September 23 2023 10:33 AM E-paper Newsletter Subscribe Sign in My Account Sign out

Pronunciation predicaments and the world of phonetics

Hello مرحبا
(Photo: Shutterstock)
Have you ever tried to teach a European or American friend some Arabic (or are you that friend yourself)? Have you wondered why they struggle so much to articulate Arabic words like hiwar (dialogue) and thaalab (fox)? Or perhaps, despite your coaching, they frequently butcher your name when trying to pronounce it, even though it seems like a wonderfully easy task for you. اضافة اعلان

According to multiple studies on the phonetics and phonology of different languages (see papers by Dr Catherine Lai and Professor Mits Ota), this pronunciation predicament is mainly attributed to the lack of specific phonetic items in a person’s mental lexicon. In other words, the Arabic sound “aain” is not present in English, which may be why English speakers often pronounce it simply as “ah”. The same is true for the hard “h” sound, which may be rendered, comically, as a fit of coughing instead of the proper glottal fricative (i.e., the consonant that is pronounced by producing friction in your throat).

Phonetics is the scientific study of speech sounds, however, people do not necessarily need to study this field in-depth in order to understand the impact of phonetics on day-to-day life. In an interview with Jordan News, Dr Majid Tarawneh, an assistant professor of linguistics at the American University of Madaba who specializes in critical discourse analysis, commented on the importance of phonetics in our daily communication with others. Our speech sounds combine to form words, which if changed or tampered with, may result in completely different meanings, potentially causing miscommunication.

This is why helping children learn their mother language is important. Speech sounds are the building blocks of language, which is why babies start out by repeating consonants such as “bababa” and “mamama” — they might not actually be calling for their parents, but instead, just practicing the sounds of their language.

Slowly, toddlers will begin to grasp the meaning behind words and sentences that are formed from these building blocks. They get there by making mistakes — lots of them. Thankfully, they are in the stage of life where such mistakes are met with coos, smiles, and proud exclamations from their elders, encouraging them to keep trying.

Not only that, but biologically speaking, children may have an easier time learning new languages in comparison to adults. According to Noam Chomsky, the American linguist known as “the father of modern linguistics”, children have a basic template for learning languages that is embedded in our genes. But learning a language is shockingly similar to learning a sport — the older you are, the less likely it will work out smoothly. This basically comes down to a question of mental flexibility.

Tarawneh pointed to the critical period hypothesis: the idea that, during a specific stage of biological development, people are better equipped to pick up certain behavioral patterns, specifically in regards to language acquisition.

This certainly seems to be the case with pronunciation: the physical speech articulators (i.e., the tongue, the palate, the alveolar ridge, the teeth and gums, and the lips) are developing in tangent with language ability. Think of it like the lenient limbs of a child in a gymnastics class — it is much easier for them to do the splits and bend in almost-unnatural ways, with little to no pain.

When learning a second language, especially as an adult, it is a completely different story. Tarawneh recounted the experience of a second-language Portuguese learner who suffered from jaw pain for the first few months of learning the language. This was because, as an adult, the individual’s speech articulators had to be reconfigured to pronounce the sounds of Portuguese, some of which were completely new and unfamiliar.

“The articulators need to be shaped in a totally different manner than from one’s mother-tongue,” Tarawneh explained. He compared the situation to walking normally, then suddenly needing to do splits instead.

However, knowing the phonetic alphabet of a language before learning the language can make the process much easier. What does this mean? If you are an English speaker, you will likely have an easier time learning Dutch than learning Arabic. This is, in part, attributed to phonetic alphabets. The English and Dutch alphabets are much more similar than the English and Arabic ones. Many words in English and Dutch have similar pronunciation: the English words clock and cookie are klok and kookje in Dutch. Meanwhile, an English speaker might struggle learning Hindi or Urdu, both of which have a very different phonetic alphabet.

The importance of phonetics also goes beyond pronunciation. “Without an understanding of phonetics, one cannot effectively read and spell,” said Dr Louisa Moats, an author and literacy expert, in an article published in 2020.

Turns out that languages, and everything that depends on them, are nothing without their phonetic building blocks.

Read more Education
Jordan News