcut example is the rolled R found in Italian; I could hear it before I could reproduce it, and even today, I cannot produce it consistently. I have doubts about whether I'll ever be able to: my father, a native Italian speaker, cannot roll his R's at all.

In the general case, I'd agree that there seems to be a link between hearing sounds correctly and being able to reproduce them: but I don't think it's a simple one-to-one relationship, where you can either hear and produce it correctly, or are incapable of doing either.
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Captain Haddock
Diglot
Senior Member
Japan
kanjicabinet.tumblr.
Joined 5243 days ago

2282 posts - 2814 votes 
Speaks: English*, Japanese
Studies: French, Korean, Ancient Greek

 
 Message 6 of 15
20 October 2007 at 7:41am | IP Logged 
I can't speak for Basque, but perhaps "acrobatic" sounds like a rolled R are an exception — obvious when heard, more difficult to produce.

At any rate, I'd also assert the converse: if you can accurately produce all the sounds in your target language, you'll be able to distinguish them when heard.
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jmlgws
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 5577 days ago

102 posts - 104 votes 
Speaks: English*
Studies: French, German, Spanish, Mandarin

 
 Message 7 of 15
21 October 2007 at 12:46pm | IP Logged 
As far as difficulty in pronouncing (and possibly hearing) sounds, I see this with one of my colleagues. He is Korean, and has trouble distinguishing between a "l" and an "r" at the beginning of words (but never at the end as far as I can tell). I don't know how to explain it to him.

I'm currently actively working on Spanish, in addition to improving my French (which I have studied longer and know better). I have been told that from time to time my Spanish trilled "r"s sound like the French "r". I know I have been told "tongue down for French, tongue up for Spanish", apparently though in the course of speech my tongue can get "lazy" and go to the more familiar French pronounciation. I suspect that I can largely fix this with more practice. I might be more worried though at some point in the future I might try a language with more different sounds, and wonder if formal phonetic training is useful or necessary.
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ProfArguelles
Moderator
United States
foreignlanguageexper
Joined 5731 days ago

609 posts - 2100 votes 

 
 Message 8 of 15
21 October 2007 at 5:26pm | IP Logged 
Certainly I concur that a grasp of phonetics is an integral component of effective foreign language learning. However, I do not believe that getting something like a solid base or foundation in phonetic principles is all that difficult. So, I do not quite know what is implied when the first writer asks if a “systematic study of phonetics” is worthwhile for language learning. A serious language student would certainly do well to study several different volumes on the subject and then to immediately put what he learns of the International Phonetic Alphabet, as well as other phonetic concepts, into conscious practice, but I do not think one would need to take any formal course of study in this such as a class or classes in it - unless, of course, one finds it interesting in its own regard.

I am afraid I only have rather humdrum answers to the specific questions posed by Mr. Iversen. I have never been so creatively intrigued by phonetic problems as to be inspired to draw up my own graphical system of description. I am perfectly well served by standard scientific terminology in this regard, i.e., describing vowels as high/low, front/back, etc., and by means of the “mouth chart”; and describing consonants by place and manner of articulation, as described in IPA charts of rows and columns that can be found at the beginning of most good dictionaries. Left to myself, I simply remember sounds as sounds, but if you truly wonder how I describe them to students, then please refer to the first section of the book that I co-authored for learning Korean. Professor Kim Jongrok and I devoted about fifty pages to pronunciation, and in them we totally eschewed describing Korean sounds by reference to English or other sounds and instead used only descriptive phonetic terminology.

What would I say are the basic principles of phonetics?
1.     The sounds of human speech are the products of specific actions within the vocal cavity, actions that can be described in specific descriptive detail such that, by imitating the described actions, any human mouth should produce the same sound.
2.     The total number of sounds that make up the phonetic inventory of human speech is limited to something like two hundred. However, no human language uses that many sounds. Phonetically complicated languages may have eighty or ninety, but most languages have more like forty or fifty, and some phonetically simple Polynesian tongues have only around twenty.
3.     The group of sounds actually used by any given language probably differs in many significant aspects from the group of sounds actually used by another given language that is geographically and culturally remote from it. Genetically related languages overlap to a degree that is higher as the relationship is correspondingly closer, though even cousins can have great differences.
4.     Just as important as understanding these differences is understanding the subtle shades of differentiation of similar sounds.
5.     People become so habituated to the sounds contained in the languages around them their ears lose the ability to distinguish certain other sounds, sounds which they could certainly have organically perceived and processed had they been exposed to them in their youth. Learning first to discern and second to imitate these sounds is one of the major challenges in learning to speak a foreign language.

All in all, I naturally see great value in being able to understand and use terms such as plosive, fricative, bilabial, alveolar, etc., etc., in order to describe sounds while engaging in the task of learning foreign languages. However, I must point out that however well such descriptive terminology serves for individual sounds, it really cannot even begin to suggest the reality of the rhythmic flow or musical quality of any given dialect or tongue. This can only be heard. Thus, while I consider an acquisition of phonetic principles to be important, I still think that one needs to shadow a language in a particularly careful fashion in order to feel and, hopefully, assimilate that rhythm. If you are sure to use flat insert earphones and careful to match the volume of your own voice and that of the speaker, then you will establish conditions within and throughout your auditory system such that you must perceive any difference between the two sets of sounds being pronounced simultaneously. If they are off, it will be like hearting two instruments out of tune. Your system cannot tune the sounds making your eardrums vibrate from without, but it can and will naturally do so to the sounds coming from within to whatever extent you happen to be talented in this respect.



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