No transcription, please!

When I speak about phonetics in class, or even when I talk about the teaching of pronunciation, the first thing students come up with is phonetic transcription. This has always puzzled me, transcription being – at best – a useful tool to teach phonetics. Still, it is no more than a tool, and it is doubtful whether it actually promotes good pronunciation. It is perfectly feasible to imagine someone who can read the transcription well and pronounces the foreign language badly or someone who pronounces the language well and cannot read the transcription. Anyway, this misunderstanding does not come out of the blue, as I discovered the other day: In the period of the Reform Movement of the 19th century, in many teachers’ minds, modern methods of language teaching were synonymous with ‘using phonetics’ and ‘using phonetics’ with ‘learning a notation system’. Abercrombie, in 1949, again pointed to ‘this common misconception’ and stressed that ‘phonetics is not identical with phonetic transcription’. (Howatt, A.P.R.: A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984: 171-8)

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