I’d like to talk about one of the most underappreciated tools available to language learners: IPA.

No, I’m not talking about “Indian Pale Ales,” though slight inebriation certainly can help some overcome the fear of conversing in a foreign language. The IPA I am referring to in today’s post is the “International Phonetic Alphabet.” I first learned about this powerful phonetic transcription system while studying Linguistics in university, and it has been an indispensable part of my language learning toolkit ever since.

Without further ado, here is the complete IPA chart, courtesy of the International Phonetic Association (Copyright © 2018 International Phonetic Association, Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License). As you can see, many of the symbols are familiar to you already as a speaker of English. You may recognize others if you know the Greek or Cyrillic alphabets.

It may feel a little overwhelming at first to see so many unfamiliar symbols and linguistic terms, but keep in mind that:

  • You only need to learn a small subset of the total symbols (only those that represent your native and target languages). For example, here are the IPA symbols used for Japanese.
  • There are a number of great tools available today to help you learn the IPA quickly (see the resources below).
  • And most importantly, learning the IPA will provide the following three powerful advantages.

1) The IPA makes us more aware of how words are really pronounced

Ideally, we should learn how to speak a language well before we learn how to read and write it. We can then more easily attach spellings and writing conventions to words we already understand and know how to pronounce. In practice, however, we will inevitably get a mix of spoken and written input alongside each other (especially as adult learners). While reading can be a wonderful way to immerse ourselves in our target language, it comes with a potentially problematic side effect: we can pick up bad pronunciation habits when we think a word is pronounced one way but it’s actually pronounced another. For example, I thought that word “hyperbole” was pronounced hyper-bowl for YEARS until the proper pronunciation was brought to my attention by a teacher (Unfortunately for my fragile teenage self-esteem, the error was revealed in front of the entire class!). Almost everyone has a few embarrassing pronunciation mistakes like this, created when we’ve only encountered a word with our eyes and never our ears.

But our eyes can be our allies, even with spelling, when we learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. As Gabriel Wyner points out in his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It:

“We’re looking for a way to see what we’re hearing and, equally important, what we’re not hearing. Our eyes are a powerful source of input. If we aren’t careful, they can trick our ears into a state of inattention, and inattention can prevent us from learning the patterns we need.”

The beauty of the IPA is that each symbol can only be pronounced one—and only one—way. Always. Letters or characters in most languages, on the other hand, can be pronounced multiple ways. Take for example, the English letter E. Depending on the word—and where in the word it’s found—it can be pronounced numerous different ways.

  • A “short” E like in empty
  • A “long” E like in key
  • A “long” A like in résumé
  • A “schwa” like in taken
  • A “silent” E like in axe

But if you know IPA, you will know exactly how each E should be pronounced in any given word, even if you’ve never heard it pronounced aloud:

  • empty ɛmpti/
  • key /ki/
  • résumé /’ʁɛz ʊˌm/
  • taken /ˈteɪkən/
  • axe /æks/ (not pronounced)

2) The IPA provides detailed pronunciation instructions

Each letter in the IPA is more than a mere symbol. It’s actually a mini instruction manual on exactly how to position your tongue, teeth, and lips, and whether your vocal cords should be vibrating or not. When you learn the IPA, you realize, for example, that S and Z, K and G, T and D, etc. are all “minimal pairs”: they are all produced in exactly the same “manner of articulation” (the same tongue, lip, and palate positions), and differ only in their “voicing” (vibration of the vocal cords). Cool, right?!

So as you learn the IPA symbols for your target language, you also learn the exact ways you should position your tongue, lips, and teeth to sound more like a native speaker. To that end, I highly recommend watching videos that demonstrate proper mouth positions (see the resource list below).

3) The IPA helps you master new foreign sounds more quickly

Learning the IPA for your target language will take a bit of time and effort up front, but it will actually save you a significant amount of time and effort in the long run. Instead of having to unlearn bad pronunciation habits, the IPA helps you develop accurate pronunciation from the beginning. Instead of guessing or risking false assumptions, you will know exactly how to pronounce any given word you encounter. Moreover, the extra layer of information provided by the IPA improves your awareness and memory (it may seem counterintuitive, but adding complexity and challenge actually improves our memory).

IPA Tools & Resources

  • International Phonetic Alphabet chart: This Wikipedia page includes interactive charts to see and hear all of the standard IPA symbols, as well as a downloadable PDF of the revised 2018 chart.
  • Handbook of the International Phonetic Association: This comprehensive guide introduces all IPA symbols, how they’re used in various world languages, the alphabet’s history, and much more.
  • MIT’s IPA Converter & Learning Tool: Quiz yourself on IPA symbols or paste a word to see its IPA transcription.
  • Fluent Forever: Gabriel Wyner’s awesome new app (the most funded app in crowdfunding history!) relies extensively on IPA and mouth diagrams to help you develop accurate, native-like pronunciation from the very beginning. In addition to the app, I also highly recommend his book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It, as well as the companion pronunciation and ear training resources on his site. And don’t miss my interview with Gabe on The Language Mastery Show.
  • Glossika: This site and web app leverages spaced repetition, native speaker audio, and an innovative “mass sentence method” to help you reach fluency faster. I especially like that all sentences are transcribed in both the target language and IPA. Check out my interview with Glossika founder Mike Campbell on The Language Mastery Show.
  • YouTube: Search for your target language + “IPA” or “mouth positions” to see and hear proper pronunciation patterns.
  • Wiktionary: Dubbed “The Free Dictionary,” this open source Wikimedia resource includes detailed definitions and IPA transcriptions for many world languages.
  • Dictionary.com app: For those wanting to see the IPA transcription of English words, check out the app version of Dictionary.com, available for iOS and Android. The web version, unfortunately, only shows clunky “spelling style” transcriptions, not IPA.
  • The IPA Alphabet: How and Why You Should Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (With Charts): This detailed guest post on Fluent in 3 Months by George Millo Ayancan provides a detailed overview of the IPA, why it’s useful for aspiring polyglots, and how best to learn it.
  • Lingthusiasm: In episode 6 of the Lingthusiasm podcast, hosts Lauren Gawne and Gretchen McCulloch talk about the history of the International Phonetic Alphabet, its inner workings, and even share some IPA games!

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