What is IPA? [aɪ pʰiː eɪ]
IPA, or International Phonetic Alphabet is an alphabet used by linguists and language learners specifically to indicate the pronunciation of a word. IPA is based on the latin alphabet, so if you can read this, you already have a good starting point for learning it. There are two large groups of letters in IPA. There are vowel sound letters and consonant sound letters.
Why use IPA?
Using the International Phonetic Alphabet makes it easier to understand how to correctly pronounce sounds in a language, because without it, most language learners often approximate foreign sound to their own native language’s sound instead.
Vowels are speech sounds that are pronounced without any stricture in your vocal tract, for example in car or pizza. On the IPA Vowel Chart, vowels are grouped depending on vowel height and backness, but vowels also have a third feature: roundedness. Vowel height means the extent your tongue is raised in your mouth, vowel backness means how far back your tongue is in your mouth, and roundedness means whether your lips are rounded or not as you say the vowel.
Different accents of languages have different amounts of vowel sounds, but you’ll find about 30-40% of the vowels exist in English, so an easy way to learn your first batch of vowels is to look up English IPA for your dialect of English, or if you’re a native speaker of another language, look up IPA for your language and use an SRS method to memorize those letters.
In English, some vowels are written with one letter, but are actually pronounced like diphthongs (two sounds), for instance A is actually pronounced /eɪ/ or I is pronounced /aɪ/. The IPA letters only represent a single sound.
Consonants are speech sounds that are produced with partial or complete closure of the vocal tract. The consonant chart may seem daunting at first, but it’s actually fairly straightforward. On the left side is the manner of articulation, and on the top is where in the mouth the sound is being produced. If you have any knowledge of Latin, you’ll recognize words like Bilabial (two lips), Dental (teeth) or Nasal (nose). As with vowels, the easiest way to start learning the consonant letters is to look up which letters are used to consonants in one or more languages you can speak. The more languages you speak, the easier it is to learn, since most languages have overlapping sounds!
You can learn more about IPA on Wikipedia. Watch the video at the top of this article for examples of sounds in IPA.
Come back here later for more articles about the International Phonetic Alphabet in the future!