You might know your ABCs, but do you know your IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet)? The International Phonetic Alphabet is often neglected by language learners because it can seem difficult to use at first. But it’s a great tool for improving your pronunciation. In this article, Cédric explains how to use the IPA to improve your pronunciation in any language.
Basically, the international phonetic alphabet is a set of symbols. Each symbol represents a sound. Using this alphabet you can break down words and sentences into something easier to digest: sounds. The international phonetic alphabet covers ALL languages. Some sounds appear in lots of languages, while others are unique and only appear in one language.
The international phonetic alphabet was developed by French and British phoneticians in 1888. However, it has since been revised, and currently contains 107 “letters.”
To help you better understand, Cédric explains what the international phonetic alphabet is, and how to use it to improve your pronunciation. His video is in English (with some examples in French). But you can watch it with subtitles, which are available in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Portuguese.
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The international phonetic alphabet is a very good tool for improving your pronunciation. It is quite common for language learners to disregard speech and focus on other aspects of the language they are learning. But honestly, we think that’s a big mistake!
As a French person learning English, I used to say “ze” instead of “the.” Then when I decided to improve my accent, I started to work on my pronunciation by changing this habit. And adding this new sound, the English “th,” to my pronunciation repertoire. With a little practice, this sound became much more natural for me. And my spoken English has improved dramatically.
Do you want to improve your pronunciation in English, too?
We have a complete English pronunciation guide!
If you want to improve your pronunciation, immerse yourself in the language and speak as early on as possible. Depending on your native language and the language you are learning, there may be lots of different, difficult or unknown sounds, and it can be hard to memorize them all, or even know that they exist. There are many ways to approach them, but one of my favorite ways is with the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA.
People often overlook the international phonetic alphabet because it contains some unfamiliar symbols. To be honest, so many that it’s easy to get lost… The first time you see a word transcribed with the IPA, you might think it’s a bunch of nonsense! But don’t run away just yet. You do not need to learn every symbol to use the IPA.
Use the international phonetic alphabet only as a visual aid when you have a question or doubt.
Let’s look at an example in English, the word “salad.” Most non-English speakers would pronounce this word as they would read it in their own language. You would imagine that you should pronounce both “a” sounds the same way… right?
Now, let’s see how we write this word with the IPA: sæ – ləd. See how the first “a” is not pronounced in the same way as the second? In English, an “a” can be pronounced / ə / or / æ / (or in other ways!).
The IPA is excellent for identifying difficulties or differences that our ears do not necessarily hear. Checking the “spelling” of words with the IPA allows you to see if it’s the same sound or not. Then, you can always go back to the word and listen to it until you hear the difference.
The IPA can highlight any pronunciation difficulties you may encounter. And without necessarily knowing all the symbols!
The most important thing about all this is that the IPA is very helpful for memorizing correct pronunciation. When you hear a new expression, there may be a sound that you do not “perceive.” Because you do not know it yet. By seeing it in its IPA form, you will stimulate your visual memory. And you will “bypass” what your ear hears and be able to focus on and remember the correct pronunciation.
That’s why the International Phonetic Alphabet will help you improve your speaking skills. Whenever you are facing a difficult word, or want to improve your pronunciation, we recommend checking its transcription online or in a dictionary. As we said, you do not have to learn all the symbols at once, just use it on a case-by-case basis! One last thing: do not forget that it is only a visual aid. Your pronunciation will not improve if you don’t listen… or don’t practice. To practice, visit our complete guide on English pronunciation.