The IPA – A Language Learner’s Secret Weapon

My American accent used to slip into every language I learned. I’ve never been good at impressions, and I was equally bad at guessing how new sounds worked. What I needed was a clear explanation how the Spanish was different from the English and the French and the Russian and… well, you get the idea. Whenever I made progress on producing a sound, I took precise notes so I could practice later. Sometimes, though, those notes would end up looking like gibberish. Japanese r might sound like a cross between English l, r, and d, but once I forgot the sound I was aiming for, no combination of l’sr’s, and d’s sounded right.

In 1888, the International Phonetic Association was facing a similar problem: how do you represent a sound without using, well, sound? The phonograph had just barely been invented, and there was still no reliable way to make recordings. (Wax cylinders were too easily crushed or melted.) So, scientists studying language needed a way to share their data through writing.

Enter the International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA is a standard writing system designed to cover every sound in human speech. For example, “bird” is pronounced /bɝd/ in American English, /bûd/ in British English, and /bɜːd/ in Australian English.

The International Phonetic Alphabet as of 2015
Source: Wikimedia


The IPA is the ultimate sound-explaining tool. Not only does it have a symbol for every sound, but it also sorts those sounds by “place” and “manner”. In other words, it shows you exactly how to shape your mouth and use your vocal chords to make each sound.

For example, /t/ and /n/ have the same “place” – the roof of your mouth, behind your teeth. But, they differ in “manner”. /t/ is a stop, which means you don’t release any air while you’re shaping your mouth. /n/ is a nasal, which means you send the air through your nose (instead of your mouth).

The way to pronounce /t/ and /n/ might seem obvious, but you’ll be grateful for the IPA when you need to say /ʘ/ or / Ɣ/! I certainly am.

Most languages aren’t written in the IPA, so you’ll also need to know a little about the phonology (sound system) of the language. A surprisingly good resource for this is Wikipedia. For example, check out the article on French phonology: Most formal grammars of languages also start with an introduction to the sound system in IPA.

I recommend the IPA for any language learner who struggles with new sounds. My pronunciation still isn’t perfect, but I start out with more confidence and a clearer understanding than I’ve ever had before.

Some good resources for learning IPA include:

Have fun, and /gʊd lʌk/ (“good luck”)!