The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was developed to help you learn any language. The key detail though is in the name. It is indeed an international system of spelling and transcription. So, how can I use IPA to correct my pronunciation? What is IPA? IPA is the group of strange letters that appear next to...
The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was developed to help you learn any language. The key detail though is in the name. It is indeed an international system of spelling and transcription. So, how can I use IPA to correct my pronunciation?
What is IPA?
IPA is the group of strange letters that appear next to words you look up in a dictionary. If you are unfamiliar with them, they might look like a completely different language. Maybe you are thinking that learning them would be too much work. After all, you already have other language and accent goals to focus on. But, in the long run, it can actually be a very useful tool to use as a quick pronunciation reference.
How can I use IPA?
IPA can be used to identify sounds and remember them since English spelling patterns are infamously unpredictable. To give an example, the words “won” and “one” are pronounced exactly the same in English, so the IPA spelling is also the same for both: wʌn. Once you learn a specific sound (like Short U) and identify it with the IPA symbol (ʌ), then you can just look at the dictionary to see the correct pronunciation, regardless of how the word is spelled. IPA can be especially useful when it comes to deciphering the confusing vowel system used in English.
What are monophthongs and diphthongs?
American English has many Long Vowels. In phonetics, these are given the name “diphthongs”. That means there are two mouth positions involved in making the sound, rather than only one position. When a sound has only one mouth position, it is called a “monophthong”. In English, the short vowel sounds are monophthongs.
How can I tell if a vowel is long or short?
Listen for movement. When you hear movement in the vowel sound, it is long– a diphthong. If you listen to native speakers and they don’t put movement in the vowel sound, that means it’s short– a monophthong. Another way to confirm what you hear is to look the word up in a dictionary. Take for example this simple word you hear every day: “no”. If you look it up, you will find the following IPA transcription next to the word: noʊ. Notice there are two IPA symbols representing the two positions needed to make the Long O diphthong. Now, take a look at the word, “not”. Here you see the IPA only shows one symbol (ɒ) for the Short O monophthong.
What makes IPA international?
This International Phonetic Alphabet can be applied to any language. IPA highlights the similarity between sounds used in different languages. Every language has different spelling rules, but the IPA is straight forward. No silent letters. No letter combinations. You simply read what you see.
However, the fact that IPA can be applied to any language means it is not specific to any particular accent. IPA does not tell you how to change your accent.
For example, in the English word “set” (sɛt), the Short E sound is represented by the IPA symbol “ɛ”. That same symbol is used for similar sounds in other languages, like the Spanish word “qué” (kɛ). The English Short E has less tension and is pronounced farther forward in the mouth, compared to the Spanish E. Notice how the accent and pronunciation are different in the two languages, but the IPA symbol does not show that difference.
What if I see different IPA symbols for the same sound?
Another complication with using IPA is that there is no standardized system regarding which symbol to use. When American English features a sound not found in most other languages, the IPA symbol used in dictionaries can vary. One dictionary might put one symbol while another uses another similar symbol. This can be observed with the Lax Short U found in the word “good”. The IPA rendering on Dictionary.com shows it as “gʊd” while Merriam-Webster shows “gu̇d”. Both versions refer to the same sound, but they use different symbols. The good thing is most dictionaries are consistent with their own internal use of IPA. That means the Lax Short U is always “ʊ” on Dictionary.com and always “u̇” on Merriam-Webster.
Conclusion – Use IPA, but don’t rely on it
IPA is a helpful tool. But you have to know what it can do and what it cannot do. IPA can help you know which American sound to use for a particular word, but it cannot help you learn how that sound is different from similar sounds in other languages. Insufficient details regarding specific accents and inconsistent use of the symbols by dictionaries mean IPA is not the panacea that some make it out to be.
Where can I find what IPA doesn’t show?
IPA does not show you details specific to a particular accent, such as subtle differences in tongue movements and position. So you will have to consult an accent coach or someone who can give you the feedback needed to get the right sound.
Sign up for accent reduction classes or diction coaching. An experienced accent or dialect coach can tell you which specific sounds the IPA symbols refer to and teach you how to master the American version of each one. With the proper support and input, IPA can be a great reference tool as you learn to control your accent and pronunciation.