Phonemic distinctions and ESL students

KFC   Wednesday, September 15, 2004, 23:44 GMT
marry merry Mary
"Mary dear, make me merry; say you'll marry me."
"Mary dear, make me Mary; say you'll Mary me."

Mick and I are curious to know if ESL students are taught to distinguish words like ''Mary'', ''marry'' and ''merry'' phonemically.(in the US)

Are ESL students taught to distinguish or merge words like ''Mary'', ''marry'' and ''merry''?
Steve K   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 00:48 GMT
In my experience the above distinctions are irrelevant for ESL students. They have other problems.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 02:54 GMT
LOL what've I started? Don't worry, I won't quit my day job!
Mxsmanic   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 03:49 GMT
There is no reason to teach ESL students to make these distinctions; a great many native speakers do not make them, and so they are irrelevant.

As Steve says, ESL students have much more pressing problems than this.

The goals of ESL teaching are entirely pragmatic: students pay lots of money to be taught to communicate effectively in English, both in writing and in speaking. They do not care about linguistic trivia. The distinctions between mary, merry, and marry, where they even exist (I don't make them as a speaker of American English), are insignificant to the natives, and thus are doubly insignificant to ESL learners. ESL learners have to spend their time learning to distinguish between pan and pin, or between thick and sick.

An interesting thing about ESL is that the goals are significantly different from those of merely academic language classes of the type found in many general-purpose education institutions. ESL has a specific, extremely practical target, like job training or the teaching of a trade. Academic instruction has no real target; it's just a "for your information" type of teaching.

I prefer ESL because there's a clear objective and there is a clear sense of accomplishment when that objective is reached or approached. Traditional academic teaching is largely a waste of time in comparison.
Juan   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 04:30 GMT
I think it's of the upmost importance to make the distinction if a difference exists. Learning something, and not learning properly is never a good thing.
Steve K   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 05:22 GMT
For some native speakers there is a difference and for others there is not. There is no hard and fast rule. Pick the language you want to learn. Observe it carefully and imitate it to the best of your ability and with the help of a teacher. And forget the rules.
Jim   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 05:26 GMT
"The distinctions between mary, merry, and marry, where they even exist ... are insignificant to the natives,"

Well, I can't speak for the Australian natives but for a white fella like me these distinctions are very significant.
Sanja   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 17:20 GMT
I pronounce "marry" and "merry" the same way, but I pronounce "Mary" differently.
Damian   Thursday, September 16, 2004, 20:00 GMT
This one has been thrashed out in this forum before!
KFC   Friday, September 17, 2004, 00:45 GMT
ESL students in the United States do not need to worry about trying to distinguish the ''marry/merry/Mary''distinctions nor the ''caught/cot'' distinctions. They can merge them and it won't cause much (if any) confusion.

caught-[ka:t] ''kaht''
cot-[ka:t] ''kaht''
Jim   Friday, September 17, 2004, 01:51 GMT
... yeah, until they're faced with someone who makes the distinction.
KFC   Friday, September 17, 2004, 01:53 GMT
Jim, would it cause you trouble of you were face with someone who makes the ''wine/whine'' distinction?
KFC   Friday, September 17, 2004, 01:54 GMT
''Jim, would it cause you trouble of you were face with someone who makes the ''wine/whine'' distinction?''

Typo- should be ''Faced''.
KFC   Friday, September 17, 2004, 01:58 GMT
Would it cause you trouble if you were faced with someone who makes the ''father/farther'' distinction?
Mxsmanic   Friday, September 17, 2004, 17:54 GMT
Even when ESL students are faced with someone who makes the distinction, it won't matter. The differences are not phonemic in complete utterances.

In prioritizing pronunciation issues for ESL teaching, you have to look at more than just words in isolation. You have to look for minimal pairs in complete, real-world utterances, and not just minimal pairs in isolated words. Put another way, while "thin" and "sin" present a minimal pair in isolation, one must ask how likely it is that this pair will remain minimal in a complete utterance that one might be likely to make or hear in real life. That is, are there really a lot of plausible sentences in which a failure to distinguish "thin" from "sin" will lead to real misunderstanding? The words are very different in meaning, after all, which tends to favor "guesstimating" of the correct word in connected speech.

All of these regional variations are completely off the radar for the ESL student. They are totally irrelevant to his goals. Indeed, they are totally irrelevant to just about all native speakers in just about all situations, too. It's important to keep things in perspective.