He started by showing us some of the appallingly improbable and stilted “English” sentences given in Polish textbooks of elementary English over the course of the twentieth century. For example, can you imagine a husband and wife ever saying this?
—Am I a man?
—Yes, you are a man, and I am a woman.
Equally improbable is that any native speaker, talking to other NSs, would come out with
The house is high.
I am a teacher. I have many students.
More importantly, Sobkowiak demonstrated how many of the “elementary” example sentences in fact contain multiple points of phonetic difficulty for the Polish learners at whom they were aimed.
This is his dog.
In this simple example there are several tricky pronunciation features: the difficult consonant ð; the orthographic irregularity that final -s corresponds to s in this but to z in is and his; and not least the final g in dog (Polish devoices final obstruents).
Any sentence containing preconsonantal the is problematic — not only phonetically, with the non-Polish ð and ə, but also grammatically, since Polish has no articles.
An ideal sentence for absolute beginners, he thought, might be
I like music.This maps happily onto pseudo-Polish aj lajk mjuzyk.
Sobkowiak has identified some 61 points of phonetic difficulty for Poles in the pronunciation of English words. Using these, he has devised a Phonetic Difficulty Index (PDI) and has analysed the PDI of thousands of vocabulary items presented to Polish learners accordingly.
He reckons that the phonetically most difficult vocabulary items he encountered were authoritarians ɔːˌθɒrɪˈteəriənz, light-coloured ˌlaɪtˈkʌləd, pearl fisheries ˈpɜːl ˌfɪʃəriz, and square-shouldered ˌskweəˈʃəʊldəd. Each of these, he says, scores 11 points of difficulty.
Learners from other language backgrounds would have similar though not identical problems. (For example, English θ is a difficult consonant for speakers of Polish, but not for speakers of Castilian Spanish, Standard Arabic, or Greek.) Phonetically aware language teachers could construct a PDI for any L1-L2 pair.
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And a happy new year to all!
This blog will again be suspended for the whole of the month of January. Next posting: 1 February 2012.