Spelling 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 /uː/.
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.
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.