15 September 2020

International Phonetic Alphabet and Effective English Learning

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What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

You might have already seen special signs used in dictionaries for phonetic transcription. These signs belong to the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA, the most popular notation system designed to represent the sounds of spoken languages. The problem the IPA is trying to solve is to provide a method for a precise transcription of sounds, making it easier for non-native speakers to recognize the nuances of a spoken language.

The IPA is based on the Latin alphabet and can be used for all languages. It extends the Latin alphabet with new symbols, which are necessary to describe sounds unique to each language, such as:

  • German and French ø as in Österreich - /ˈøːstəʁaɪç/ and eux- /ø/.
  • Portuguese /ʁ/ as in Rio /ʁiu/.
  • Japanese /t͡ɕ/ and /d͡ʑ/ as in chijin 知人 /t͡ɕiʑiɴ/ or /t͡ɕid͡ʑiɴ/.

Why was the IPA created?

Before moving to the description of English IPA symbols, let’s understand why this phonetic notation system exists. The IPA was created in 1888 after the establishment of the International Phonetic Association (1886). The primary goal of this alphabet was to provide a symbol for each sound of speech. The IPA was initially intended to serve mostly pedagogical purposes.

These days, the IPA is used to precisely transcribe speech by diverse groups of people and for various purposes:

  • Students learning a second language: the IPA is used to teach the phonetics of a foreign language. It helps to learn the correct pronunciation of foreign words and come closer to a native-like pronunciation..
  • Linguists: Linguists use the IPA to precisely transcribe speech and compare the phonetic systems of languages.
  • Speech pathologist: the IPA can be used to indicate problematic sounds and explain articulation problems to patients.
  • Singers: transcriptions are used to precisely reproduce sounds of non-native languages. For example, opera singers often rely on the IPA when they prepare parts written in foreign languages. The major part of the operatic repertoire is written in Russian, French, Italian, and German.
  • Actors: actors sometimes have to produce phrases in languages they do not know. In this case, scripts include transcriptions in the IPA.
  • Translators: when working with audiovisual materials, translators can rely on the IPA to look up unknown words.

How the IPA helps you master foreign languages?

The main reason to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet is to become able to produce correct and understandable speech. For example, in English spelling is often misleading:

  • Letters combinations can create confusion: the pronunciation of “wind” is distinct from “mind” and “blind”.
  • Silent letters occur frequently: letters r, l, b, h, k, n, p, s, t and w can be silent as in knock, knowledge, doubt, climb, scissors, honest, ghost, psychology, or Wednesday.
  • Unstressed sounds become schwa.
  • Foreign words undergo unpredictable modifications as in restaurant, fiancé, mariage, umbrella, average, or slaughter.

The IPA sounds unique to English

Students should pay special attention to English sounds missing from their mother tongue. This list varies from language to language, but, overall, the following sounds are worth the attention:

  • /θ/ and /ð/ as in think and these.
  • /r/: the English /r/ differs from the similar sounds in other languages (e.g., Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, among many others). Moreover, the pronunciation of /r/ differs between the British and American pronunciations.
  • /m/, /n/, /p/, /b/: these sounds are found in the majority of languages. Nevertheless, don’t forget that they are pronounced more vividly and actively in English, especially the American variant.
  • /ŋ/: a nasal sound missing from many languages.
  • /l/: French speakers often pronounce it softly.

How to learn the correct English pronunciation?

  1. Start with reading the descriptions of all English sounds, which you can find right in the next section.

    Benefits: the sounds description accompanied by illustrations will help you to clarify how you can improve your articulation while producing specific sounds. The descriptions will come in handy especially if your mother tongue does not contain some sounds or they are slightly different from those in English.

  2. Learn the symbols representing the sounds

    Benefits: while reading the description, try to memorize the phonemes symbols if you have not done it yet. The awareness of the English IPA symbols will help you further in you learning:

    For example, you will be able to

    • quickly look up a word if you are not sure of its pronunciation;
    • learn the right pronunciation of English words right away;
    • indicate the phonemes that require some further practice.

    So, don’t hesitate to look through the phonemes chart on a regular basis to memorize the symbols for good.

  3. Practice the right phoneme pronunciation

    Benefits: practice makes perfect. The simple knowledge of English IPA and the awareness of the right articulation will not make your accent impeccable. To reach the native-like level of pronunciation, you should practice the most troublesome sounds of the English language. The hurdle is that mastering sounds of a foreign language requires an independent observer. We naturally try to "similarize" the new sounds to the ones we are used to speak. One of efficient ways to do so is to use technology-driven tools such as Accent Hero. Real-time feedback and visual comparison data will make it a bit easier to discover sounds that need practice.

The IPA Symbols of English

The IPA vowels include such symbols as /ɛ/, /æ/, /ʌ/, /ɑ/, /ɪ/, /ə/, /ʊ/, /ɔ/, /i:/, /u:/, /ɝ/, /ɚ/. Among them, there are seven short sounds ( /ɛ/, /æ/, /ʌ/, /ɑ/, /ɪ/, /ə/, /ʊ/) and three long sounds (/ɔ:/, /i:/, /u:/), two R-colored vowel sounds ( /ɝ/ and /ɚ/). Plus, there are also six diphthongs: /ɑɪ/, /aʊ/, /ɔɪ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /ɑu/.

Short vowels

/ɛ/, /æ/, /ʌ/, /ɑ/, /ɪ/, /ə/, /ʊ/

Sound /ɛ/

phoneme image EH1 Starting position: the mouth is partially opened, lips are relaxed and slightly spread, the jaw is relaxed as well. Push the tongue forward, right to the front of your mouth, then round the back of the tongue slightly upward. The sides of your mouth may touch the side teeth. Remember that your lips, tongue, and jaw should be loose and relaxed.

Sound /æ/

phoneme image AE1 The majority of languages do not include this sound, so it is specific to English. Pay attention to this sound since Americans and the British pronounce /æ/ in different manners. Starting position: the mouth is flat and open very widely, lips are spread and tense. Push the front of your tongue forward. Note that the tongue should be positioned very low in your mouth. Make sure that the body of the tongue is slightly rounded upward. The tip of your tongue should reach the incisors (the bottom front teeth).

Comment: the majority of languages do not include this sound, so it is specific to English.

Sound /ʌ/

phoneme image AH1 Starting position: the mouth is open a little bit, lips are relaxed and put in the neutral position, there is no need to round them. Place the tongue in the middle of your mouth or slightly back. Pronounce the sound.

Sound schwa /ə/

phoneme image AE0 The sound schwa /ə/ is a reduced vowel sound that appears in the following cases: 1. unstressed syllables of multisyllabic words (for example, in such words as "freedom", "album"); 2. reduced vowels of function words (for example, "a", "and"). Starting position: mouth, tongue, lips, and jaw should be completely relaxed, there should be no tension. Slightly open your mouth and just vocalize it. Keep in mind that /ə/ is a very "lazy" sound that lets us speak faster.

Comment: the sound schwa /ə/ is a reduced vowel sound that appears in the following cases:

  1. unstressed syllables of multisyllabic words (for example, in such words as "freedom", "album");
  2. reduced vowels of function words (for example, "a", "and").

Sound /ɪ/

phoneme image IH1 Starting position: your lips have to be relaxed and not rounded. Put the tongue in the central or upper area of your mouth; it should reach the bottom front teeth. Pronounce the sound and simultaneously stretch out your lips.

Sound /ʊ/

phoneme image UH1 Starting position: the lips are pulled forward, they form a loose circle. Keep your lips relaxed and slightly open. Raise the back of your tongue to a mid-high position in your mouth, it should be lower than those in the sound /u:/. The jaw should be kept slightly closed. Push the air out of your mouth and use your vocal cords to pronounce the sound /ʊ/.

Sound /ɑ/

phoneme image AA1 Starting position: the mouth is open as wide as possible; the lips are loose and relaxed in the neutral position. Place the tongue in the center of your mouth and flatten it. The tip touches the bottom front teeth.

Long vowels

Sound /ɔ/

phoneme image AO1 Starting position: the lips are rounded. Pull the tongue to the back of your mouth. Make sure that it takes a low position in the mouth. Slightly push your lips together to make the long sound /ɔ/.

Sound /i:/

phoneme image IY1 Starting position: lips should not be rounded, mouth is slightly open. Place your tongue high and forward in the mouth. The front sides of your tongue may touch the sides of the upper teeth. Produce the long /i:/ sound by stretching out your lips like for a smile.

Sound /u:/

phoneme image UW1 Starting position: the lips have to be rounded and tense; together they form a small circle. Raise the back of your tongue to a high position. The sides of your tongue may touch the top teeth but only at the back part of the mouth. Pronounce the long sound /u:/.

Vowels unique to American English

Sound /ɝ/

phoneme image ER1 The sound /ɝ/ is an American R-colored sound. Basically, the sound /ɝ/ includes the combination of /ɛ/+ /r/. Starting position: lips are neutral/slightly rounded. The mouth is open. The tongue has to be very tense while articulating. Raise the tip of the tongue to the upper front teeth, more precisely, to the alveolar ridge. There is no need to touch it. Crawl back the tip and lower the body of your tongue while producing the sound.

Comment: the sound /ɝ/ includes the combination of /ɛ/+ /r/; it is a specifically American R-colored sound.

Sound /ɚ/

phoneme image ER0 The sound /ɚ/ is an American R-colored sound, it is the combination of schwa /ə/ and /r/. Starting position: the lips are loose and placed in the neutral position or rounded a little bit. The tongue and lips should be relaxed. During the articulation, the mouth remains slightly open.

Comment: /ɚ/ is an American R-colored sound, it is the combination of schwa /ə/ and /r/.

Diphthongs or double vowels

Diphthong is a combination of two vowels merged together by gliding. English includes the following diphthongs: /ɑɪ/, /aʊ/, /ɔɪ/, /eɪ/, /oʊ/, /ɑu/.

Diphthong /ɑɪ/

phoneme image AY1 Starting position: the mouth is open as wide as possible; the lips are relaxed. Position 1 - /ɑ/: the tongue is positioned very low; the tip touches the bottom front teeth. The jaw is dragged down allowing the mouth to open widely. Position 2 - /ɪ/: the central part of the tongue moves upward until it reaches the proximity to the tooth ridge. The movement of the tongue takes place simultaneously with the jaw closing slightly. The sides of the tongue can touch the top side teeth. The jaw and the tongue move back to the neutral position.

Diphthong /aʊ/

phoneme image AW1 Starting position: the mouth is open as wide as possible; the lips are relaxed. Position 1 - /a/: the tongue is flat and positioned low in the mouth; the tip touches the bottom front teeth. Position 2 - /ʊ/: the jaw moves up and closes. Crawl the back of your tongue to your throat. The lips are rounded in a loose circle.

Diphthong /ɔɪ/

phoneme image OY1 the mouth is open as wide as possible; the lips are rounded. Position 1 - /ɔ/: make sure that the tongue is flat and positioned very low in your mouth; the tip touches the bottom front teeth. Position 2 - /ɪ/: the jaw moves up and closes. The tongue is relaxed and pushed forward; it is positioned in the upper part of the mouth.

Diphthong /eɪ/

phoneme image EY1 Starting position: the mouth is open; the tense lips are spread wide. Position 1 - /e/: your tongue is positioned high; it should be close to the roof of the mouth. The tip should remain low and down. Position 2 - /ɪ/: the jaw begins to close. The middle of the tongue is set upward until it reaches the tooth ridge. The sides of the tongue can touch the top teeth.

Diphthong /oʊ/

phoneme image OW1 Starting position: the lips are tense and rounded; Position 1 - /o/ the jaw moves down. The tongue is tense and positioned in the back of the mouth. Position 2 - /ʊ/: the jaw moves up, while the lips are put into a small circle. The tongue moves further upwards. The middle part of the tongue is near the hard palate.

Diphthong /ɑu/

phoneme image AW2 Starting position: the mouth is open as wide as possible; the lips are relaxed. Position 1 - /a/: the tongue is flat and positioned low in the mouth; the tip touches the bottom front teeth. Position 2 - /ʊ/: the jaw moves up and closes. Crawl the back of your tongue to your throat. The lips are rounded in a loose circle.

Voiced consonants

Sound /b/

phoneme image B Voiced sound. Starting position: lips are held together. The sound is produced by the lips preventing air from leaving the vocal tract. Make your lips tense, and then release the pressure while using your voice to create the sound /b/.

Sound /d/

phoneme image D Voiced sound.There are two types of the /d/ sound: Aspirated: the beginning of words (e.g., "do", "door") stressed syllables (e.g., Bangladesh); Unaspirated: at the end of words (e.g., “end”, “bed”). The unaspirated sound /d/ follows by the final stop. Starting position: the lips are slightly open. The tip of your tongue should be near the upper front teeth, on your alveolar ridge. Stop the flow of air with the help of this tongue position. Use your voice (vocal cords) to pronounce the sound /d/. Release the flow of air.

Comment: The /d/ sound might be pronounced as aspirated in the beginning of words (e.g., “do”, “door”) and in stressed syllables (e.g., Bangladesh). At the end of words (e.g., “end”, “bed”), the unaspirated /d/ is followed by the final stop.

Sound /g/

phoneme image G Voiced sound. Starting position: the mouth is open, lips are placed in the neutral position and relaxed. Bounce the back of your tongue against the velum. Prevent the puff of air from leaving the mouth by using the described position of your tongue. Use your vocal cords while releasing the air.

Sound /v/

phoneme image V Voiced sound. Starting position: the lips are put in the neutral position, open, and relaxed; the tongue is placed low and also relaxed; the jaw is almost closed. Press your upper incisors to the bottom lip. Bounce the upper front teeth against the bottom lip while pushing the air of the mouth. Use your vocal cords.

Sound /ð/

phoneme image DH Voiced sound. Starting position: the lips are relaxed and slightly open. The tip of your tongue should be placed between the upper and bottom incisors. Create the friction by pushing the air, bounce the tongue against the upper front teeth. Use your vocal cords to produce the sound.

Sound /z/

phoneme image Z Voiced sound. Starting position: put the relaxed lips in the neutral position, the mouth should be slightly open. Place the frontal part of your tongue near to the upper tooth ridge. Slightly press the upper tooth backside with the tip of your mouth. Slightly spread your lips. Make sure that your tongue is tense enough while pushing the air out. Use your vocal cords.

Sound /ʒ/

phoneme image ZH Voiced sound. Starting position: the lips are pulled forward and slightly tense and open. Raise the body of your tongue to the root of your mouth; don’t touch it - there should be a gap between these two parts. Use your vocal cords to create the given fricative.

Sound /dʒ/

phoneme image JH Voiced sound. The combination of the stop sound /d/ and the fricative sound /ʒ/. Starting position: the mouth is slightly open, the lips are pushed forward. First, put the tip on the alveolar ridge (behind the upper front teeth) to produce the /d/ sound. Push the air and stop it using your tongue. Second, to release the air, put the tongue in the position for the /ʒ/ sound: raise the central part of your tongue to the upper part of your mouth leaving the gap between them, add your voice.

Sound /m/

phoneme image M Voiced sound. Starting position: the lips are pressed together. Keep the lips closed to make sure that the air is not being released from the mouth. Redirect the air from your mouth into your nose.

Sound /n/

phoneme image N Voiced sound. Starting position: the lips are relaxed, might be slightly open. Press the tongue tip against the alveolar ridge to stop the air. Redirect the air to your nose.

Sound /ŋ/

phoneme image NG Voiced nasal sound. Starting position: the lips are relaxed, might be slightly open. Pull the back of your mouth to the throat to prevent the air from coming out of your mouth. Redirect the air to your nose.

Sound /l/

phoneme image L Voiced sound. Starting position: the mouth is slightly open. Press the tip of your tongue against the alveolar ridge; lower the back of your tongue. Use your vocal cords to pronounce /l/.

Sound /r/

phoneme image R Voiced sound. Starting position: the mouth is slightly open; lips are a bit rounded. The tip of your tongue is positioned near the alveolar ridge but doesn’t touch it. Crawl back the tip of the tongue and lower the central body of the tongue. Raise the tongue back to the initial neutral position.

Sound /w/

phoneme image W Semi-consonant/semi-vowel. Voiced sound. Starting position: the mouth is open, the lips are rounding forming a tight circle. Place the tongue in the neutral position in the middle of the mouth. Pull the tense tongue back and pronounce /w/.

Sound /j/

phoneme image Y Glide consonant sound. Starting position: the mouth is slightly open, the lips are in the neutral position. Position the body of your tongue high in the mouth. The tip must be held low. The air should glide over the tongue, and then come out of your mouth.

Unvoiced consonants

All unvoiced sounds should be produced with the use of your vocal cords.

Sound /p/

phoneme image P Unvoiced sound. Starting position: your lips should be held together. The sounds /p/ and /b/ are very similar in terms of their production. The main difference is that /p/ is produced by a puff of air and the lips' movement without the use of vocal cords. Put your lips together, make them tense, let go of the pressure simultaneously releasing the air.

Sound /t/

phoneme image T Unvoiced sound. Starting position: the lips are slightly open. Put the front of your tongue behind the upper front teeth, on your alveolar ridge. Prevent the air from coming out your mouth with the help of your tongue. Release the flow of air. There is no need to use the vocal cords to produce it.

Sound /k/

phoneme image K Unvoiced sound. Starting position: lips are open and relaxed. Bounce the back of your tongue against the velum, situated at the back of your mouth. Prevent the air from leaving the mouth with the help of your tongue. The sound /k/ is an unvoiced aspirated sound, so you don’t have to use your vocal cords while releasing the air.

Sound /f/

phoneme image F Unvoiced sound. Starting position: the lips are open and put in the neutral position; the tongue is placed low and relaxed. Lightly press your upper incisors to the bottom lip. Bounce the upper front teeth against the bottom lip while pushing the air of the mouth. The sound /f/ is unvoiced, so don't use your vocal cords

Sound /θ/

phoneme image TH Unvoiced sound. Starting position: the lips are relaxed and slightly open. Put the tip of your tongue between the upper and bottom front teeth. Create the friction by pushing the air. No need to use your vocal cords.

Sound /s/

phoneme image S Unvoiced sound. Starting position: put the relaxed lips in the neutral position; the mouth is slightly open. Place the tip of your tongue close to the bottom tooth ridge. Slightly spread your lips. Push the air out of the mouth. No need to use your vocal cords.

Sound /ʃ/

phoneme image SH Unvoiced sound. Starting position: the lips are rounded, slightly tense and open; they might be pushed forward a little bit. Raise the central part of your tongue close to the upper part of your mouth (don’t touch it - there should be a small gap between these two parts). Push the air over your tongue to create this fricative. Don't use your vocal cords.

Sound /h/

phoneme image HH Unvoiced sound. Starting position: the jaw and lips are relaxed and slightly open. Constrict the air passing through your mouth by using the back of your tongue. The production of the sound does not affect the placement and movements of your lips. As a rule, the lips take the shapes defined by the production of surrounding sounds.

Sound /ʧ/

phoneme image CH Unvoiced sound. The combination of the stop sound /t/ and the fricative sound /ʃ/. Starting position: the mouth is slightly open, the lips are pushed out. The tip of your tongue is pressed against the alveolar ridge to produce the sound /t/ and stop the air. To release the air and produce the /ʃ/ sound, place your tongue near the roof of your mouth. Release the air through the gap between the tongue and the top of your mouth.

A phonetic challenge

The words below include all 44 English phonemes. Record your pronunciation of them and then compare your articulation with the one described above.

Conclusion

Almost all languages have unique sounds. Making sure that you pronounce words correctly is the essential step in mastering a foreign language. Thankfully, the new technology-driven tools, such as real-time pronunciation feedback, make this task easier than it was at the times when the IPA was created.

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