Wednesday, December 16, 2009

BBC Learning English Gets Symbols Wrong

I have just discovered the BBC Learning English Pronunciation Tips page, a splendid resource not only for learners of English but also for teachers and anybody wishing to learn IPA symbols for English.  Among other things, it has an IPA chart as well as videos showing how vowel and consonant sounds are pronounced.

I particularly like the chart (Listen to the sounds of English) where each symbol, when clicked, plays the sound it represents.  (This is arguably more effective with vowels rather than consonants.) 

Two elementary errors blight this chart, however.  First, the diphthong given as /ɑʊ/ is wrong: the correct symbol is /aʊ/.  Second, the consonant /l/ is wrongly given as /ɭ/ — this latter sound is the retroflex lateral approximant which one finds in the Dravidian language Tamil; it is, loosely speaking, an /l/ sound produced with the tongue curled back (retroflex). 

What these errors show is that transcribing sounds is an exact business: there is no room for creativity or self-expression, as subtle differences may result in altogether different sounds.  I have written to the BBC pointing out these errors, and hope the chart is amended soon.


GM said...

I think the aim of the website is to teach non-English learners basic English pronunciation through board phonemic symbols instead of narrow phonetic symbols (alphabet) .

Initially, I thought that the first letter in the diphthong /ɑʊ/ was much easier to write and type that that of /aʊ/. A new minutes ago, I was surprised to find out that the letter "A" is displayed as "a" instead of "ɑ" on my screen when I hit the keyboard! I'm a bit dyslectic.

To the untrained ears, I don’t think there will be miscommunication even if one switches between the back [ɑ] and the front [a] for the realization of [aʊ].

Lastly, I think some dictionaries use different phonetic symbols for the same sound.

N.B. I really enjoy reading and look forward to reading you blog. I learn something new from you every day. Keep up the good work. Thank you.

The Grammar Terrorist said...

Hi, GM

I do think it's important to differentiate between /aʊ/ and /ɑʊ/ -- in transcription if not actual speech -- as the difference is a phonemic one (i.e. a native speaker would not use /ɑʊ/ in some environments and /aʊ/ in others). If I'm not wrong, /ɑʊ/ is the diphthong one finds in German, so if used in English it would sound quite foreign.

You're right that it wouldn't cause any miscommunication, however, so getting it right is probably not so critical. The same can't be said for /e/ and /æ/, of course, since they cause problems for listeners if merged.

Most reputable dictionaries use the same set of symbols for British Received Pronunciation (RP) -- and this is valuable for the learner -- but I've noticed that some newer ones have begun to use different symbols. Oxford, for example, has begun using /a/ instead of /æ/ in words like 'hat'; /ʌɪ/ instead of /aɪ/ in words like 'bite'; and /oʊ/ instead of /əʊ/ in words like 'hope'. While this may more accurately reflect how British people nowadays speak, this sort of variation in transcription is bound to be very confusing for the learner, especially if she/he uses other resources!

Many thanks for your kind words.

All the best,