The ESL Telephone Alphabet is the pilot, radio, and orthographic alphabet for English as a Second Language

The Pilot’s Alphabet is a set of 26 words that represent each of the letters of the ABC. Also called Radio Alphabet or Spelling Alphabet, it is used to spell out important information in situations where people cannot see each other. HASalpha B.nice againstHarley…it’s what aircraft pilots use for two-way radio communication where clarity and speed are essential. The familiar ABC alphabet used to write English does not work with the radio or the telephone because the names of many letters sound alike.

A, J, K
B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z (US)
M,N
Yes, X
I and
U, W

When native English speakers need to give specific information, such as the correct spelling of their name or address, they spell the words in a kind of cipher. In Canada, broadcasting a postal code is the perfect example. The structure of postal codes is standard, six units in the order letter, number, letter (LNL) followed by a number, letter, number (NLN). Anticipating letters or numbers helps a little, but not much. Everyone in Canada has a zip code and no one can understand them over the phone.

real life example

My postal code is L7J 1G5. The L and the 7 are pretty clear, but the j it might sound like an A or a K, so I usually say “john” instead of that letter. GRAM is a train wreck of the same name. For G, I just say “GRAMGeorge.” When I say my zip code, I say: “L7Joh 1GJorge5,“which is understood as L7J 1G5. There are many circumstances where spelling in code is useful. In a noisy environment, on the phone, or in a situation complicated by pronunciation problems, using whole words to indicate individual letters is an effective strategy for spelling out short pieces of information.

The old fear of ESL on the phone

If English speakers have difficulty making themselves understood, imagine how frustrating communication must be for non-native speakers. To complicate matters, telephones, and especially cell phones, transmit sound with varying degrees of integrity. ESL students have enough difficulty with pronunciation without similar-sounding letters and poor sound quality to compound the situation. Many non-native English speakers just won’t use a phone.

Jackie Chan was a guest on Ellen Degeneres’ talk show in January 2010. Jackie is one of the most loved and successful action stars of all time. But whatever Jackie Chan has had to overcome to achieve her superstar status, her worst nightmare just might be the phone. Amused, Ellen handed her an earpiece and asked her to get “Pink Berry’s” number while the world watched. Jackie was a good sport with the request and made a noble attempt, but she was unsuccessful. She could not understand the voice recording at the end of the line or make herself understood by the machine. The joke was intended as entertainment, but for the millions upon thousands of non-native English speakers who won’t answer a phone for any reason, the joke hit close to home.

The pilot’s alphabet is not a solution for ESL. Although it works well for pilots, “Delta”, “Sierra” and “Whiskey” are too unfamiliar and difficult for English learners. Students need a foolproof alphabet of their own to correctly spell names, addresses, and other important information when needed. Here is an alphabet designed by the Thompson Language Center that is suitable for learners of English when circumstances require.

ESL telephone alphabet

hashasapple
bbHears
againstagainstArkansas
og
memeQuick
FFI have
gramgramOkay
hhor know
memethis cream
memeoutside transmission
kkin grams
memeevil
metermeteroneey
NoNoever
ohohpencil
pppeople
whatwhatwow
rreducate
sssummer
your yourI me
a anation
v vit’s a
w wworked
X X-ray
there thereyellow
z zwas

Pink becomes ppeople, methis cream, Noever, kin grams
berry becomes bHears, meQuick, reducate, reducate, thereyellow

Summary

Code speaking is a coping mechanism that native speakers take for granted, but the skill can be a lifesaver for someone struggling to survive in a new culture. Users don’t have to be newcomers to find Telephone Alphabet a useful survival tool.

Jackie, forget about stupid answering machines. Simply press 0 for an operator and write it using the ESL telephone alphabet.

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