27 August 2010

ELT in Japan Issue #3 (August 2010) Feature 2: Truespel - the English-Based Phonetic Notation for ESL and EFL as Well

ELT in Japan, Issue #3 (August 2010)

Feature 2: Truespel - the English-based phonetic notation for both ESL and EFL
Tom Zurinskas, www.truespel.com

Truespel phonetic notation was created in 1986 to answer the question: What would phonetics look like based on English?  After all, if English is the lingua franca of the world, shouldn't phonetics (for ESL and EFL learning) be based on it as well?  The result is truespel, a phonetic notation very close in appearance to traditional English.  Truespel is so close to traditional spelling that a tilde <~> is used to identify it.  Its the first phonetic system with a unique identifier.

In 1986 I was a human factors specialist looking into standardizing man-machine interfaces. I found that pronunciation guides were not standardized nor human or computer-friendly, not even useful for basic copy/paste functions.  Even academic notations such as the International Phonetic Association (IPA) were unfriendly, using a mix of languages and codes (symbols) to spell sounds. Thus, phonetics, because of its coding complexity, is not taught to children in the US for reading instruction.  This impacts phonemic and phonological awareness, which are key correlates to successful beginning reading development. But truespel makes this possible for the first time.

Truespel is a consistent scheme of one spelling per sound for US English.  This scheme was researched through the Simplified Spelling Society, now The Spelling Society, whose main goal is to respell English consistently. That objective would result in written English being more like Finnish, which can be learned (for literacy purposes) in months rather than years.  However, reform of English is extremely hard to do.

The truespel goal instead is to supply a pronunciation guide to assist readers with pronunciation and phonetic look-ups in an English-like way. The objective is to spell the sounds of English using the most frequent English sound spellings, or at least those that are least conflicting with traditional spelling.  For certain sounds, this is not easy to do, especially for vowels.  There are 17 (or so) vowel sounds in English and only five vowel letters to spell them.  For example, the letter in the following words, on, do, off, of, fort, word, go, and pilot, each spell a different sound.

Let's look at another example of the complexity and confusion that is possible with another vowel letter. There are 6 vowel letters in English, .  But there are 17 vowel sounds (with some vowel inventories expanding beyond this count). Thus, vowel letters must represent more than one sound in English.

Let’s look at the letter and the sounds it represents.  We'll use truespel (indicated by a tilde ~) for phonetic spelling.  The data are from truespel book 4, which contains counts of words in print (thus sounds as well, typical of spoken USA English). USA English is the dialect.

The letter stands for many sounds, but has one sound it represents consistently.  This sound is “short a” (~a), as in 'cat' (~kat). The top word having this sound is 'and' (~and).  In fact, representing the “short a” sound (~a) by the letter is so consistent that it happens over 99% of the time, making it the most consistent vowel representation for USA English.

But the letter represents other sounds as well.  In fact, there is a word 'a', which is represented by the letter, but takes the sound 'uh' (~u) as in 'sofa' (~soefu).

What sounds are spelled by letter?  Below is a list.  The percentages mean that if you see the letter alone, these are the chances that it represents these sounds. The sample words are the top words in USA English with that sound.

~a   top word 'and' (~and) 54%

~u   top word 'was' (~wuz) 30%

~aa   top word 'are' (~aar) 8%

~oo   top word 'social' (soeshool) 5%     ( taken as )

~i     top word 'important' (~impportint) 3%

Also the letter can be combined with other vowels to indicate various sounds.  Below are frequencies of sounds in USA English for letter strings (digraphs) of and .

Sounds for letter string

~ae   top word 'main' (~maen)  40%

~e    top word 'said' (~sed)   39%

~air   top word 'air' (~air)   11%

~i     top word 'captain' (~kaptin) 10%

Sounds for letter string

~ee   top word 'years' (~yeerz)  66%

~e   top word 'head' (~hed)   28%

~ae   top word 'great' (~graet)  6%

There are more words in running text beginning with letter 39% (do in large part to the frequency of 'and') than ending with letter 9%, with the rest 52% of the 's in the middle of words.

So to establish a way to spell each sound only one way will change the look of many words, just as all the vowels in these words must change but one to reflect their component sounds.

How were the much more limited and consistent sound-spellings of truepsel chosen?  Using a scientific approach to find the best spellings, I analyzed English in truespel books 1 and 4 (all books are at Authorhouse.com).  Book 1 analyzed a large dictionary list where letter-sound correspondences are examined for a large list of words spelled once.  Book 4 analyzes a frequency list of the top 5k words found in typical text (which counts repeated words and thus counts repeated sounds).  The two analyses verified the reasonableness of the sound spellings of truespel and find a lot of facts about the frequency of how US English sounds are spelled.

What made these studies possible were; (1) the spreadsheet-friendliness of truespel; and (2) 'talking' dictionaries as models of pronunciation. The models used were for US English, which is the most prevalent accent (70% of native English speakers live in the US).  The result is a phonetic spelling that is more accurate than others for US English, because (1) it's recent and (2) all the vague schwa symbols are clarified (Note that the schwa symbol in pronunciation guides represents many different indistinct vowel sounds and is thus confusing).

To see a truespel dictionary pronunciation guide, there is truespel book 3, which is the Voice of American Intermediate English Dictionary.  This pronunciation guide includes typical USA alternative pronunciations that all other dictionaries should include but do not.  Also, Truespel book 4 shows a large list of English words and their truespel equivalent, but with the truespel word first so its a phonetic look-up manual.

How consistent is the letter-sound correspondence of English?  In statistical terms, it's mostly consistent, especially for consonants.  My research shows that for English, 90% of consonants are spelled in the most frequent way, while only 50% of the vowels are.  But the inconsistencies mean that many words need to be sight memorized.  Thats why a phonetic guide would be most helpful to show the pronunciation.  Truespel provides such a guide, and it's free.  Truespel.com has a free phonetic converter provided by Joe Davidson of Interguru.  Text can be pasted into it and converted to phonetics and vice versa.  Teachers can create pronunciation lessons using it.  The site also has a web page converter, so the entire internet sites can be converted to truespel using it.  Because of the power of computers and internet, truespel is everywhere.

Is truespel a hard thing to learn?  No, truespel is much simpler than other phonetic notations.  US University grad students using it said they took only 15 minutes to learn it.  This is because 30 out of 40 phoneme spellings are self-evident, patterned on present spelling.  Literate English-speaking 3rd graders should be able to learn truespel in about an hour.  The beauty is that truespel is an actual spelling system because its capitalization-friendly, punctuation-friendly, copy/paste-friendly, filename-friendly, and spreadsheet-friendly.  No other notation can claim this.

Usefulness is the key.  Teachers can use truespel to:

1. Show beginning readers the sounds of English to teach phonemic and phonological awareness

2. Show English pronunciation to ESL students.

3. Show pronunciation of words from other languages in truespel  translation guides (once created).

4. Integrate all English literacy aspects for the first time - reading instruction, pronunciation materials, dictionary pronunciation guides, translation guides, phonemic aptitude tools, and analysis tools. 

The future goal is complete integration, which does not exist now. For a quick tutorial on truespel regarding the 40 sounds of USA English in a simple story see http://tinyurl.com/yh46rgc  and see http://tinyurl.com/yls55da for indicating stress in truespel.  Basically, thats all you need except for practice, practice, practice.

For further information about truespel, contact Tom Zurinskas, creator of truespel at tzurinskas@yahoo.com .

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