Many of us know what the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)is – sort of. You’ve probably seen it in a dictionary before – characters slightly resembling the English alphabet written to the right of a word, e.g. \fə-ˈne-tik\. Many know that it explains how to pronounce the word. Very few of us actually know how to read these characters, however, as the IPA is largely ignored by the average citizen. It’s a shame, because knowing the IPA has great benefits!
Aside from avoiding the embarrassing faux pas of incorrectly pronouncing your fancy new vocabulary word at a party, it can actually help you improve in a foreign language! While it won’t teach you grammar structure or new vocabulary, it can improve an area people often overlook: pronunciation.
The IPA details how to represent sound without relying on one single language spelling. It established a set of alphabetical characters that can explain how to make almost any human sound, by explaining both where sounds are made in the mouth, and how humans perceive those sounds. This is extremely important to know, because most humans are not conscious of how to make sounds. When born, we have the ability to make any and every sound, but when we learn our first language, we lose the ability to pick up any sounds which we aren’t exposed to.
Thankfully, we can still make those sounds! We just have to learn how, and that’s where the IPA comes into play. Take a look at this chart below:
The horizontal row depicts the place of articulation. In basic terms, this is where sounds are made, such as when two lips meet (bilabial) or when the tip of the tongue touches the back of the top teeth (dental). The vertical row depicts manner of articulation. While a bit more difficult to explain, essentially this how the sound is made, or the interaction between the speech organs (tongue, lips, air, palate, etc.) when making sounds. For example, a plosive is sound is made when we briefly stop the air stream, then letting it go. In English, this would be a "p" or "b" sound.
Learning the IPA can be quite the challenge; as evidenced above, there are many, many ways sounds are made. However, once you have it down pat, learning pronunciation of any language is much easier.
Here’s an example: in French, you aren't sure how to pronounce the “n” sound in the word “agneau” (“lamb”) but you know the IPA spelling is [aˈɲo]. The [ɲ] character is a palatal nasal. A palatal occurs when the tongue presses against the hard palate (or roof of the mouth), and a nasal occurs when air escapes through the nose. By copying these two movements, you should be able to make this sound!
This example is a bit on the easier side, because we have a similar sound in English. Some languages have sounds you may have never heard - and certainly not made - before. That’s okay! While it may be a struggle at first, by knowing the place and manner of articulation, you should be able to recreate the sound.
Learning the IPA is quite complex, and we only provided a brief introduction. For those struggling with pronunciation however, we highly recommend a closer look! If you've used the IPA to learn a new language, let us know in the comments.