Phonetics in pronunciation teaching for modern foreign languages

Author: Patricia Ashby


Set against the history of the relationship between phonetics and pronunciation teaching, this paper outlines the needs of both the teacher and the learner in terms of phonetic knowledge in today's multilingual classrooms. It suggests sources of information for consultation by teachers and refers to established research demonstrating the value of phonetics in pronunciation teaching and learning. It concludes by recommending an ideal case scenario and offers a number of useful web addresses with brief annotations for the benefit of teachers and learners.

Table of contents

Phonetics and modern language teaching

Much modern phonetic practice began a century ago in foreign language teaching classrooms. Courses mushroomed across Europe, directed by specialists such as Tilly and Vitor (Germany), Passy (France) and Jones (UK). Development was market-led, responding to requests for language-specific phonetics courses from students themselves.

Phonetics is not an instant remedy for all pronunciation problems; it offers the means to develop good pronunciation through enhanced awareness of relevant aspects of speech. How good will depend on motivation and long term goals.

The specific needs of all engaged in pronunciation teaching are encompassed by a mix of theoretical knowledge and practical skills: sufficient general phonetic theory, some comparative phonetics and phonology, practical phonetics (transcription skills, ear-training, production-training - see Shockey, Phonetics on this site).

Phonetics and the modern language teacher

Teachers need: a (good) grasp of articulatory phonetics; a well-trained ear; knowledge of the phonology (contrasts, major allophones, processes and prosodies) of both the mother tongue(s) (today's language classes increasingly take place in multilingual classrooms) and the target language.

Teachers will anticipate likely problems arising from the interface between first and target languages (utilising knowledge of comparative phonetics and phonology), notice and analyse actual problems as they occur (using practical phonetic skills derived from ear-training experience), remedy the situation with bespoke exercises (applying knowledge of articulatory phonetic theory and pedagogy).

For articulatory phonetics Ashby 1995, Ladefoged 2001 and Wells & Colson 1971 are recommended; for in-depth English phonetics, readers are directed to Cruttenden 2001. Other language-specific literature will need to be individually researched depending on requirements, but access to a dictionary with reliable pronunciation information is imperative for all languages with non-phonetic spelling; yardsticks here are Wells 2000 or Crowther 1995. There are many (often anglocentric) conventional and electronic sources with ideas on pedagogy in pronunciation teaching, including Avery & Erlich 1992, Baker & Goldstein 1990, Dalton & Seidlhofer 1994, Kenworthy 1987, MacCarthy 1978 (whose list of exercise types remains unrivalled) and Rudd 1971.

Phonetics and the modern language learner

The amount of phonetic knowledge appropriate is age-dependent. School-age learners need guiding (virtually no theory but lots of carefully structured, phonetically-informed practice); older learners need guiding and informing (facilitating self-help, including use of interactive websites). The effectiveness of ear-training (based on knowledge that hearing and recognition of sounds must precede attempts to make them, see Jones 1948) is supported by Pisoni, et al. 1994, Rvachew & Jamieson 1995, etc.; the value of theoretical understanding as part of the learning process is convincingly illustrated by Catford & Pisoni 1970. Additionally, the ability to read transcription is essential to access information in a pronouncing dictionary for languages without phonetic spelling (French, Russian, English, etc.); pronunciation must be learnt in parallel with meaning and use for every new word.

Good practice in pronunciation teaching

Teachers must be well informed about articulatory phonetics and the phonetics of the mother tongue(s) and target language of learners; target languages cannot be addressed in isolation.

At tertiary level, I recommend beginning any language programme with a short induction course in articulatory phonetics, covering the ground outlined above. Then (ideally in parallel with ongoing general phonetic ear-training and production practice), phonetic knowledge and skills can fully benefit spoken language instruction.


Ashby, P. (1995) Speech Sounds. London: Routledge.

Avery, P. and S. Erlich (1992) Teaching American English Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baker, A. and S. Goldstein (1990) Pronunciation Pairs. An Introductory Course for Students of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Catford, J.C. and D.B. Pisoni (1970) 'Auditory vs Articulatory Training in Exotic Sounds.' in Modern Language Journal. 54/7, pp 447-81.

Crowther, J., Ed. (1995) Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Phonetics Editor, M.G. Ashby.

Cruttenden, A., Ed. (2001) Gimson's Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Arnold. 6th edition.

Dalton, C. and B. Seidlhofer (1994) Pronunciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goodman, J.C. and H.C. Nusbaum (Eds) (1994) The Development of Speech Perception: The Transition from Speech Sounds to Spoken Words. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

International Phonetic Association (1999) Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. A guide to the use of the International Phonetic Alphabet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, D. (1948) 'The London School of Phonetics.' in Zeitschrift fr Phonetik und allegemeine Sprachwissenschaft. 1948. Vol II, 3/4, pp127-135.

Kenworthy, J. (1987) Teaching English Pronunciation. Harlow: Longman.

Ladefoged, P. (2001) A Course in Phonetics. Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers. 4th edition.

MacCarthy, P.A.D. (1978) The Teaching of Pronunciation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pisoni, D.B., E.S. Lively and J.S. Logan (1994) 'Perceptual learning of non-native speech contrasts: Implications for theories of speech perception.' in Goodman & Nusbaum 1994, pp121-166.

Rudd, E. (1971) SCOPE Handbook 2. Pronunciation: for Immigrant Children from India, Pakistan, Cyprus and Italy. London: Books for Schools Ltd.

Rvachew, S. and D.G. Jamieson (1995) 'Learning new speech contrasts: Evidence from adults learning a second language and children with speech disorders.' in Strange 1995, pp 411-432.

Strange, W. (Ed.) (1995) Speech Perception and Linguistic Experience: Issues in Cross-Language Research. Baltimore: York Press.

Wells, J.C. (2000) Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. Harlow: Longman. New edition.

Wells, J.C. and G. Colson (1971) Practical Phonetics. Bath: Pitman Press.

Related links

For teachers:

AllLearn (Library), Academic Directories
Click "phonetics" for an online list of educational resources in phonetics assembled by the Universities of Oxford, Stanford and Yale.

Chung, K, Linguist List
An internet resource list for beginners phonetics courses

Easton, E.L.
Materials for Teaching and Learning, devoted to pronunciation teaching in general with information about techniques, comparative phonetics, resources, etc. (Also return to the Homepage and click "Languages" and "Language Classroom".)

Huckvale, N., Benoir, C., Bowerman, C., Eriksson, A., Rosner, M., Tatham, M. and Willimas, B. (1997) "Opportunities for Computer-Aided Instruction in Phonetics and Speech Communication Provided by the Internet."
Year 1 Report. OTS Publications, Utrecht. A paper authored by the Computer Aided Learning and Use of the Internet Working Group of the SOCRATES Thematic Network in Speech Communication,

International Phonetic Association
website provides information on the International Phonetic Alphabet, available phonetic fonts, sound recordings, phonetics examinations and subscriptions to the Association. It also carries links to other sources of information on phonetics.

Makarova, V., "Discovering Phonetics"
from The Language Teacher OnLine 21.3. Paper comparing the needs of pronunciation and practical phonetics classes

Smith, J., Phonetics Resources on the Web
"Most of the items on this list are URLs for multimedia (audio and video) or interactive (tutorial) information about phonetics for use in teaching an introductory course. Also included are sites that present self-contained phonetics courses [...] and a few text-based, non-interactive sites that nevertheless seemed useful or interesting."

Wrembel, M., "Innovative Approaches to the Teaching of Practical Phonetics."
A recent paper delivered at the second Phonetics Teaching and Learning Conference at UCL (Spring 2001) looking at current approaches to pronunciation

For learners:

The following URLs all offer (interactive) materials in basic phonetics:

Ashby, M., Ashby, P. and Maidment, J., Analytic Listening
Ear-training exercises from the SIPhTra project, funded by HEFCE/DENI FDTL.

Coleman, J., The Vocal Tract and Larynx

Hall, D.C., Interactive Sagittal Section. A dynamic, interactive vocal tract drawing
demonstrating articulatory gestures associated with various voice place and manner configurations.

Maidment, J, (Ed.) Speech Internet Dictionary
SID is a product of the SIPhTra project, funded by HEFCE/DENI FDTL.

Maidment, J., Vgrid. Interactive vowel diagram practice

Maidment, J., Phonetic Flash. Voice, Place and Manner labelling practice

Maidment, J. Transcriber. English transcription training course

Pepp, S. and Maidment, J. Prosody on the Web
An interactive tutorial on stress and intonation, from the SIPhTra project, funded by HEFCE/DENI FDTL.

Rogers, H., Phthong
An interactive programme teaching the phonemic transcription of English
(click version "LIN228" for the UK version).

University of Lausanne, Department of Linguistics, Online Phonetics Course
Available in English or French.

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