English learning advice from Aviation English Asia Ltd
Pronunciation in air to ground communications is very different to pronunciation when talking to other people face to face. As a learner of Aviation English it is important to realise that there is English, and there is phraseology in radiotelephony - with few overlaps between. Pronunciation is a frequent area of failure in ICAO English Language Proficiency tests and one that is often neglected because it is difficult for a learner to identify that they have a specific problem. Aviation English Asia Ltd teachers are qualified and experienced in diagnosing a wide range of language issues, and when feedback is given it is often done using very specific meta-language used by teachers. In this article we introduce some of the terms and concepts used to identify areas of pronunciation. Of course, pronunciation errors are cumulative and you may have more than one difficulty. We will briefly define the components of pronunciation from smallest unit of sound to those in a sentence.
A phoneme is a unit of sound. Phonemes are expressed as phonetic symbols in the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Some letters have one phoneme, others have two such as the diphthong 'ire' as in fire (AI - uh). Sometimes a phoneme may be a combination of two letters such as 'ch' in 'checklist', or 'fl' in 'flight'.
There are twenty-six letters in the English alphabet. Some letters are pronounced differently depending on the letters preceding and following them. For example, 'c' can be pronounced like a hard /k/ in retract or as an /s/ in the verb 'practice'. Letters are made up of consonants and vowels. Consonants can be voiced or voiceless depending on the sound (or phoneme). The difference between voiced and voiceless is explained below.
Consonants are the sounds that interrupt vowel sounds. Consonants are combined with vowels to form a syllable. They include:
b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, w, x, z
Consonants can be voiced or unvoiced.
Vowels are open sounds caused with the vibration of vocal sounds, but without obstruction. Consonants interrupt vowels to form syllables. They include:
a, e, i, o, u and sometimes (at the end of a word) y
All vowels are voiced as they are produced using the vocal chords.
A voiced consonant is a consonant that is produced with the help of the vocal chords. You can identify if a consonant is voiced by placing your fingers to your throat. If the consonant is voiced, you will feel a vibration. Understanding whether a consonant is voiced or unvoiced will have a massive impact on your ability to improve your pronunciation.
Voiced Consonant Sounds
b, d, g, j, l, m, n, r, v, w
A voiceless consonant is a consonant that is produced without the help of the vocal chords. Place your fingers on your throat when speaking an unvoiced consonant and you will only feel a rush of air through your throat. With some you can also feel the air escaping from your mouth.
c, f, h, k, q, s, t, x
Minimal pairs are pairs of words that differ in only one sound. For example: 'ship' and 'sheep' differ in only in the vowel sound. Minimal pairs are used to practice slight differences in sound. Aviation English Asia Ltd teachers will identify the minimal pairs which are most relevant to you.
A syllable is formed by a consonant sound combining with a vowel sound. Words can have one or more syllables, and sometimes diphthongs which can often be confused with syllables. To test how many syllables a word has, put your hand under your chin and speak the word. Every time your jaw moves indicates another syllable.
Syllable stress refers to the syllable that receives the main stress in each word. Some two syllable words are stressed on the first syllable: pilot, checklist - other two syllable words are stressed on the second syllable: retract, return. There are a number of different word syllable stress patterns in English. Sometimes it's useful to learn the rules, but for many learners it's easier to just learn the correct pronunciation of the word.
Tonic stress refers to which words are stressed in a sentence. We can divide these into content words and function words. Usually, content words are spoken slower (it is a mistake to say that content words are spoken louder) and glide over function words.
Content words are words that convey meaning and include nouns, main verbs, adjectives, adverbs and negatives. Content words are the focus of a sentence. Stress these content words to provide the rhythm of English by gliding, or skipping over the function words. At least one word in a sentence carries the main meaning of the sentence and is called the tonic.
Function words are words that required for the grammar, but that provide little or no content. They include auxiliary verbs, pronouns, prepositions, articles, etc.
When speaking about English we say that the language is stress-timed. In other words, the rhythm of English is created by words stress, rather than syllable stress as in syllabic languages.
Word groups are groups of words that are commonly grouped together and before or after which we pause. Word groups are often indicated by commas such as in complex or compound sentences.
Rising intonation occurs when the voice goes up in pitch. For example, we use rising intonation at the end of yes / no questions. We also use rising intonation with lists, separating each item with a short rise in the voice, before a final, falling intonation for the last item in a list. For example in the instruction:
Cessna 345, contact Bay departure one two seven point zero.
'3', '4', '5', '1', '2', '7' and 'point' would rise in intonation, while 'zero' would fall.
Falling intonation is used with information sentences and, in general, at the end of statements.
Reductions refers to the common practice of combing a number of words into a short unit. This generally occurs with function words. A few common reduction examples are: gonna -> going to / wanna -> want to. It is generally regarded as bad practice to use reductions in radio communication.
Contractions are used when shortening the helping verb. In this way, two words such as 'is not' become one 'isn't' with only one vowel.
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