When preparing to checkout of a guesthouse on a recent trip, I wanted to pay for the beer I had had the night before. The receptionist took so much time, I thought I’d miss my bus. He was calling his boss and trying to resolve some confusion. “You’ve already paid your bill,” he told me. Sure enough, bill and beer to him sounded like the same thing.
There is agreement that we should respect different variations of English throughout the world. It’s not fair to say that one is more correct than another. On the other hand, we could also argue that just because certain sounds aren’t differentiated in someone’s first language doesn’t mean the effort shouldn’t be taken to distinguish them. Lumping together beer and bill as the same word seems to be stretching the comprehensibility of a language that’s supposed to be international. Granted, it’s difficult. Especially when written English doesn’t give us many hints on how it’s supposed to be pronounced.
When we think of pronunciation, we often think of those cut away diagrams of the inside of a mouth. It helps to know where to position the tongue or teeth to make proper sounds, but this still doesn’t help when it comes to reading text and decoding pronunciation. Bill can still come out as beer.
Using IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is used by linguists to transcribe sounds, but with so many symbols and tiny differentiations in sound, it’s not the easiest tool for the average student. Another choice is the system of learning sounds and associated letters through phonics, but even after all the rules are memorized, it ends up being a guessing game for those who don’t hear English spoken every day. What if we could use some kind of coding that would help students to read and pronounce any text?
An elegant system would use the fewest possible number of symbols possible. Of course that means that some sounds won’t be perfectly accurate, but it will definitely cover the differences between words like beer and bill. I think this can be done with just five short vowels and five long vowels: ă (mat) ĕ (met) ĭ (mit) ŏ (mop) ŭ (mutt) ā (make) ē (meet) ī (mine) ō (more) and ū (muse). That’s just ten symbols. So for example, this sentence, “I can pay for the beer, but I’ve already paid the room bill.” is written as, “Ī kăn pā fōr thŭ bīŭr bŭt īv ŏl rĕdē pād thŭ rūm bĭl.” Yes, not perfect, but not bad and with practice, it’s not that hard to read.
If these cues are added to any text, students can read them on their own. There’s no need for endless repeat-after-my-own-mistake drills. There’s no need to collect IPA lists in the back of reports, which nobody seems to be able to pronounce anyway. Students would simply read and speak in comprehensible ways. The idea is to use something simple, easy and as effective as possible.
Testing this out, I’ve found students able to conquer the problems of the missing “s” and the dropping of last sounds. Most remarkably, “vegetable” sounded like “vĕgtŭbŭl” rather than “wĕjĕtŭbŭn”.
This means even a beginning student should be able to read the Vientiane Times. Try this excerpt: “Whīl lăōs hăs mād stĕdē prŏgrĕs ĭn ĕjūkāshŭn rēfōrm, yūnĭvŭrsŭl prīmărē ĕjūkāshŭn mā nŏt bē rēchd bī tū thăōsŭnd fĭftēn ăz tŏr gĕtĕd dū tū thŭ hī drŏ păōt rāt. Ŭkōrdēng tū ŭ rēsĕnt jōēnt rŭpōrt bī the gŭvŭrnmĕnt ănd the yūnītĕd nāshŭnz, lăōs ĭz klōs tū ŭchēvēng the tŏr gĕtĕd nīntē āt pŭrsĕnt nĕt ĕnrōlmĕnt rāt fōr gŭrlz ănd bōēz bŭt the ōvŭrŏl ēfĭshĭnsē ŭv thŭ ĕjūkāshŭn sǐstĕm rēmāīns lō.”