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Understanding International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

Welcome Back,

Today we are here to understand the International Phonetic alphabet, also known as IPA.

We have already understood what articulators are and how they are used in speech.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then please read the following articles first.

Pronunciation – Know Your Articulators (Part 1)

Pronunciation – Know Your Articulators (Part 2)

Before we learn how to pronounce the letters of the English alphabet, let’s understand something very important.

IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)

IPA is a blessing! It solves a huge problem for us. I told you in the previous articles that English is a non-phonetic language, which means you can’t decide the pronunciation of a word by just looking at its spelling.
Example – ‘a’ can be pronounced in many different sounds in different words, like – Apple, Aim, lAugh, Above
Say the above-mentioned words and notice that although it is the same letter, it sounds different in each word!! what a confusing language!!

IPA is a set of symbols which was specially invented for English, French and German language (now expanded to other languages as well), with great preciseness and carefulness, to help the students learn the languages easily.

In IPA each symbol has a distinct sound so you won’t get confused. Although the symbols can be a little difficult to remember at times, once you get used to it, it would make pronunciation a child’s play for you, and rather fun.

It is indeed a revolutionary invention that helps us learn the pronunciation of a language smoothly.

Below we have all the IPA symbols used for English. We are going to concentrate on English pronunciation only, but this can be helpful for other languages as well.



Many of the symbols mentioned above are the same as the letters in the English alphabet which makes it quite easy to understand.

I hope you already know that English Alphabet is divided into 2 parts

There are 5 vowels and 21 consonant LETTERS.
Do you see that I have highlighted the word ‘Letters’? That’s because we might have 5 vowel letters but we have 20 vowel SOUNDS.
And although we have 21 consonant letters, the Sounds are 24 in number.

We are going to learn all of these sounds, NOT letters, in these articles.

By the way, do you know why we have this division between vowels and consonants?
It’s because of the way they are pronounced.

When we pronounce any of the vowel sounds, there is no obstruction of the air, that means none of the articulators touches each other. So, the air flows freely from our lungs and out. Only our vocal cords vibrate.
On the other hand, when producing a consonant sound, there is some or the other obstruction which changes the free flow of the air.
Example -When saying /b/ we keep our lips closed and then open them so that the air is released suddenly and hence the sound is produced.

Do you see something in the way I have written /b/?
It is between two slashes.
These slashes are very important for IPA because these tell us that it is Sound and NOT a letter.
So, it needs to be pronounced accordingly. We also use brackets to show the IPA symbols, but it is more technical and we are not going to move in that direction for it is not needed. Still, if you feel like reading more about it, you can always search online.

But how does IPA work?
It works in combination. Have you ever noticed that while searching for a meaning on Google or in a dictionary, there are these symbols close to the word like the one in the picture below?

Google Pronnunciation


This is the IPA transcription to help us pronounce the words correctly.
Just like letters come together to form words, IPA symbols combine together to show the pronunciation of the words.

But now one important question that arises is ‘why do we need this transcription when there is an audio available right next to it?’ We can just listen to the audio or a living person; won’t that be better and easier?
Yes, true. Listening to an audio will most definitely help you produce the sound, but IPA helps us when vocals alone fail to help.

Let’s see how:

1. When audio is missing –

A non-digital dictionary does not have audio in it. Then how will you listen to the audio? When you don’t have your phone or anyone, you have IPA.

2. The symbols are consistent –

This means they stay the same and don’t change from person to person. But as soon as we move to spoken sounds, malformations is possible. There are many times the person who is teaching pronunciation may end up misguiding you unintentionally, but the symbols will always tell you the specific sound.

3. IPA is highly specific –

This means that each symbol has clear instructions of how it is spoken. By this, I mean that it has been told-

Where the articulators will be placed – this is called “The Place of Articulation”
How the air will move amid the articulators to produce the sound – known as “Manner of Articulation”

This is extremely helpful, as it makes a person self-aware of his/her articulators and hence you don’t need to see inside someone’s mouth! Well not always.
If you remember the last two articles of the Learning English Series, you must have got the hint that to pronounce any sound you need to move and place your articulators correctly or you would end up speaking some other sound.

IPA helps us in being accurate and decreases the chance of mistakes.

Hence we can conclude that spoken sounds and IPA are both equally important in Learning Pronunciation.

We will understand this further when we start learning the letters and their sounds. In the next article, we will start with the consonants.

Till then here are some links if you want to read a little further.

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    Useful tips and easy language to understand, make it interesting. I would prefer the information over any other available resources on the same. I great work. Expecting more stuff on the same. Good luck!!

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