April 6, 2011

Was that a voiced postalveolar fricative or a glottal stop?

Already twice in my lifetime, I've had to cram the International Phonetic Alphabet into my brain long enough to pass the quiz. First, in Austria during Sprache und Sprechen, a 100-level linguistics course for native German speakers. Besides the lunacy of learning about a difficult subject in another language, this class was held only once a week, late in the afternoon and in a room full of windows. Most of the students were asleep, or texting friends, or even talking on the phone. During the lecture. Even my studiousness took a nosedive in that class. My notebook is full of partial notes taken halfway between German and English, and intricate drawings of eyeballs, evening gowns or potential tattoo designs. It was hard to pay attention and very easy to tune out the foreign language. The worst part was when I went home to look up the German words I didn't know, I didn't even know what the English word meant.

For anyone who lives in a world without the IPA, it is a universal alphabet for writing and pronouncing any language. The IPA symbols are organized by place and method of articulation. If you make the sound at the beginning of "dog," it is [d], a voiced alveolar plosive. Every sound has a description that either makes me think of an unethical medical experiment or a lewd joke for nerdy people.

As the end of the semester in Austria neared, I realized that even though no one else in the class understood the topics (I was actually providing correct answers to the teacher's questions from time to time to break up the silence), at some point, there would be a test or a Klausur as we called it. I summoned the courage to meet with the professor. She was so happy that I cared about her class, she gave me a special study guide that mirrored the final test. I got a good grade.

 Not even a year later, I was back at UNK trying my hand at an upper-level German course in Linguistics. The class was taught in English, which would have been more useful to me before doing the entire class with native German speakers, but it wasn't to be. I struggled with the IPA in the second class, too.

This time, I'm learning the IPA on my own as part of my preparation for grad school in TESL. I need to know how to talk about language objectively and with linguistic terms. The hard part is that I have to do this on my own with no guidance from a syllabus or professor. Self-motivation.

I understand the merit of the IPA system. Had I been more in tune with my voiced retroflex consonants, learning Khmer might have been a little easier. Well, probably not, but I might have been able to pretend to hear the difference between the four "ng" sounds.

I found this book at the library: A Practical Introduction to Phonetics by J.C. Catford. The author guides you and your speech organs through the IPA. He has exercises to trick you into pronouncing almost anything. For example, start by saying the "ee" of "see". Then stop using your voice but keep the air going. You end up with the elusive German "ch". I love that stuff. Heck, I have even learned how to close my glottis and make a cool windpipe xylophone. You can imagine how much fun I have with this book on my days off from The Home Depot.

I hope the IPA is good to me this time. More to follow.