The glottal stop and the phonemic chart

The glottal stop is not generally used as a stand alone phoneme in EL learner dictionaries, hence it is not on the chart. And is not part of standard English spelling. In some languages however it is a natural part of the spelling system (see Wikipedia for a brief and interesting discussion). Nevertheless it comes up in teaching all the time.

In the IPA it is transcribed /ʔ/ like a question mark without the dot. It is an unvoiced sound (don’t believe me, check that out for yourself) and is produced by closing the glottis which stops the airflow. Thus it is also a stop sound.

Now, earlier this month I had the pleasure of taking the role of external pron tutor on the Oxford TEFL Distance Diploma Training Course, an excellent course with some really sparkling exchanges and discussions going on in the pron module. With their kind agreement I will excerpt a few of these exchanges in this blog during the next few posts. Here is the first:

Course member Liam MacCarron wrote: Hi Adrian,

1) How do you propose we help our learners with the glottal stop?

2) If you had been introducing the phonemes of words on the board to students for a few weeks, how would you represent the glottal stop even though it isn’t represented on the phonemic chart? Should we just use that question mark looking symbol, tell them that’s what it represents and move on? Or would that a nice intro to allophones for them?

Hi Liam, I would help them in the same way as for any other sound. They can easily find it by saying any vowel repeatedly and quickly and then slowing down the repetition, then isolating what they do between each vowel. It is probably not a new sound for them. Once they can say it I would give it a symbol, as you say like a question mark without the dot, sort of sickle shaped. I would draw that on the board next to the chart, in a little box the same size as the symbols and boxes on the chart.

Since the sound is a stop sound, or plosive, I would position the new symbol at the end of the plosive row (the first row) of consonants. In fact geographically it fits well at the right of /g/ since the stop is produced at the back of the vocal apparatus, and is of course unvoiced.

Once you have got it on the map it is in circulation and available for use along with all the other sounds for making words, tracking connected speech, corrections and so on.

If you are using it as an allophone of /t/ you might want to indicate that it can be placed in the /t/ box along with all other allophones of /t/, but since it has other uses as well I would probably park it at the end of the stop row, as I said.

When practising I would often get them to say the word (eg butter) one way with the glottal stop /ʔ/ and the other way with /t/, so they don’t get fixated, and can feel the difference in their mouths and be able to choose. This will also help them to hear the distinction more discerningly.

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11 Responses to The glottal stop and the phonemic chart

  1. Dear Adrian,

    I’m starting a phonology workshop in the language school where I work here in Chile that will take place every Friday for an hour, for about 3 months and I would like to have some advice form you. I’ve never done a workshop like this one before, but I’ve already seen you videos on YouTube and it was great help! I’ve also been checking your blog, and I think I do quite well with phonology when teaching (as I include phonology in general English courses).

    But I would really appreciate if you could give me some more specific tips or some information about useful resources to use in this workshop that cover phonology from the start with native speakers of Spanish.

    Thanks in advance!


    • Hi Sebastian. Here are some thoughts. Take it all with a pinch of salt….
      There are two main resources:

      1. The chart: Provides the mental map of the journey. A representation of the territory to explore. Like a map if we are out walking, ie not the reality, but a great help to conceptualising the reality
      2. The participants: These are the explorers who, using the chart/map, will journey together into a territory that was once known (as babies) but has become unknown once the movements became automatised. Now we have to explore the territory again, in order to see what is there, and prepare for some new automatisations to take place. And in due course we won’t have to think about these either.

      There is one underlying aim:
      For each participant to journey into their mouth, throat and breath, rediscovering how to connect with the muscles that make the sounds change. In this case the territory is inside them, which is why we don’t see it with our eyes, which is one reason it all seems mysterious. The other reason is that the territory consists of a load of unpromising warm, dark, slippy sloppy living tissue! And this journey is physical, it is about muscles that move, and intervening in the movement in order to do small things differently. This is where I simplistically but I think usefully talk of the 4 buttons. See elsewhere in this blog.

      There is one more thing:
      You! The facilitator of the journey. Luckily you don’t know exactly what to do and this will keep you on the same side of the learning fence as your colleagues. A really good guide on a real life adventure has maybe been there before, but this time it is fresh because s/he still does not know what is going to happen, and has to be watchful of all the participants, and be alert alongside them. But in this case you do know that no one is going to die if they put a foot wrong! Instead of trying to know, you help people to explore, to inquire, to find out for themselves, to be mystified and puzzled and curious, to talk about it, share insights, and gradually get to know the new territory.

      Starting out:
      Project 1. Get to know the mouth and the articulating surfaces and muscles by exploring the sounds on the chart. Use the various introductions I describe elsewhere in this blog, and take ideas from my videos. Don’t worry too much about words, just explore the sounds. I think it is helpful to keep sliding between the English sound and the nearest Spanish sound, just to keep feeling and noticing the difference. This will become the basis for corrections. In RP there are 44. This is like 44 postures in dancing, Gradually as you get to know the postures you can join them together, which requires a movement between them, like the movement in dancing. Then they turn into words

      Project 2. Take words and point them out on the chart. Get people to say each sound as it is shown. Play words games. Use the chart to present vocab. Take words very s…l….o….w….l….y and feel the muscle movements…. Each word is a different dance. If anyone has a smart phone they can get my app and play the chart games for personal practice. Gradually join into connected utterances and use the chart to play with small bits of connected speech.

      Project 3. Only when participants have really explored the sounds in their own mouths does it make sense to talk about guiding students to do the same. Is to talk about correction techniques. Then start to explore how to use the chart for corrections, and for supplying new words and endings, and for giving instructions. Again see elsewhere on this blog, and in my book if you want more detail.
      These projects can unfold in any order, and at the same time. There is lots more, but you’ll figure that out as you go.

      Lastly, this is only my view of how I might go about things. Try it as a starting point, but don’t get stuck with it. In fact push against it and find things that are different and that work better for you. Inquiry and curiosity is the name of the game.

      • Adrian

        Thank you so much for your comment and all these incredible ideas to use with my class. I watched your video on youtube and I used your model lesson for the first class to introduce the phonemic chart and it went amazing with the students. They said they really enjoyed the first lesson of the workshop, and I can see they’re highly motivated to attend further classes. For the upcoming lessons I think I’ll use activities from ‘Pronunciation Games’ by Mark Hancock, which seems to be a very interesting book and seems to follow the methodology you propose when teaching and learning pronunciation. I plan to continue with clarifying sounds and their symbols (focusing on the physical and visible activity), then to continue with words, stress patterns and rhythm and finally to move into connected speech and intonation in sentences.

        I’ve really learned a lot from you, your blog and your videos, and I hope someday I can travel and attend one of your workshops or seminars.

        Warm Regards and thanks again for everything,


  2. Nicola says:

    Hi Adrian, Thanks for the kind mention. I must admit to never having addressed the glottal stop with learners here is Spain. In fact, the last time I looked at it was during my course on Scottish language at university, some time ago now. It would be interesting to see why Liam was asking this question with regards to the the learners he teaches..
    The ideas you suggest are very effective and I suppose this could be of use to help learners recognize the sound when listening to English and build their awareness of variations on the /t/.

    • Hi Nicola
      You raise an interesting point. It is so important to help students sharpen their hearing by listening to the variations within one phoneme (ie the allophones) and this opens up a very nice general exercise. When students are practising a sound, and I go round the class asking a few individuals to say what they can, instead of saying to everyone ‘which one is correct?’ I usually say ‘listen to the differences’ and they can hear minute variations. And I tell them most of these are inside the box (on the chart). It is very useful to help students discern variations within sounds as well as variations between sounds.

      • Nicola says:

        Hi Adrian,
        I like this approach. It seems to empower the learners and help build empathy. I like how it is inclusive and should really get them to listen very carefully. I suspect some learners would still want to follow a model though. Do you ever find them as still asking, ‘but is it right?’.

    • Neil McMillan says:

      Hi Nicola and Adrian,

      It was a revelation to me, back when I did my Dip, that the glottal stop is as much a part of standard English(es) as it is non-standard Scottish English. I remember getting skelped by my Granny (and scolded by my Cert tutor – long story) for glottalising those middle /t/ plosives in ‘butter’ and ‘nitty gritty’ – in Scots English this has always been regarded as a marker of lowly social status. Yet many Americans ‘flap’ on the same sound and final plosive glottalisation is extremely common across many varieties of English. In this sense, it might be important to highlight it to learners wherever they are – as Adrian points out, they are probably already producing it / are aware of it, especially if they are being exposed to lots of native accents.

      I always think that the excessive/overly deliberate production of those final plosives sounds unnatural/forced, as with some Scottish English speakers who were skelped even more than I was. Maybe drawing attention to this is something we can use to help our Ss sound more natural.

    • Liam says:

      The advice you’ve offered is really useful Adrian – Thanks!! I approached one of the students who had expressed difficulty in producing the difference between “can” and “can’t”, and did the slow repetition of a vowel with them to highlight the sound made in between each time you said the vowel. From there I had him say “button” and “important” after which I said the words to get him to hear the difference. He was instantly able to hear the difference and after only a few attempts, he was able to produce the sound himself when saying the words.

      Many thanks,

      ps. Fantastic blog Adrian! Your “The Story of Sounds” articles have been a massive help in giving me the confidence to include the use of the phonemic chart more in my lessons.

  3. Hi Sebastian
    Yes, Mark Hancock’s activities are great. I like them a lot. And whatever you do, and however good the activity, remember to 1) keep it physical, 2) keep it visual (and if you have blind students ask them their preferred alternative) 3) relate all activities to the chart to keep the learning grounded and so they keep seeing and developing the interconnections 4) give time to hearing the sound in their ‘minds ear’, rehearsing it in their ‘mind’s mouth’ and of course saying it out loud.

  4. Hi Nicola… Yes and I like it when they ask: Is it right? It shows me they are hearing and feeling a difference, and sensing a difference in the mouth, and that they are curious and inquiring, and above all uncertain! That is a good space to work in. Sure I will offer models (from another student who has it, from a recording we are using, or from me) but probably I will avoid using it for them to repeat endlessly after. More likely I will get them to register it in their inner ear, and listen to it several times over internally (though the model is only once), as if tasting the sound internally, then Iask them to say it internally, and then externally. This is quite different from blurting it aloud immediately after the model. And it doesn’t take any longer.

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