III. Phonetics: The 3 Things You Need to Know. by Soraya Rodríguez - ESL for Spanish Students and Teachers - Barcelona

Soraya Rodríguez

ESL for Spanish Students and Teachers


III. Phonetics: The 3 Things You Need to Know.


III. Phonetics: The 3 Things You Need to Know.

In general, any student who hears the word “Phonetics” wants to run away as quickly as possible. There are many reasons why that happens. The main one for Spanish adults is generally related to the fact that Spanish Phonetics was compulsory in Secondary School Curriculum –which was probably the wrong age and the wrong method. This is why my main purpose is to make things easy to understand and straightforward, with very little content at a time.


--The first thing everyone needs to know is the difference between unvoiced/voiceless and voiced phonemes:

Unvoiced or voiceless phonemes are all those sounds we can articulate for which we do not need our voice. That is, we do not need our vocal cords to vibrate to articulate them. For example, in order to articulate “s”, all we need is the front of our tongue to be close to the upper backside of the front teeth ridge. Once we have placed our tongue there, all we need is let the air go, but we don’t need our voice or our vocal cords to vibrate. That happens language regardless; it is the same in English as in Spanish.

Voiced phonemes by contrast are all those sounds for which we need our voice; that is, we need our vocal cords to vibrate if we want to make it happen. For example, if we tried to do “a” without voice, nothing would come out. Our mouth would shape an /a/, but without our vocal cords’ vibration, we wouldn’t be saying /a/. Every vowel sound is a voiced sound. It also happens to nasal phonemes –try to do it with /m/.

Voiceless phonemes, like /s/, have a voiced counterpart; that is, if we do /s/ -for which we do not need our voice- and we add our voice on to it, then that phoneme will turn into /z/ -like a bee- naturally. Therefore, we could say that /s/ and /z/ are the same, only that one has voice (/z/) and the other one does not (/s/).


--The second thing everyone needs to know is that voice spreads naturally:

We take a big breath, we start speaking and we keep speaking until we have to breath again. This way, the sounds we articulate while we are speaking are affected by our voice. Now is the time in which many of you are thinking, so why is this important to know? Well, it is important to know because there are many things that were taught in Phonetics classrooms as if they were Grammar rules, when the truth is that it doesn’t really work like that. Phonetics is meant to provide with an explanation of what happens when we articulate a language naturally. If it doesn’t happen to you naturally, then there is an issue that should be tackled. But by no means this should be a rule.

If our voices spread naturally and there is a voiceless phoneme, like /s/, after a voiced one, like /n/, then the voice we use for /n/ spreads on to /s/, making it change to its voiced counterpart -which is /z/. This is why most of the plurals in English sound like /z/ and not like /s/. However, we do not need to think about this to make it happen, we can always do /s/ and if the previous sound is voiced, it will turn into /z/ naturally. We will practice all these phonemes later on.


--The third and last thing you need to know, which I already mentioned on my previous post, is that you will be able to articulate every phoneme in the English Phonetic System even if it doesn’t exist in Spanish –and the other way around- as long as you can hear it. If you still cannot do it, it is only because you don’t know how to do it, but there is no physical reason for you not to be able to do it.

And... If you’d like to keep reading about it, wait for my next post or send me a message on LinkedIn /link-tin/ if you think you can’t wait! ;)

--> Please contact me too -teacher or student- if you think you can help these posts by adding extra info, issues and/or ideas. Help me make things better!

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