Suprasegmental aspects of phonetics/phonology first?!

I've recently read that "in phonetics cirlces" some people apparently advocate teaching suprasegmental phonetics/phonology first, and then looking at the segmental stuff. I've never come accross a course that does this, and I don't really understand the benefits - perhaps you can help explain the pros & cons of both ways?!

ramy Daing's picture
ramy Daing

Dear allI would be glad if anyone could inform me how to best teach pronunciation for adults learners whose their L1 language stands a great impact on best pronunciation skills developments . I ve tried serials methods but still with no avail , subsequently i realized that though learners are fluent however their poor pronunciation production poses a tremendous handicap to their progress as they still confuse between words .Many thanksMohamed Hamblia teacher from Algeria

Harsh Kadepurkar's picture
Harsh Kadepurkar

What do we mean by supra gegmental features? They are stress, rhythm,intonation and juncture. The details of each of them can be studied through books that are easily available. So I won't go into that. The question you have raised is why do some people say that these features are more important than segmental features. Let me offer a short explanation. English is a stress timed language. Most other languages ( at least in my country, India) are syllable timed languages. That is, time required for saying an utterance in English does not depend on the number of words or syllables in the rhythm group/ tone group. It depends rather on the number of stressed syllables, the more the number of stressed syllables the more the time the utterance would require. All languages in the world have a feature of stress, but what is important to note is whether that stress is 'phonemic' or 'phonetic'. If the stress is phonemic, it means with a change of stress the meaning will change. If there is no change of meaning, the stress is phonetic. All this is very important with reference to English as it is a stress timed language and stress in English is a phonemic feature, and not just a phonetic one. If you are teaching English as a second or foreign language this is very important. Segmental features, that is consonant sounds and vowel sounds, are less important than supra segmental features because the intelligibility of English does not depend so much on segmenatl features as it depends on suprasegmental features. Here are a couple of typical examples:1. John's friend Tom has just brought two very fine old paintings.2. It would have been better not to have paid for it before you'd received it.It is obvious that the number of words in the second sentence is more than in the first. But the number of stressed syllables in the first is more than in the second. Therefore, the time required for saying/ uttering the first one would be obiously more than the second. All this is important for students who are learning English as a second or foreign language.As for segmental phonemes, while the distinction between /p/ and /b/ , for example, is important for all learners, the differences in the /p/ sounds in examples such as 'pot', 'spot', 'topmost' and 'top' are of less importance to the second/foreign language learner.

cmftrier's picture

Thanks for your reply, Harsh. I've also asked a few collagues, and here is a list of things everyone has come up with altogether.Arguments for teaching suprasegmental aspects of phonology first (before segmental aspects)

  • English is a stress-timed language and changes in stress patterns can be phonemic, i.e. they can change meaning, so it's important to teach Ss about this, particularly if their own L1 is a syllable-timed language where stress patterns don't impact on meaning.
  • Also, in some languages changes in pitch are phonemic and change meaning (e.g. Chinese), and teaching aspects such as intonation really helps these students not to use such pitch changes in English, and to use more natural intonation patterns.
  • In contrast, the use of individual phonemes' allophones, for example (a segmental aspect) does not affect meaning - e.g. using clear or dark /l/ doesn't change the meaning of a word, and so this is considered less important for Ss.
  • For a lot of Ss, pronouncing the individual phonemes intelligbly is not difficult (even if they're not 100% accurate, they're still often close enough to contrast with other phonemes sufficiently), as these also exist ion their L1s.
  • Differences to Ss' L1s often occur in suprasegmental elements of phonology, for example linking instead of inserting glottal stops between syllables (this is a problem for German speakers!), rather than pronouncing the sounds/syllables themselves.
  • Focussing on suprasegmental features, e.g. stress, may make it easier for Ss to differentiate e.g. strong and weak forms, and then adapt, thus reducing a foreign-sounding stress pattern (all strong!)
  • This could also make them less dependent on spellings of words for their pronunciation, as they would know which syllables can be swallowed/not.
  • Whilst working on suprasegmental elements of phonology, Ss are still getting input which is useful for improving their pronunciation on a segmental level.

 So these are the arguments some people have suggested ... I'm not agreeing necessarily, but just "throwing them out there" for discussiong and comment....CMF

neutralenglish's picture

Phonetics: the study of speech sounds
Phonics: the relationship between the sounds of a language and the letters used to represent those sounds
Phoneme: basic sound unit of speech
Phonemic Awareness: the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds.It includes the ability to distinguish rhyme, blend sounds, isolate sounds, segment sounds, and manipulate sounds in words.
Ref: http://www.neutralaccent.com/phonetics.php

kendOptotakep's picture

I finally joined the forum and figured I should introduce myself.