One of the key things we try to work on with our Panigram trainees is their pronunciation. Many of the students have good vocabulary, grammar and confidence, but sometimes the clarity of their speech is not perfect.
To try to improve this, we have been teaching the students the International Phonetic Alphabet (I.P.A.). This is a globally recognized system of writing the pronunciation of words. You may have seen in it in dictionaries, usually in parentheses directly after each entry. The I.P.A. uses symbols, derived from the Latin and Greek alphabets, to clearly show both the sounds used in a word and the word stress.
The I.P.A. helps learners to visualize speech by thinking about the shape of their mouth when they make each sound. While it is a difficult thing to learn, it is well-known that a solid knowledge of the I.P.A. can help second-language learners to greatly improve their pronunciation.
With this in mind, I began by teaching the twelve simple vowel monophthongs (sounds like eeeee, ooooo, aaaaa, ih and ah), doing a number of exercises to make the classes think about the shapes their mouths were making. For example, try holding your finger to your lips, as if shushing someone, and then say ‘eeee-oooo-eee-ooo’. You will feel your lips coming forward and back, from a wide smile to a round kiss.
This, while being very amusing to the students, also made them think that I had lost my mind. For the following few days, I got phone calls from students just so that they could practice the sounds down the line. Things got trickier when I introduced the eight diphthongs, which are combinations of monophthongs, that make sounds like oi and ow. This had the students somewhat bewildered, but I promised them it would be worthwhile in the end.
Yesterday, I taught the classes the 24 consonant sounds. As many of these symbols are similar to the the Latin ABC’s, the students were a little more confident.
At the end of the class, I wrote a long paragraph on the whiteboard, using only the I.P.A., and asked them to read it. Together, the students figured out the message.
As I turned from the board to face them again, I could see that a light had come on in most of their minds. The I.P.A. penny had finally dropped and I was no longer just a crazy lady making strange noises.