Have you ever wondered how to pronounce a word in a foreign language, but struggled because of the spelling? Or maybe you’ve seen an IPA symbol entry in a bilingual dictionary and been curious about what it’s for and how to read it. Today we’re going to bridge the gap and show you how IPA symbols can give you pronunciation “superpowers”! By the end of this article, you’ll know why the IPA can be helpful for any language learner, and how to best use it to your advantage. You can also scroll down to the bottom of the page to get all of the same information in a video!
What Is an IPA Symbol?
Generally speaking, the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is a system of phonetic notation developed in the 1800s based on the sounds of language. Basically, it’s a standard set of symbols that linguists use to transcribe the sounds of any language, including ones that don’t use the Latin alphabet, like Japanese and Arabic.
Essentially, it takes words from any language (and writing system) and transcribes them into a universal “alphabet” where each symbol has a very specific pronunciation. The table below illustrates how an IPA symbol can help you compare the pronunciation of three very different languages.
And it doesn’t just help linguists! The IPA can also help you, a language learner, when you want to figure out how to pronounce a particular word—if you know how to use it.
You might be thinking that you don’t need the IPA, since there are many ways to listen to the pronunciation of a word… and you’d be right! Knowing IPA notation isn’t a requirement by any means, but it is an extra resource that can help you figure out how to pronounce your target language as accurately as possible. Especially those tricky sounds that don’t exist in your native language.
It’s also great for those of us who have a more visual learning style. Let’s go over the main features of the IPA, as well as some examples, to see how it works.
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How to Read an IPA Symbol
Vowels in the IPA
Take the French vowel “u,” which can be quite challenging for non-native speakers, as an example. Let’s have a look at a few words that feature this letter:
As you can see, these words look similar, and the letter “u” can sound similar if your ear isn’t trained to hear the difference.
But thanks to the IPA, we know that they have two distinct sounds: one represented by the IPA symbol /u/ and the other by /y/. Not only that, but the IPA can also tell you how to produce those sounds.
Comparing languages using IPA symbol vowel charts
Each language has a different set of vowel phonemes, or sounds. Check out this comparison between a chart of all the Spanish vowel sounds and an American English one.
Spanish vowel chart
American English vowel chart
Picture these diagrams as a side view of your mouth. The charts essentially tell you where and what shape your lips and tongue should be.
On the y-axis, the closed vowels at the top require your tongue to be near the roof of your mouth as in the sound /i/ (bean – /bi:n/). Open vowels, which are near the bottom, have your tongue resting on the bottom of your mouth, as in the /ɑ/ sound (mom – /mɑm/).
Then on the x-axis, you have front, center, and back vowels, which describe where the highest point of your tongue should be: toward the front of your mouth, like for the /i/ sound again, where it is nearly between your teeth, or toward the back, like the /ʌ/ sound (umbrella – /ʌmˈbrɛlə/).
Try out those sounds and pay attention to where your tongue is.
Sometimes you’ll see two letters in the same position, for instance: /i/ and /y/ in the French vowel chart below.
French vowel chart
These two vowels represent the same sound, but one is rounded and the other is unrounded. So your tongue will be making the same shape for both, but your lips should be rounded for the vowels on the right-hand side of the dot, and unrounded for those on the left-hand side.
Some vowel charts you’ll find online also have audio for each sound, which is how I recommend studying them.
Consonants in the IPA
The IPA accounts for both pulmonic and non-pulmonic consonants. These are consonants that are produced using airflow from your lungs, or not.
This article focuses on pulmonic consonants because these are the most common and are the ones used in English. Non-pulmonic consonants include sounds like clicks, which are specific to some African languages.
For each language you’re learning, you’ll find a chart like this one:
Again, you’ll notice a horizontal and vertical axis. On the horizontal axis, you have place of articulation – where in the vocal tract the sound is being produced. And on the vertical axis, you have the manner – how it’s produced.
This article won’t go into every category, but I’ll give a couple of examples.
People learning English often struggle with the two sounds /θ/ and /ð/.
As you can see from the chart, these are dental sounds, meaning that your tongue is touching your upper teeth.
It’s a fricative, meaning that you’re restricting airflow, or forcing air to flow through a narrow area.
And as with vowels, if there are two symbols in the same box, like these two, they are the same sound. In this case, the right one is voiced, meaning your vocal cords should be vibrating, and the left one is not.
So let’s look at a couple of examples to practice these two consonants:
Other IPA Symbols
Don’t worry, you don’t have to learn all these technical terms! In most cases, listening to audio for each sound will help you learn it. But IPA symbol transcriptions can help you nail the sounds you’re having the most trouble with.
You might have noticed that there are also some non-letter symbols in the IPA. What are they?
IPA transcriptions can also give you some other information about a word besides the letter sounds themselves, like which syllables are stressed. You’ll see a little vertical line that looks like an apostrophe right before the stressed syllable. If there is a syllable with secondary stress (emphasized but not quite as much as the syllable with primary stress) you’ll see the same vertical line down at the bottom, right before that symbol.
Here’s an example:
This is a word with three syllables. There’s the primary stress marker at the beginning of the word, so the primary stress goes on that first symbol – /daɪ/.
The next syllable – /nə/ – isn’t stressed.
And then there’s the secondary stress marker down at the bottom before that third syllable: /sɔr/.
It’s not quite as strong as the first syllable but definitely emphasized more than the second.
Sometimes there will also be a period between syllables to indicate how a word is broken up, or something that looks like a colon, which tells you that the sound is long.
Incorporate IPA Symbol Transcriptions into Your Routine
Here are some tips on how to use and make the most of the IPA when learning a foreign language:
Practice, practice, practice!
To read IPA symbols most effectively, familiarize yourself with a chart of common IPA symbols in your target language, and practice pronouncing all of the new sounds that don’t exist in your native language. Charts like the ones above can help you visualize and memorize different sounds.
Use online resources like dictionaries and IPA converters
These are great (and accessible) tools you can use to find transcriptions of words you want to learn. Practice reading and transcribing them yourself. To try your hand at IPA transcription in English, check out toPhonetics.
Note that not all dictionaries use the IPA; some use other transcription systems. The Cambridge Dictionary is one that does use it, and it has bilingual dictionaries with transcriptions in a few other languages, too.
Record yourself speaking in your target language
You can also compare your own pronunciation to IPA transcriptions for practice.
Say a sentence using a speech-to-text program, like the voice recognition feature on your phone. Then copy the result, run it through an IPA converter, and see if it “understood” you. In other words, does the IPA notation of what you said match the IPA notation of the sentence you were trying to say?
Bonus Video: Making Sense of an IPA Symbol
If you’d like to hear Abbe discuss how to read an IPA symbol, you can watch her video below or on YouTube.
The video is in English, but subtitles are available in English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. Just click on the settings gear at the bottom right. You can also click it to adjust the playback speed.
After this brief introduction, you know the basics of the IPA and how to “decode” those symbols to improve your language skills. Hopefully we’ve convinced you that it isn’t so scary after all, and it can actually be a super useful tool!
If you’re interested in learning more about the IPA and pronunciation, you might enjoy:
- How Much Time Should You Really Spend on Pronunciation
- Break Your Cringe-Worthy Bad Pronunciation Habits [VIDEO]
- How to Improve Your Accent and Pronunciation: An Interview with Luca Lampariello