Saturday, October 17, 2009

Hooked on Phonics

There's nothing better in language learning than a nice phonetic alphabet to get you started. Just ask anyone learning Croatian. As soon as you know the alphabet, theoretically you know how to pronounce every word in the dictionary.

So before I even moved to Croatia I was pronouncing Croatian words. After we moved, when I attended church, I was singing along to all the worship songs. I didn't have the slightest clue what they were singing about (unless it was a translated song) but I sang nonetheless.

But if you've grown up on a steady diet of phonetic letters, the English alphabet will feel like a punch in the gut.

The first English class I ever taught here was a lesson in this fact. I was going through the alphabet with some adult beginners. After I had shattered everything they knew about the letter A, there was one lady who became increasingly frustrated. Finally at "W" she lost it. At the time I had no idea what she was saying, but later one of the students told Petra what had happened and Petra translated:

"She was cursing you out Jeremy", Petra said laughing. "She couldn't figure out how it was called "double-U" when it looks like "double-V" and she definitely couldn't understand how if the letter starts with a "d" sound (Double-U) how the word "window" starts with a sound she can't even make!" (There's no "wh" sound in Croatian.)

And the lady never recovered. She came a few more weeks but then dropped the class altogether. Fortunately others have been a bit more patient, and thankfully I've learned how to deal with the fear and trembling that comes with the English alphabet since, but the problem makes sense. Consider the following:

Did you know that GHOTI could be pronounced like "fish"?

- If you take the GH from "enough" that gives you the "f" sound.
- The O from "women" gives you the "i" sound.
- And the TI from "nation is the same as "sh" in fish.

It's no wonder English learners have a hard time figuring out how to pronounce words. Anyone for a phonetic English alphabet?

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