While I was drafting the previous post about voiced and unvoiced consonants, an incident happened in class which illustrated some of the difficulties that the distinction between these sounds causes to English language learners (and to teachers!). The theme in the textbook was ‘wishes’, and one of the sentences to be completed by the students was ‘I wish I was more ____’. One student said ‘I wish I was more punctual’. Another student said ‘What does that mean?’. I often answer questions like that with a series of questions of my own: ‘Does he (the first student) come to class every day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Does he come to class on time every day?’ ‘No.’ ‘Should he come to class on time every day?’ (Sideways message to the first student!) ‘Yes.’ ‘Should he be more punctual?’ ‘What does that mean?’ She then said to the first student ‘How do you spell that?’ and wrote it down as he told her. She then typed it into her electronic dictionary/translator and said ‘It’s not here’. I glanced at what she’d written and saw ‘buncdual’ – she’d heard ‘pee’ as ‘bee’ and ‘tee’ as ‘dee’. Not only are the two pairs of sounds  – /b/ and /p/, and /d/ and /t/ – differentiated by voicing, but so are their names – ‘bee’ and ‘pee’, and ‘dee’ and ‘tee’. (While /g/ and /k/ show the same voicing distinction, the letter names ‘gee’ and ‘kay’ are unlikely to be confused). Unfortunately, I had to leave this digression and return to the textbook lesson.

The issues here go beyond English to the students’ own languages – Urdu and Mandarin respectively. Urdu has a voiced/unvoiced distinction – /b/ and /p/, and /d/ and /t/ are separate sounds. Mandarin doesn’t – the standard sounds are unvoiced: /p/ and /t/. But the situation is complicated a second distinction, that of aspiration. This is little puff of air behind unvoiced sounds in some circumstances. In English, this happens automatically when /p/, /t/ or /k/ are at the beginning of a stressed syllable, for example the letter names ‘pee’, ‘tee’ and ‘kay’. English speakers generally aren’t aware that this is happening, and certainly aren’t used to turning aspiration ‘on’ or ‘off’. On the other hand, Urdu and Mandarin both have an aspirated/unaspirated distinction. Urdu has four sets of consonants, starting with /b/ (voiced, unaspirated), /bʰ/ (voiced, aspirated), /p/ (unvoiced, unaspirated) and /pʰ/ (unvoiced, aspirated) and Mandarin has two, starting with /p/ and /pʰ/. So an English speaker, an Urdu speaker and a Mandarin speaker should all say and hear ‘pee’ as /pʰi:/. But pinyin transliteration of Mandarin renders /p/ as ‘b’ and ‘/pʰ/’ as ‘p’, so I can only assume that, for some reason, the second student had heard the name of the letter as /pi:/, that is, without aspiration, and therefore wrote it as ‘b’. Maybe the first student pronounced it without aspiration. As an English speaker, I can’t readily distinguish between /pi:/ and /pʰi:/. I was expecting /pʰi:/ and I heard /pʰi:/. Phonologically, /pi:/ sounds closer to /bi:/; even for English speakers, the distinction is made more by the aspiration than by the voicing.


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