Why you should start using the International Phonetic Alphabet

phonetic alphabetSpelling is not always a good pronunciation guide – but the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a reliable system that shows you exactly which sounds are in each word. In this blog, we’ll take a look at what the IPA is, and why it’s one of the best self-study tools for English.

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet?

The IPA was first developed in the late 19th century to represent standard English’s forty-four vowel and consonant sounds. By looking at the IPA symbols in an English Learners’ dictionary, we can quickly see that ‘moon’ /muːn/ doesn’t rhyme with ‘foot’ /fʊt/ – despite the identical ‘oo’ spelling.

The IPA also shows us that ‘moon’ does rhyme with ‘blue’, ‘blew’, ‘through’, and ‘shoe’, because they all contain the sound //.

I love showing students that the word ‘through’ has just three sounds in it: /θruː/. The spelling makes it look so complex, but in fact, you just need to make three sounds to say this word clearly (admittedly, ‘thr’ takes a bit of practice, but the rest of the word is just one sound). This is a great example of how the IPA helps learners understand speaking and listening in English.

The English File Sound Bank has a clever pictogram system to help you relate each IPA symbol to a picture and a short word. For example, the /e/ sound is shown as an ‘egg’, and the /ɜː/ sound is a picture of a ‘bird’. This makes it much easier to understand, learn and remember which symbols go with which sounds.

Phonetic Alphabet

3 reasons why you should start using the International Phonetic Alphabet

1: You won’t have to guess how an English word should be pronounced

The IPA spellings on the Oxford Dictionaries website show you which IPA sounds are in a word, and which syllables are stressed. The apostrophe indicates the start of a stressed syllable, which is slightly longer and louder. This means you can get the pronunciation correct WITHOUT being misled by the spelling.

It also shows you where vowels are pronounced in a weak form.

In the word ‘occasionally’ /əˈkeɪʒnəli/, the first ‘o’ and the ‘a’ in the final syllable are both pronounced as the weak /ə/ vowel, the schwa. This sound is made in the centre of the mouth, with your tongue not touching your lips, teeth, or palate. It sounds a bit like ‘uh’.

Don’t be fooled by how simple it seems. The schwa is the most common sound in the English language. So, if you only learn one symbol from the IPA chart…make sure it’s the schwa!

2: You don’t need to learn all the IPA symbols!

Rather than try to learn all 44 common sounds in British English, identify the most relevant or difficult ones for you and practise those. Why not start with a pronunciation list of 5-10 words per week. These might be words you come across reading your coursebook, fiction books, on YouTube, or in conversation.

Look up the IPA and then practise saying the sounds, first in isolation, then blended together. Can you spot any patterns? Which IPA sounds keep coming up? Find more words with these sounds, and practise those too.

3: Use an interactive, audio-visual app like Say It: English Pronunciation to bring the sounds to life

The Say It: English Pronunciation app includes an interactive version of the IPA chart. Simply tap a sound tile to hear the phoneme sound. It’s a great way to isolate and compare similar sounds, for example, the vowels in ‘walk’ /wɔːk/ and ‘work’ /wɜːk/.

For each of the 36,000+ words in the app, you can see, tap, and hear the sounds which make up the word. This helps you understand the sounds you need to make, and in which order.

Record yourself and compare your soundwave to the model – then slow the recordings down by dragging your finger over the soundwave to hear how the sounds blend together and pinpoint tricky sections.

The International IPA can look complicated at first sight, but these tips will help you use it to speak and listen to English more effectively, fluently, and confidently.

Re-read this article and count how many ‘schwa’ sounds you need to make. Add your tally to the comments!

Jenny Dance is an English teacher and exam trainer with more than 20 years of experience. She has a passion for pronunciation learning and is also the Founder of Phona, publishers of the Say It: English Pronunciation app. Jenny regularly presents Pronunciation Live sessions on Facebook and Instagram with the Learning English with Oxford team. Follow Learning English with Oxford to hear about the next live event, or check out our bank of pronunciation resources for more English pronunciation tips.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

Every year we help millions of people around the world to learn English. As a department of the University of Oxford, we further the University’s objective of excellence in education by publishing proven and tested language learning books, eBooks, learning materials, and educational technologies.

10 thoughts

  1. Hello Dear,

    I thank you so much for this app. So, I have two issues about it.

    1. For pay the app in my phone, I must pay apart each module. Thus, I must pay much fees for the credit card. In finish, the app become very expensive. I propose that to permit the possibility to pay in same time all the modules and pay one time the fees of credit card.

    2. My pronunciation not never correspond with yours. What could I do ?

    Best Regards,

    1. Hi – thank you so much for your comment!

      We will soon be moving to a subscription model on Say It, where you will have the option to buy access to all the content in the app (rather than as separate bundles) for either one month, three months or one year.

      You don’t need to make a perfect match to make your pronunciation clear and comprehensible. Try to match the phases of the word, the different syllables, and which are stressed. Use the touch and drag feature on the waveform to play the audio back slowly, and try to identify which parts of the model are different from your pronunciation. Most users will record themselves 6-10 times before they are happy with a ‘best and final’ version. If you’d like more advice on this, feel free to email info@phona.co.uk.

      Hope this helps!

  2. Hello, thank you for the article, I have one question: why is it called ‘International’ when it is actually based solely on RP from England? Other pronunciations from other parts of Britain/Ireland and around the world (different phonemes, I’m not talking about accents here) are not taken into account. I would undersand if it were called British-English (RP) Phonetic Alphabet, but to call it ‘international’ it makes it sound rather imperialistic (and it’s very ‘upper class’, another issue). Just a thought, since ‘International English’ is not surely based on British RP, it’s rather based on a standardised US version of it….

    1. Thanks for your comment, we’re glad you found this article interesting. The ‘international’ in IPA is indicative of a standard (or supposedly neutral) accent. In reality, what constitutes a ‘neutral’ accent is, of course, a subject of some debate. It’s important for learners of English to recognise that the IPA is just one version of a set of English sounds in a broad and rich spectrum. Listening to a range of accents, and comparing (for example) the American English IPA is a great way to improve English listening and speaking skills.
      The IPA is useful for dictionary work, to help learners understand which sounds are in the ‘Modern RP’ (in this case) pronunciation of the vocabulary they want to use.

    2. Actually, IPA is not for RP, and not only for English. It’s a system which can be used for any language.

  3. Except firctge morons who cant tell the difference between back and central vowels, and fill Wikipedia with disinformation

  4. Hello, I am confused about your use of the symbol /e/ for ‘egg’. In the official standardised International Phonetic Alphabet is it not rather the curly E that is used for this sound? It makes it difficult for students and teachers when different symbols are used for the same sounds in different sources. Can you clarify this, please? Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment. The /e/ to represent the sound at the start of the word ‘egg’ is the IPA symbol shown in the Oxford Online Learners’ Dictionary (see this entry: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/egg_1?q=egg), the English File Sound Bank and the British Council Phonemic Chart, among others. If you’d like further clarification, you are welcome to get in touch at info@phona.co.uk.

  5. Wouldn’t occasionally be /əˈkeɪʒənəli/? I have never heard a single dialect that omits the second schwa.

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