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Every aspiring polyglot should learn to read the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). It's a powerful tool when learning any language.
I taught myself to read the IPA alphabet, but it was tough at first. Wikipedia has tons of comprehensive information, but can be confusing to a beginner.
So this article is my attempt to create the resource that I wish I'd had when I started. I'll give you an overview of what IPA is, why it's useful, and what the best way (in my opinion) is to learn it.
Let's start with the first and most obvious question:
What is The International Phonetic Alphabet?
You might not have heard of IPA – and no, I'm not talking about India Pale Ale. What is it anyway?
Like a smooth-talking politician, I'll reply with a question of my own:
How do you pronounce the word “wind”?
Does it rhyme with “blind” (as in “wind-up toy”) or with “sinned” (as in “run like the wind”?) Without more context, you have no idea.
Likewise with the words “read”, “live” or “tear”. English spelling is a terrible guide to pronunciation.
It gets worse when you add more languages into the fray. The Spanish word come (“he/she eats”), sounds nothing like the English word with the same spelling. But you've spent your entire life pronouncing letters like “o” and “e” the English way. It can be hard to shake the habit!
The Portuguese sede has two pronunciations with different meanings, as does the German Bucht. In French, cent, sang, sens, sent, s’en and sans all sound the same. Confused yet? And how the hell do you pronounce “العَرَبِيَّة”, “汉语/漢語”, or “ภาษาไทย”?
Enter the International Phonetic Alphabet. Linguists designed IPA to be unambiguous: every symbol has only one pronunciation. When you read a word in IPA, you'll know exactly how to pronounce it.
For example, <wind> written in IPA is /wɪnd/ (rhymes with “sinned”) or /waɪnd/ (rhymes with “blind”).
(<Angle brackets> denote the “correct” spelling of the word(s) in their original language. /Slashes/ – or should that be /ˈslæʃɪz/? – mean that the enclosed symbols are IPA.)
An IPA symbol has the same sound no matter what language you're writing. So the Spanish <come> is /kome/ , while the English <come> is /kʌm/.
3 Good Reasons to Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet
You may be wondering, “why bother”? Is learning IPA worth the time investment?
I hope I can convince you that the answer is “yes”. Learn IPA, and you'll:
1. Get Words Right the First Time
What do you do when you don't know how to pronounce a word? You could ask a native speaker, but they're usually terrible at explaining:
You: How do you pronounce E-U-C-H?
German: No, euch.
German: No! Euch. Can't you hear the difference?
You: Yes, but I don't know how to say it!
If you knew IPA, you could have just looked it up and seen that the correct pronunciation is /ɔʏç/. Don't know how to read that? I’ll get there.
In the early stages of learning a language, I write all my notes in IPA, and avoid the “real” spellings as much as possible. This way I ensure that I learn pronunciation first, spelling last.
This is much more effective than the opposite approach. It's how you learned your native language, after all.
2. Speak (With Good Pronunciation) From Day One
The real power of IPA comes when you use it to learn how to pronounce not just words but entire languages.
For example, if I was starting to learn German (I already speak it, but just for the sake of example), the first thing I'd do would be to look at the Wikipedia page for German IPA.
It tells me that Standard German contains the following sounds:
/b/ /ç/ /d/ /f/ /ɡ/ /h/ /j/ /k/ /l/ /l̩/ /m/ /m̩/ /n/ /n̩/ /ŋ/ /p/ /ʁ/ /s/ /ʃ/ /t/ /ts/ /tʃ/ /v/ /x/ /z/ /ʔ/ /a/ /ɛ/ /e/ /ɪ/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /œ/ /ø/ /ʊ/ /u/ /ʏ/ /y/
Immediately, I see a few that aren't in my native English, like /ç/, /œ/ /ø/, and /y/. I'll know I have to practice these and take extra care to get them right.
I also see that German doesn't contain certain English sounds like /ɹ/ and /θ/. (That's the English “r” and “th”.) So if I don't want to sound like an Engländer, I must ensure that /ɹ/ and /θ/ never come out of my mouth.
Remember euch? Most German textbooks will tell you that the “eu” vowel is like the “oi” in English words like “choice”. This is wrong! Study IPA, and you'll realise that the English sound is /ɔɪ/ while German uses the subtly different /ɔʏ/.
Most English speakers don't realise this. Even if their German is great, they still pronounce euch with the English /ɔɪ/ vowel. Then they wonder why no-one ever mistakes them for a German.
Once you're confident with IPA, insights like this will leap off the page at you. You'll pronounce things much better than your fellow learners. People won't believe you when you say how little time you've spent learning their language.
3. Gain a Deeper Understanding of Phonetics
Did you know that there are different “p” sounds in English? The word “paper” has them both. Say it out loud – the first “p” has an extra little puff of air behind it that the second doesn't.
In linguistic terminology, the first “p” is “aspirated” while the second isn't. In IPA you'd write the non-aspirated version as /p/ and the aspirated one as /pʰ/.
You probably didn’t even realise that you do this. Learn IPA, and you'll find dozens of similar interesting little insights. As a language nerd, I find it fascinating – and very useful.
It amazes me that almost no language course teaches anything about phonetics. Imagine a saxophone teacher who didn't teach you the finger positions for each note. Instead he just played a jazz solo, and told you to imitate. How fast would you learn?
IPA is your gateway to a deep understanding of how the human speech organ works. You'll learn what the tongue, lips and vocal cords actually do to produce different sounds. It should be obvious why this will improve your pronunciation.
How to Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet
By now I hope I've convinced you to give IPA a chance. Now I need to explain how to get IPA into your head.
IPA contains 163 symbols. But don’t worry:, you don't need to learn them all. I still don't know them all, and I've been using IPA for at least five years.
Every language only uses a subset of those 163. Just learn the ones your target language uses, and you can leave the rest till later. (E.g. unless you’re learning Xhosa, you probably don't need to learn the symbols for clicks.)
Before you look at IPA for a foreign language, it's better to start with the IPA symbols that you already know how to pronounce. What are the IPA symbols used by your native language?
How to Learn IPA For English
(Not a native English speaker? Look up “[Your native language] phonology” on Wikipedia and use that instead.)
Let's start with consonants. The following symbols are pronounced exactly like you'd expect based on what you're used to in English:
/b/ /d/ /f/ /g/ /h/ /k/ /l/ /m/ /n/ /p/ /s/ /t/ /v/ /w/ /z/
If you're Scottish, you also need /x/, which is the raspy sound at the end of “loch”: /lɔx/. I'm English, so I pronounce that word like “lock”: /lɔk/.
English also uses:
- /j/ – not to be confused with the sound we write in English as – this is the English “y” sound.
- /ŋ/ – the “ng” in “sing”.
- /θ/ – the “unvoiced” “th” in “think”, “path”, or “thistle”.
- /ð/ – the “voiced” “th” in “that”, “this”, or “there”.
- /ʃ/ – the “sh” in “ship” or “wish”.
- /ɹ/ – the “r” in “red”. Sometimes when writing English in IPA, this is written as /r/ for the sake of simplicity. But technically /r/ is the “rolled” r sound of a language like Spanish.
- /ʒ/ – the “s” in “pleasure” or “vision”, or the “g” in “genre”.
- /ʔ/ – a “glottal stop” – it's the pause in the middle of uh-oh. In many dialects, such as my British one, this sound can replace the /t/ in words like “water” or “Saturday”.
There's also the English <j> and <ch>. Both sounds are actually a combination of two consonants that I've already covered. So <j> in IPA is /dʒ/ and <ch> is /tʃ/.
IPA Vowel Chart
It's trickier to explain the IPA for English vowels, because they vary so much from dialect to dialect. Now is a good time to introduce the IPA vowel chart:
Look at the “vowels” table on this Wikipedia page. If you say the example words out loud, it should help you figure out the IPA vowels for your native English accent.
Pay attention to what your tongue is doing for each vowel. It should become clear how the above chart works. The position of a vowel on the diagram represents the position of the tongue within the mouth.
For example, for /i/ (the “ee” sound in “sheet”), your tongue is high and close to the teeth. For /ɑ/ (the “a” sound in “cargo” or the way posh Brits like me say “bath”), your tongue is low and retracted. There's a reason why dentists don't tell you to say “ee!”
Each position in the chart has two symbols. The symbol on the left is the “unrounded” version of the vowel, and the one on the right is the “rounded” version. This refers to the shape of your lips.
Say /i/ again: notice that your lips are spread wide in a smile. Now say /u/ (the “oo” in “shoot”): your tips are pursed tightly like they're puckered up for a kiss. That’s what “roundedness” means.
Learning new IPA Vowels
Let's go back to those unfamiliar German sounds from earlier. How do I pronounce the /y/? (This sound is usually written as <ü> in German.)
Looking at the vowel diagram, I can see that /y/ has the same tongue position as /i/. All I have to do is say /i/, but round my lips. That was easy! IPA makes it easy to learn new vowel sounds in any language.
First, find out the vowel's IPA symbol. You can usually get it by searching for “(name of language) phonology” or “IPA for (language)” on Wikipedia. Then find that symbol on the chart, and see how it relates to the vowels you already know how to say.
Another nice thing about Wikipedia is that it has a separate page for every sound (and its symbol). These pages usually have a list of languages that use that sound, with example words. So if you already speak multiple languages, you have more points of reference.
For example, if I go to the Wikipedia page for the /y/ sound, I see it isn't found in most English dialects. However, it is found in French, a language that I speak.
That's a valuable insight: the German <ü> is just like the <u> in the French chute. This makes it even easier to learn.
IPA Consonant Chart
The IPA consonant chart looks like this:
You can't really map consonants onto a picture of the mouth in the same way you can with vowels. Instead, consonants are classified based on three features:
- “Manner of articulation” – How you make the sound.
- “Place of articulation” – Where you make the sound.
- Whether the consonant is “voiced” or “unvoiced”.
For example, try saying /k/, /p/, and /t/. Did you notice the similarity in how you make each sound? They're called “stop consonants”” (also known as “plosives”). To form them, you cut off the airflow out of your mouth, then release it suddenly in a percussive little burst.
These three sounds all have the same manner of articulation (plosive), but a different place. /k/ comes from the back of your mouth, /p/ comes from the lips, and /t/ comes the tongue and the upper gums.
On the consonants chart, columns show the place and rows show manner. So /k/, /p/ and /t/ are all in different columns, but on the same row.
Likewise for the English “s”, “sh”, and “th” – in IPA, that's /s/, /ʃ/, and /θ/. They're all “fricatives”. To say them, you squeeze air out through a narrow gap in your mouth, making a turbulent hissing noise. Once again, the difference is only in the place of articulation.
Some cells have two symbols. /k/, /p/, and /t/ are all on the left-hand side of their cell. This means that they're “unvoiced” consonants; the right-hand symbol is the “voiced” version.
The difference between an “unvoiced” and “voiced” consonant is the difference between “t” and “d” (as in “tip” and “dip”), “s” and “z” (as in “sink” and “zinc”), “p” and “b” (as in “pat” and “bat”), or “k” and “g” (as in “kill” and “gill”). For each pair, the manner and place of articulation are the same. The only difference is that your vocal cords are engaged for longer during the “voiced” version. Say each pair out loud, and you should see what I mean.
Sometimes, the difference between two chart positions is considered imperceptible or unimportant. That's why some cells, like the one with /θ/, span more than one row or column.
Similarly, if an area of the chart is blank, it's because that combination of manner and place is considered impossible.
Look on the chart for the English consonants you know, and figure out why they are where they are. Once you've got to grips with this, it becomes easy to learn new consonant sounds.
For example, I recently learned some Arabic. It's full of weird and wonderful new consonants that aren't found in English, like /q/. (In Arabic this sound is written <ق>.) How do I pronounce this?
From the chart, I know that /q/:
- Is unvoiced
- Is a “stop”, like /k/ or /t/.
- Is “uvular”, meaning it comes from the very back of the mouth, at the uvula! (Compare with /k/, which is “velar”, meaning the back of the roof of the mouth.)
Put these three together and it's easy to pronounce /q/. It's like /k/ but even further back in the mouth, a very throaty sound. (You can hear it in the native pronunciation of “Qatar (قطر )”.)
Other Elements of IPA
The more IPA you learn, the more you'll realise how deep the topic of phonetics goes. You don't need it all unless you plan on a career in academic linguistics. But there are a few extra things worth quickly mentioning:
In IPA, the stressed syllable is denoted with a /ˈ/ written before the syllable. So the two pronunciations of <present> in English are /prɪˈzɛnt/ (for the verb) and /ˈprɛzənt/ (for the noun).
If the word has a secondary stressed syllable, use /ˌ/. E.g. <extraordinary> is /ɛkˈstrɔrdəˌnɛri/.
A “diacritic” is an extra symbol that you add to a letter, like the accent on “é”. E.g. when writing French or Portuguese in IPA, the “nasal” vowels have a tilde: “ã”.
IPA has 52 diacritics. I wouldn't worry about them at first. Like everything else in IPA, you can just figure stuff out from Wikipedia as and when you need it.
Broad vs. Narrow Transcription
You'll sometimes see IPA written with square brackets rather than slashes. This is the difference between “narrow” and “broad” transcription.
Remember the two different “p”s in “paper”? In English, the distinction between these two sounds doesn't really matter. If you get it wrong, native speakers will hardly notice, and it won't change the meaning of the word.
In a “broad” transcription of English, you give the general outline of the pronunciation, using slashes. So <paper> would be /ˈpeɪpə/. In a “narrow” transcription you give as much detail as possible, and you use square brackets: [ˈpʰeɪpə].
Technically, [pʰ] and [p] are different phones (units of sound). Whether or not they're different phonemes (units of sound that convey meaning) depends on the language.
In English, they're not different phonemes. But in Korean they are – if you say [pʰ] when you should have said [p], it can completely change the meaning of a word! So you can ignore the [pʰ]/[p] distinction in a broad transcription of English, but you shouldn't ignore it in a broad transcription of Korean.
Exercises to Practice Your IPA Pronunciation
Now that you've got this far, can you read these examples of English words and phrases in IPA? (I used this site to get transcriptions of the American pronunciations.)
- /ðə kæt sæt ɑn ðə mæt/
- /ˈfluənt ɪn θri mʌnθs/
- /ˌɪntərˈnæʃənəl fəˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəˌbɛt /
Choose Your Own IPA Adventure
Learning IPA is like a “choose your own adventure” book. I can't tell you exactly where to go from here – it depends on your goals.
What language do you want to learn? Do you just want a quick boost to your pronunciation ability? Or are you interested in “going deep” and learning the finer details of phonetics and linguistics?