The International Phonetic Alphabet can be utilized to improve pronunciations in any language. The International Phonetic Association, the international organization promoting the scientific study of phonetics has created the script to bridge the gap between distinct languages of the world. With sincere use of the IPA, it is easier for people from any linguistic background to learn any foreign language of their choice.
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)
The International Phonetic Alphabet aka IPA is a special range of letters or symbols that are based on phonetics. The International Phonetic Association has standardized and circulated “a notational standard for the phonetic representation of all languages” (IPA Home, 2017).
How to Learn IPA?
IPA contains a totality of 163 symbols. Every language uses only a subset of these symbols so no reason to panic. You can choose to learn just the symbols associated with your target language. It's always a better idea to get to know the IPA symbols for the language(s) you already know how to pronounce before jumping onto IPA for foreign languages.
IPA for English Consonants
People around the world use IPA to learn the international language, English so this article would refer to English consonant sounds and words to accompany the phonetic alphabet as examples. The consonant sounds below are articulated just like their English letter counterparts:
- /b/ = "ba" sound in “bat”.
- /d/ = "da" sound in “dad”.
- /f/ = "fa" sound in “fashion”.
- /g/ = "ga" sound in “greed”.
- /h/ = "ha" sound in “have”.
- /k/ = "ka"sound in “kite”.
- /l/ = "la" sound in “laugh”.
- /m/ = "ma" sound in “mash”.
- /n/ = "na" sound in “no”.
- /p/ = "pa" sound in “paw”.
- /s/ = "sa' sound in “sign”.
- /t/ = "ta" sound in “time”.
- /v/ = "va" sound in “vast”.
- /w/ = "wa" sound in “wash”.
- /z/ = "za" sound in “zoo”.
The consonant list below requires a bit more explanation:
- /j/ – The English “ya” sound (not “ja”) in “yet”.
- /ŋ/ – the “nga” sound in “song”.
- /θ/ – the unvoiced “tha” sound in words like - “thank” or “oath”.
- /ð/ – the voiced “tha” sound in “this” or “that”.
- /ʃ/ – the “sha” in “ship” or “wish”.
- /ɹ/ – the “ra” sound in “red”. (Sometimes written as /r/ for simplicity).
- /ʒ/ – the “sha+za” sound in “usual,” “revision” or “genre”.
- /dʒ/ – the "ja" sound in "jute".
- /tʃ/ – the "cha" sound in "chain".
- /hw/ - the “hwa” sound in “what”
Listed below are marginal consonant sounds:
- /x/ - the voiceless fricative /kʰ/sound is aspirated in the word, “loch” according to Scottish English speakers.
- /ʔ/ – a “glottal stop” – it's the pause in the middle of the expression, "uh-oh". In many dialects, such as my British one, this sound can replace the /t/ in words like “kitten”.
- /ɬ/ - the “kla” sound in the Welsh word “Llangefni“ [ɬaŋˈɡɛvni].
IPA for English Vowels
Keeping focused on the English language, the monophthong vowel sounds in the English language are listed below along with words to exemplify them:
- /i/ - beat, heed
- /ɪ/ - bit, hid
- /e/ - bade
- /ɛ/ - bet, head
- /æ/ - bat, had
- /ɒ/ - bot, hot
- /o/ - tow, loaf
- /u/ - boot, who
- /ʊ/ - book, hood
- /ʌ/ - but, hut
- /ɝ/ - Bert, bird
- /ə/ - ahead
The English diphthong vowel sounds are listed below:
- /eɪ/ - bait, hate
- /aɪ/ - bite, hide
- /aʊ/ - about, how
- /əʊ/ - show, throw
- /ɔɪ/ - coy, toy
- /ɪə/ - here
- /ʊə/ - tour, flour
- /eə/ - hair
Other Elements of IPA
Unless you dig right into the vast realm of phonetics, you can hardly fathom the depth it goes to. Common people do not require full-fledged IPA knowledge to get by unless they opt for a career in academic linguistics.
The stressed syllable is marked with /'/ and it sits before the syllable concerned like in the word, "radar'' correctly pronounced as /ˈreɪdɑː/ - the "rei" syllable is stressed here and hence, the /'/ before it. The secondary stressed syllable has the IPA /ˌ/ in it. The word, "ordinary" has a stressed syllable - /ˈɔːdɪn(ə)ri/ but "extraordinary" has a primary and secondary stressed syllable - /ɛkˈstrɔrdəˌnɛri/.
Diacritics are extra symbols added to letters. Usually, you'll find these around French, Spanish etc. scripts for even finer details in pronunciation. IPA has 52 diacritics like the accent on “é” or the tilde in the nasal vowel: “ã”. You would only have to get familiarized with the diacritics used in the English language.
Broad vs Narrow Transcription
You may find IPA written between slashes as well as box brackets. What the letter clusters are sitting between makes the difference between broad and narrow transcriptions in the written form. Broad transcriptions of the IPA is the more popularized version. The broad transcription of the IPA of the word, “paper” would be - /ˈpeɪpə/. Narrow transcription of the IPA takes care of the phonetics of the language in a little more detail. The narrow transcription of the same word, “paper” would be - [ˈpʰeɪpə]. The superscript “h” after the first “p” is the extra detail added in the narrow transcript.
Why Use IPA?
Get Words Right Instantly
IPA would help read new words with spot-on articulation at the first go. One can avoid the hassle of getting words wrong the first time and then fixing the pronunciation somewhere along the line. If you read new words with the IPA to start with, you won't have to deal with it later in the process. Fixing pronunciations later is monumentally harder.
Speak With Correct Pronunciation
Once you get the pronunciation right, it's hard to mess it up later. Or if you are confused about the right articulation of a word you've been using, you can always check back the right IPA of that, practice a few times and keep up the correct pronunciations. In that sense, you can ensure correct pronunciation while speaking with the use of IPA.
Gain A Deeper Understanding of Phonetics
Since IPA allows a very detailed phonetic outline when it comes to articulating words correctly, one can have a very deep understanding of overall phonetics as in how different types of sound work and the speech organs function to articulate each sound in one particular language. With IPA you should know how your tongue, lips and vocal cords actually perform to produce the orchestra of sounds.
IPA in the Language Classrooms
- Every language classroom should consider using IPA to ensure correct articulation, intonation and stress while learning new words or tinkering with the pronunciations of already known words.
- IPA sets a bar when it comes to using correct articulations among the learners and instructors.
- It zooms in on the slight or huge fluctuations between spellings and sounds.
- Reading the IPA would come in handy while learning other languages too since the detailed nature of differentiating sounds, in general, will help you catch new sounds used in new languages.
- The usage of IPA in English classrooms has gone rather out of use. Teachers and students today often choose to skip IPA while dealing with a language. They may consider it an extra unnecessary step but there is hardly a better alternative to understand phonetics in more detail.
- Both the learners’ and instructors' unwillingness to learn a new script is a big challenge in language classrooms.
- Many render IPA old-fashioned and unnecessary, learners and instructors alike.
- IPA can be very confusing since it shares signs with English letters.
- Regional dialects can mess with the correct usage of IPA since the instructors may struggle to always strip the dialect off to articulate the words according to their IPA counterparts.
There are a lot of advantages to learning and using IPA to learn new languages and improving pronunciations in the languages you know. People may think IPA is unnecessary but learning the script will never give you demerit points anyways.