Thoughts for serious language learners
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Entries from August 20th, 2013

Confusing American phonetic transcriptions for “air”, “near” and “sure”

Ilian writes:

(…) There are different types of transcriptions for American English (and for British English). All of this is confusing because I am not absolutely sure whether they describe one and the same pronunciation or they describe different pronunciations.
For instance, the word “air” in American dictionaries is transcribed in many ways:
1. /ɛər/ (this transcription is clear: it means that there is a schwa sound and the “r” sound is pronounced)
2. /ɛr/ (this transcription is not very clear to me: is the pronunciation the same as the transcription above or does it mean that the schwa sound is omitted/deleted/?)
I have noticed that a lot of American dictionaries use the /ɛr/ transcription. Do they mean that the schwa sound is omitted or does it mean that /ɛr/ is the same as /ɛər/?
Also, in different dictionaries the word “near” is transcribed as /nɪər/, /nɪr/ and /ni:r/). Do they mean the same thing?
And in different dictionaries the word “sure” is transcribed as /ʃʊər/, /ʃʊr/ and /ʃu:r/. Do they mean the same thing?

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Should you care about phonetic transcrip­tions?

Today, nearly all good English dictionaries have audio recordings. If you can listen to any English word as it is pronounced by a native speaker, why should you care about phonetic transcriptions? My latest update gives a few good reasons.

I’ve also added a section that describes why you shouldn’t take phonetic transcriptions too seriously.

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Solving the problem of typing foreign characters and phonetic symbols on a PC

typeit icon on desktopˈgʊd ˈnjuːz ˈevriwʌn! I just typed this directly into this blog post, using my new TypeIt App for Windows.

Ever since I started learning foreign languages, typing foreign characters and phonetic symbols has been a problem. When learning German, I had a problem with ä, ö, ü and ß; with English, an even bigger problem with IPA phonetic symbols. In order to use phonetic transcriptions in my SuperMemo collection in DOS, I had to design my own IPA screen font.

Today, of course, we have Unicode and the problem is largely solved on the fonts side: if you use a popular font, you can be sure it will include characters for practically all languages. Even more amazingly, all modern operating systems have at least one good font with a full set of IPA symbols.

But there is also the keyboard side. The characters are available, all right, but typing them comfortably is another matter.

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Cheap way to get the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE)

I recently learned that The Book Depository (a British online bookstore recently acquired by Amazon) has the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English for about $24 with free worldwide delivery. This is the lowest price, online or offline, that I’ve seen for this excellent dictionary. Note that for this price you get the DVD only (no paper book). But who has the time to leaf through a huge book, right?

Of course, the first thing you should do after installing the LDOCE is download Taku Fukada’s unbelievable LDOCE5 Viewer which will turn your LDOCE from mediocre to amazing.

If you also need the book version for some reason, The Book Depository has the paperback+DVD for about $44 (free worldwide delivery). Amazon.co.uk has it for £23.79 (about $37) but delivery is not free, so it would probably end up costing more. (However, Amazon.co.uk has free delivery to some European countries if your order comes to more than £25, so you could order something else in addition to the LDOCE in order to qualify for free shipping.)

Thanks to commenter “michau” for the tip about The Book Depository.

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LDOCE5 Viewer is now free!

Taku Fukada’s fantastic viewer app for the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) is now available for free. Now even pathological misers who won’t spend five dollars on an awesome app can get one!

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Transcribing modern RP

Many of you know that the phonetic transcriptions that you can see in any modern British dictionary represent an accent called Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is, broadly speaking, the kind of accent that you have if your family has a coat of arms and an estate in Kent, or, at the very least, if you went to Oxford or Cambridge.

To describe RP pronunciations of words, dictionaries use a transcription system based on symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The system was developed by Daniel Jones in the early 20th century; the last significant change to this system occurred in 1967 when A. C. Gimson took on the job of editor of the English Pronouncing Dictionary.

Did you catch that date – 1967? That’s 46 years ago. But accents evolve all the time. The British upper classes speak differently than they did in the 1960s. Yet the transcription system has remained virtually unchanged.

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Another learner report

Kamil Oleksiak, a second-year student of English, is using the Antimoon Method to learn English. He was nice enough to share his experiences with Antimoon readers.

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