29 July 2011

The importance of phonology

OK, so I promised this a while ago, and I've let myself get distracted by a few other points in the interim, but I'll try to draw them in and show how they are related to the teaching of phonology in general.

In my posts 4 skills safe and 3 skills safe, I argued that the division of language teaching into the traditional 4 skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening was trivial, superficial and of very little pedagogic value.  Instead, I suggested that we should look at individual skills of syntax, morphology and phonology, and that we could add orthography as an additional, more abstract skill (Lev Vygotsky described reading and writing as "second-order abstractions").
Phonology often gets very little attention in the classroom, as it is seen as a sub-skill of speaking, and speaking's "difficult".  But phonology is fundamental to many languages.

If you haven't already, you might want to take a look at my posts In language, there's no such thing as a common error, and Common errors: My mistake!  In the first post I described a particular common error in written English (might of instead of might have, could of instead of could have etc) and in the second I expanded on the mechanisms that cause this "error", with the aim of showing that this wasn't an "error", but in fact a change in grammar, analogous to changes that have occurred in other languages.  What I didn't focus on there, but which is extremely relevant here, is that this change in grammar is pronunciation-led -- ie the phonology of English has caused this change in grammar.  The prosody of English has led to 've being always weak, and it has lost the link to the related strong form have.

And of course the change in the Romance languages that I mentioned in the second post is also led by phonological patterns.  If you look at any language whatsoever, many grammatical rules have arisen from mere matters of pronunciation.

The archetypal example is the English indefinite article -- a/an.  You may well be aware that like most other Indo-European languages in western Europe, this evolved out of the same root as the number one.  But the modern number one is a strong form and has a diphthong.  A/an is a clitic and always weak, so split off (completely analogous to 've and have).  This weak word /ən/ then lost its [n] before consonants, simply because it's easier to say that way, and retained it before vowels again because it's easier to say like that.  (And if you'll indulge a slight digression, that brings us back to would've etc, because you'll often hear woulda before a consonant and would've before a vowel.)

If you look at the Celtic languages, one of the trickiest parts of the grammar is the idea of initial consonant mutations.  Lenition in Modern Irish is a bit inconsistent (probably due to the relatively large number of school-taught speakers against native speakers), but the three mutations in Welsh are fairly systematic, with mutated forms usually only differing from the radical in one "dimension" of pronunciation.

These sorts of rules become very arbitrary and complex when described purely in terms of grammar, whereas when considered physically, they make a lot more sense.

Let's go back to a/an and take a closer look.  We all know the rule: a before a consonant, an before a vowel, right? Wrong! It's actually: a before a consonant phoneme, an before a vowel phoneme.  To see the difference between the two, fill in the following blanks with a or an:
I want __ biscuit.
I need __ explanation.
He is __ honest man.
I have __ university degree.
Now it's not a difficult task for a native speaker, because you wouldn't normally have to think about it: honest may start with the letter H, but you know intuitively that you don't pronounce it, so you write an without thinking.  Similary, university may start with the letter U, but you know intuitively that it starts with a y-glide sound (like "yoo", not "oo"), so you write a.

I have seen quite a few English learners write "an university" or "a honest man" because they are either trying to work from a grammatical rule in isolation from pronunciation, or because they simply pronounce these words wrong.  In the case of honest, the problem is compounded if the student can't pronounce H, because if he follows the rule correctly on paper, he undermines the phonological basis for the true rule.

It follows, then, that we cannot teach grammar without considering phonology.  (And anyone who has succeeded in understanding the French liaison rules can tell you categorically that this is true.)

But how does phonology affect us in other ways?

Phonology and the ease of vocabulary learning

It may seem trivial, but for his PhD thesis, an Australian teacher of Russian demonstrated that it is easier to learn foreign words that are possible in your native language than ones that aren't.  EG the word brobling with first-syllable stress is easy, brobling with second-syllable stress is a bit harder, grtarstlbing with lots of consonant clusters that can't occur in English is very difficult.  He then took a massive leap of logic that I'll examine later in greater depth.

This corresponds with what a lot of teachers believe, but few teachers have the time or patience to implement: that it's easier to teach phonemes one at a time and reuse them in different words.  Again I'll come back to that when I start discussing techniques.

For now, though, I'll simply suggest that it's easier to learn words that are made out of familiar "blocks" than ones that aren't.  It follows from this that good teaching of phonetics (whatever that means) is a prerequisite to vocabulary learning.

Phonotactics: the "crisps" problem

My high school had an exchange programme running with a school in France.  Teenagers are naturally curious beasts, and when my big brother and sister first went on one of these exchanges, the class discovered how funny it was to get the French people to say crisps (UK English for what the French and Americans call chips).  Very few of the French kids could actually pronounce it, because they were using French phonemes with a northern accent (the school was near Lille).  The French P is unaspirated (unlike English) and the French S is quite slender and hissy.  As a combination of sounds, French SPS is difficult, nearly impossible -- the P either gets lost in the hiss or one of the Ses gets cut short.  The English combination is physically much easier.

Similar problems occur in other places.  Spanish people find wants quite difficult to say, because Spanish T is not compatible with Spanish N or S due to the method of articulation.  NTS in Spanish needs the tip of the tongue to be in two different places at once -- the alveolar ridge for N and S and the gumline for T.

The problem is that many books will tell us that T, D, B, P etc are sufficiently similar in English and Spanish, French or whatever that we can use them equivalently, but this is only true for each phoneme in isolation.  Once we start trying to combine them, the differences start to accumulate.

Which brings us back to:

Grammar again - and how writing suffers for it

If you cannot pronounce the inflectional affixes in a language, your grammar suffers.  Many, many Spanish learners of English drop their -s and -ed suffixes because of the problems of incompatible sounds.  They replace it's with is.  These mistakes filter through from their pronunciation into their internal model of grammar and eventually into their writing.  But it's easy to ignore this, because most of the time they correct their own writing mistakes with their declarative knowledge, and on the few occassions where they don't correct it, the teacher simply tells them the rule again, but never attacks the root cause of the problem: if they learned to pronounce English [t] and [d] phonemes, most of the difficult sound combinations would become much, much easier, their internal model of the grammar would be built up to incorporate these non-syllabic morphemes (and there are no non-syllabic morphemes in Spanish as far as I know, so it's a totally new concept to them edit (2-feb-2014): Spanish has at least one non-syllabic morpheme: plural S after a vowel.) and they would write natural based on their procedural knowledge of the grammar..

And finally...
Allophones and comprehension

Apparently there are certain accents that are considered "hard" in some languages. Now I'm not implying that there is no such thing as a hard accent, but I do believe that most of the difficulties stem from the teaching, not from the language.

In Spain, the accent of Madrid is considered quite difficult to understand.  The reason for this is that the madrileño accent tends to lenite (weaken or soften) its non-intervocalic consonants.  The classic is the weaking of D to /ð/ (roughly equivalent to TH of then).  There is little physical similarity between the English D and ð as is clear from their technical descriptions: /d/ - voiced alveolar plosive; /ð/ - voiced dental fricative.  But the Spanish /d/ is a voiced dental plosive, which the description shows is quite similar to /ð/.  Basically, the soft D in Madrid is basically an incomplete hard D -- the tongue doesn't quite go far enough to touch the teeth and stop the sound, but instead it hisses slightly.

Now, if understanding language is a reflective act (as I claim here and here) then we understand sounds by considering what shape our mouths would be in if we were to make the sound we hear (something suggested by the concept of mirror neurons).  The soft and hard Ds in Spanish are not "soundalike" allophones at all, but they have a similar shape, which is different from the English D.  To me it seems clear that physically learning the Spanish hard D shape would result in better comprehension of the similarly shaped soft D in a way that simple hearing it won't accomplish.


All in all, it seems to me that phonology is an intrinsic component of language, and that the system of a language falls apart when phonology is not given the proper support throughout the learning process.

As for how to teach phonology, I have my own views, but I'm currently reading up on some alternative opinions so as to give a more balanced write-up of the options available.


Алекса said...

Hi, I'm а student teacher from Russia, just a beginner, so I'm sorry for my poor English in advance, but your article seemed very interesting and useful for me so I've decided to leave a comment. You've written that there is an investigation of an Australian.Can you give me a link? I didn't grasp the idea with words, because in my native language there aren't words that you gave as an example or I didn't interprete them properly. Your conclusions are sensible and I would like to learn more on this topic. Thank you in advance :)

Nìall Beag said...


There were various news stories about it (e.g. here).

It was a PhD thesis by Paul Sulzberger.

His conclusions do not seem to follow from his research, however.