Decoding the “Transcription Language”

Posted on September 3, 2012 by

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What is the “Transcription Language”?

As we mentioned in a previous post, the standard English teaching practice in Georgia is to use something called “transcription language” to write out the pronunciations of English words. Every Georgian English teacher and English student that I have encountered has learned this transcription language to some degree or another. In my school, transcription language was used at all levels – taught alongside the English alphabet in first grade, and still used to introduce new words to the upper grades.

If you’ve taught in a Georgian classroom, you may have seen transcription language. It might look something like this:

teacher [ˈtiːtʃə]: მასწავლებელი
book [bʊk]: წიგნი

That’s the word in English, “transcription language”, and Georgian.

So, what exactly is this “transcription language” and how do we use it? Well, as we said before, this is actually just the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. The IPA is an alphabet used for transcribing the sounds of language according to a single standard. It has been around since 1888 with relatively few changes, and is used by linguists, language teachers and students, speech therapists, singers, actors, and others. It is based on the Latin alphabet, which means that most of the symbols are at least somewhat intuitive to other users of the Latin alphabet, like ourselves, for instance.

In Georgia, transcriptions into IPA are based on the way the words sound in General British English. Since IPA describes sounds, it can be used to describe the way a word sounds in British English, New York English, Australian English, Scottish English, or even Georgian English. Georgian learning resources are usually based on British materials, and the recordings in the English World series sound like General British English, so the IPA transcriptions you should use for words in a Georgian classroom are the British ones – for instance, those used in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. With more advanced students, you could teach the pronunciations and IPA transcriptions for words in your accent too, but with young learners, one pronunciation per word is probably enough!

IPA in the Classroom

Learning IPA will put you on equal footing with your coteacher and students in the way you describe the pronunciation of words. It will allow you to notice and correct mistakes in the way words are transcribed, which will help you to correct and prevent pronunciation errors in the long term. It will also help you prevail in arguments over the way a particular word is pronounced, or articulate the difference between the way a word is pronounced in your accent and the way it is pronounced in General British English. It will help you to identify and talk about problem areas in your students’ pronunciation. It will help you locate online resources for teaching the pronunciation of particular sounds. Finally, it will allow your lessons to conform to the common best practices both in Georgia and in second language education across the world.

I recommend looking up the IPA for every vocabulary word that you teach your students, copying it into your lesson plan, and checking with your coteacher that you both agree on the IPA transcription and pronunciation. This is a great opportunity for you to practice your IPA and for your coteacher to practice her pronunciation. When your coteacher puts the transcription on the board, you can look at your lesson plan and double-check what she wrote, and make sure that the kids are copying it correctly.

Problems in Georgian Transcriptions

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Georgian IPA transcriptions of English words often follow common errors in Georgian pronunciations of English words. Looking at the above example, we see that “book” is transcribed with a weird little horseshoe symbol – /ʊ/ – that looks kind of but not exactly like a regular u. In transcribing this symbol, Georgians often fail to distinguish between it and the /u/ symbol – and in speech, Georgians often pronounce the /ʊ/ sound like the /u/ sound. Thus, “look” [lʊk] often comes out sounding like “Luke” [luːk].

The same issue occurs with the /i/ and /ɪ/ symbols. I wrote a while back about how “bit” comes out sounding like “beat”, and in a Georgian classroom you might see “bit” transcribed as [bit] rather than the correct [bɪt]. Diphthongs using /ɪ/ may also be transcribed incorrectly – rain will be transcribed as [rein] rather than the correct [reɪn].

Resources for Learning and Using IPA

A list of the basic IPA characters you should know for the Georgian classroom can be found in Oxford’s Pronunciation Guide for its learner’s dictionaries. Oxford uses these symbols in all its learner’s dictionaries as well as in the superb New English File series of EFL books for adults, which TLG has previously used to teach Ministry of Education staff. The New English File website also has sound samples (in flash, no download required) of the sounds that go with each IPA symbol, along with picture and text examples of words they are found in.

Hard copies of modern Oxford Dictionaries also use IPA, contain lists of IPA symbols and their sounds, and are available throughout Tbilisi wherever English textbooks are sold. I bought a pocket dictionary (Oxford Wordpower) for about 25 lari that I take to class with me and use to look up words whenever I am in doubt about a transcription or when a clear, plain English definition for a word escapes me.

Dialect Blog has a quick IPA tutorial that explains some of the linguistic theory and structure behind the IPA in very simple, plain English.

The University of North Carolina has several practice resources for transcribing, reading, and drawing IPA symbols once you’ve become familiar with them.

Wikipedia is a great resource for IPA, but their articles on IPA and IPA for English can be rather technical. On the plus side, as you start to master the theory and structure behind IPA, the Georgian phonetic system will start to make much, much more sense – IPA doesn’t just help you teach English; it will also help you learn other languages.

Drop a comment if you’ve got any good IPA resources or if you have any questions!