Teaching Allophones to ESL Students

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In 1945, the Japanese left Taiwan and the primary language of Taiwan became Chinese. The former Japanese and Taiwanese speakers found that some pronunciations were too difficult for them when they made the switch to Chinese. For example, the word flower is said “hua,” but the new language learners could only manage to say it “fua.” This word sounded the same to them and even today the younger generation often point out this striking difference between the older generation and the young. This case shows the difficulties that a new language learner has in correctly pronouncing new words. Allophones in one language such as the Taiwanese “f” and “h” are phonemes in another making the pronunciation of a new language difficult.

What is an Allophone?

An allophone is in essence a sound that represents a letter. This one letter can have many different allophones. Although this one letter or phoneme is the same in a native speaker’s mind, a language learner can find it difficult to decide which allophone for the phonemeought to be used at any point in time. The Encyclopedia Britannica pointed out an example of this involving the letter t. The letter t can be pronounced in many different ways. Look at the words “bit,” “tick,” and “little.” To someone who speaks English, all of these t sounds seem the same: all of them represent the phoneme t. To a speaker of another language, the different allophones for t sound drastically different.

Examples of Allophones

Allophones can be considered to be just one part to the entire phoneme. Each sound for t in English still represents t, but only that one aspect of it. Allophones are one of the reasons language learners often have problems learning another language. In Spanish, the sounds for v and b are only allophones. Spanish speakers find it difficult to say these letters in English because in English v and b are completely different phonemes. When making the switch to English, students often have to put in a great deal of practice in order to correctly say these letters.

Teaching Allophones

If you are teaching an English class to speakers of another language, keep in mind the difficulties they have to overcome in order to say allophone that in their language may represent totally different phonemes. The best thing to do to conquer this difficulty is to practice. Have them practice repeating the different words over and over. Also, have students watch the shape that your lips make when saying each sound. For the letter v, the lips come back against the teeth to create the sound. B is just made by placing the lips together. By focusing on the way your mouth and lips move for different sounds, students can “see” the sound that they are supposed to make. Tapes and CDs are also excellent for additional practice. Students can listen to tapes and try to repeat what they hear at home. Listening to CDs can also help them to hear the difference between allophones in their new language.

Although allophones are one of the most difficult parts of a language to learn, it can be done. Through repetition and practice, English language learners can make progress on saying the different phonemes and allophones.


Lingualinks (https://www.sil.org/linguistics/GlossaryOfLinguisticTerms/WhatIsAnAllophone.htm)

Ethnologue: Languages of the World (https://www.ethnologue.com/ll_docs/contents.asp)

Encylopedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/16529/allophone)