Phonetic alphabet for communicating with non-native English-speakers
May 5, 2009 12:48 PM   Subscribe

I'm finding the NATO phonetic alphabet is confusing when I speak with with people who are not native English speakers over the phone (e.g. they don't recognize the words alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, etc). I trying to find an phonetic alphabet made up of words that non-native English speakers would have learned while learning English--maybe something like apple, boy, cat, dog, etc. I could take a guess at making one, but it would be nice if there was a standard?
posted by scharpy to Writing & Language (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Have a look at the NATO phonetic alphabet wikipedia page. They have 5 sets of military alphabets.
posted by bigmusic at 12:55 PM on May 5, 2009

See also the wikipedia page on spelling alphabets.
posted by yeoz at 12:58 PM on May 5, 2009

A more complete list.
posted by bigmusic at 12:59 PM on May 5, 2009

What about elementary/grammar school teaching tools? I recall seeing in almost every classroom a banner or book describing the English alphabet, each with a simple enough word. I'm sure anyone learning the English language would be exposed to something like that, and would probably even know what a xylophone is afterward.

Granted, there's probably not a standardized version, but I'd imagine it'd be "standard" enough as far as what words are appropriate for an N-grade reading level.
posted by CancerMan at 1:00 PM on May 5, 2009

Best answer: In my experience, using international placenames is generally best. "A" as in "Amsterdam" as opposed to "E" as in "England" usually works. Just don't do "K" as in "Korea" because it's "Corea" lots of places--I usually default to "Kilogram" there. Also "X-ray" is always the best X.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:03 PM on May 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't really suggest "E" for England -- you probably want to pick a place that starts with an actual "E" sound, rather than "I"
posted by robtoo at 1:53 PM on May 5, 2009

OR ... stick to an 'official' standardized one (that one mentioned in fact), because many people are taught it (offshore customer service reps for example) and if everybody did stick to one standardized set, then more people would learn to use it.
posted by Xhris at 2:11 PM on May 5, 2009

I wouldn't really suggest "E" for England -- you probably want to pick a place that starts with an actual "E" sound, rather than "I"

People who speak English generally know how to spell "England", so it's a good choice for that reason.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:22 PM on May 5, 2009

Response by poster: I probably should have clarified - this would generally be used to spell out randomly generated passwords (changing the algorithm that generates them is not an option) over the phone, many of the names used in the variations on the NATO alphabet ('F' as in Frank, 'G' as in George) are not recognized by people I speak with.
posted by scharpy at 2:24 PM on May 5, 2009

If (as appears to be the case) there isn't an obvious easy standard, you're probably best going with:

More than one syllable
Starts with the sound of the letter ("eh" for "elephant" rather than "eh" for "ego")
Avoid country names, because they vary considerably between languages
Maybe stick to words with Latin roots so that there's a better chance of recognition

For international recognition, you could try global brands and celebrities - "kay" for "Keanu". Of course you might discover that they're not as global as you thought.

A page with the most common nouns in English for you to choose from.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:55 PM on May 5, 2009

Swear words would work well.

Starts with the sound of the letter ("eh" for "elephant" rather than "eh" for "ego")

Pssst. You're doing it wrong.

posted by Sys Rq at 3:59 PM on May 5, 2009

There's a children's phonetic alphabet called LetterLand.
posted by hmca at 4:19 PM on May 5, 2009

Have you thought of just keeping the pattern of saying the letter and then the word? We've seen it written in this thread several times already and it may clarify what you're trying to convey to the person on the other end. Here's what I'm imagining.

current approach: Your new password is Alpha - Charlie - Roger ...
modified approach: Your new password is spelled "A" as in Alpha - "C" as in Charlie - "R" as in Roger...

I know it takes longer. However, it makes it really clear. Since my user name, email addresses and real name are all a pain to spell, I use this approach and find people are able to keep up with what I'm doing.
posted by onhazier at 5:52 PM on May 5, 2009

I could take a guess at making one, but it would be nice if there was a standard?

There is a standard for this -- it's the NATO phonetic alphabet. It's just that the folks you're talking to don't know the standard. :)

What you might try is the "A as in alpha, W as in Whiskey" double-coverage approach that others have suggested, but using the NATO phonetic alphabet so as to encourage its adoption in your audience.
posted by ellF at 6:24 PM on May 5, 2009

I like sidhedevil's idea, but maybe you can make one up of ubiquitous multinational corporations or famous people or things.
C for Coca-Cola
M for McDonalds
O for Obama


Probably best making one up from words that an ESL student would learn fairly quickly, but still sound different from each other.
posted by ctmf at 6:27 PM on May 5, 2009

Coming in here to totally second Sidhedevil. I used to work at an international IT helpdesk and whenever Alpha Charlie Bravo wasn't understood, I would revert to international placenames.

I am pretty sure I learned this from our Indian callers, who'd almost always go "A as in America, F as in France" by default. I don't know if there is an officially recognized "placenames" phonetic alphabet or if they'd just developed their own. (the "more complete" list by bigmusic above has some placenames alphabets but not all letters sound familiar to me)
posted by ClarissaWAM at 6:57 PM on May 5, 2009

Funny, but the NATO phonetic alphabet is used by every NATO country, and most of them don't speak English. I learned it in French. To be fair though, when I use it with civilians I often run into people going "hunh?" and so I replace words like Foxtrot with Frank or other common and easily recognizable names. Works like a charm.
posted by furtive at 8:35 PM on May 5, 2009

Good luck guessing what's really world-famous and what's not. I regularly had to explain about Seattle to Taiwanese schoolkids. Only one kid ever knew Nirvana. A few in every class knew Starbuck's (yes, they have those in Taiwan). All of them knew the Mariners, because anything Japanese is cool in Taiwan, including Ichiro Suzuki. I mean, I could understand their knowing the New York Yankees, even without Jian-ming Wang pitching, just because, well, Yankees, hello. But the Mariners? You never know what's going to connect. Placenames sound pretty good by comparison.
posted by eritain at 9:15 PM on May 5, 2009

Frank = Foxtrot

George = Golf

Are you sure you're using radio callsign alphabet?

If you're having a problem with people who don't speak English as a first language (and I agree - people paid to deal with people who generally speak English as a first language should at least learn NATO callsigns)... perhaps say "A" "Alpha" as in "American"

Alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, golf, hotel, india, juliet, kilo, lima ("L" as in lugubrious, or lion), mike, november, oscar, papa, quebec (or "that inventor dude in James Bond"), romeo, sierra (ess. as in snake), tango, umbrella, victor, whiskey (double-u), x-ray, yankee (as what why sounds like), and zed (as in zee, zed. Zebra zed.).
posted by porpoise at 11:56 PM on May 5, 2009

I find it's very helpful to say "___ as in ____" over the phone or radio with someone who's not used to using phonetic alphabets.

Example (verbatim): "O as in Oscar, S as in Sierra, T as in Tango, R as in Romeo, A as in Alpha, N as in November, E as in Echo, N as in November, I as in India, and E as in Echo."

X is for Xylophone, because X is always for Xylophone.
posted by ostranenie at 12:21 PM on May 6, 2009

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