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What is IPA and Should I Learn It?

What is IPA

The International Phonetic Alphabet has long been used by linguists to describe the sounds of language in a consistent way.

The truth is, all humans have the same mouth cavity, and therefore the languages we speak are made up of the same sounds. But these sounds are produced by slightly different tongue positions.

We learn the tongue positions of our own mother language as a baby by mimicking adults. It's hard to get it right at first, as anyone can attest to listening to children under 5 speak.

However, it is with consistent feedback and speaking lots and lots that small children are usually able to sound pretty native from a young age. Some children may need a speech therapist at some point, but even without one, things tend to work themselves out over time.

Since the tongue positions get locked into specific speaking patterns and positions at such a young age, these positions solidify and become the de facto position that stay with native speakers for life.

Once you start learning another language, you'll have to unlearn these de facto positions in order to get your accent right. This is why non-native speakers always have an accent.

Why Learn the IPA

The great news is that you don't have to take a phonology class to learn the IPA. The International Phonetic Alphabet can actually show us visually where certain letters are different. It can definitely help us improve our pronunciation of speaking foreign languages. But it is not absolutely necessary.

There are several things to remember about the sounds that we create:

  1. The tongue can block the airflow completely, then release it. There are several ways to this, and we can add IPA symbols to represent this. For example a small 'h' for an extra puff of air.
  2. The tongue can partially block the airflow and let it continue to flow out, as in /s/, or it can be combined with a stop I just described, like /ts/. Semivowels like /w/, /y/, and liquids and rhotics like /l/ and /r/ also block airflow only slightly.
  3. The vocal chords can vibrate, giving a consonant a voiced sound, like /d/.
  4. The nasal cavity can open up to allow some air to escape, giving consonants a nasal sound.
  5. The tongue can change its shape when it stops the airflow, giving consonants a wide variety of shading and characteristics, for example /ʂ/, /ʃ/, /ɕ/.

When we learn how to pronounce foreign languages from textbooks, these books will often tell us to pronounce some vowels by pursing our lips or trying to smile while pronouncing some other vowel. These are only silly descriptions of what a native speaker's mouth is doing when speaking naturally. Lip movement is required for rounded vowels, but it certainly is not as exaggerated as books describe.

It's much better if you learn the actual tongue positions for all consonants and vowels so that you can learn how to control your tongue to hit all the various shades of sounds that you want to create. It can actually be a lot of fun!

Vowels

High vowels from front to back:
/i ı ɨ ɯ u/

Front vowels from high to low:
/i e ɛ æ/

Back vowels from high to low:
/u o ᴐ ɑ a/

Each of these vowels have rounded and unrounded pairs as well.

Consonants

There are several points of articulation:

Lips, teeth, the alveolar ridge behind the teeth, then behind the alveolar ridge, then the palate or roof of the mouth, the velum behind it, the uvula or small tongue that hangs down, and then you can constrict your throat muscles to create more sounds from there.

There are several ways each of these articulations can be made:

  1. We can do it with the tip of the tongue, or apically.
  2. We can do it with the blade of the tongue, or laminally.
  3. We can make a groove down the blade of the tongue, or sulcally for sounds like /s/.
  4. The opposite: we can prevent the air from going down the middle of the mouth, and instead out through the sides, or laterally, for sounds like /l/.
  5. We can make our tongue like a dome, for sounds like /ʃ/.
  6. And interestingly, we can do it with the bottom of the tongue curled back, or subapically, for retroflex sounds.

There are several ways we can release sounds.

STOPS: We can stop the airflow and release it abruptly for stops, and then vibrate the vocal chords
/p, t, c, k, q, b, d, ɟ, ɡ, ɢ/

FRICATIVES: We can release the airflow gradually for fricatives, then vibrate the vocal chords
/ɸ, f, θ, s, ʃ, ʂ, ɕ, ç, x, χ, ħ, h, β, v, ð, z, ʒ, ʐ, ʑ, ʝ, ɣ, ʁ, ʕ, ɦ/

AFFRICATES: We can stop the airflow then release it gradually for fricatives
/pf, tθ, ts, tʃ, tʂ, tɕ, kx, qχ, bv, dð, dz, dʒ, dʐ, dʑ, ɡɣ, ɢʁ/

ASPIRATED: We can release them with a puff of air vs UNASPIRATED (introduced above)
/pʰ, tʰ, cʰ, kʰ, qʰ, tsʰ, tʃʰ, tʂʰ, tɕʰ/

EJECTIVES: We can eject the sound with more stricture in the throat
/pʼ, tʼ, cʼ, kʼ, qʼ, tsʼ, tʃʼ, tʂʼ, tɕʼ/

FLAPS: We can release the sound with a light flap
/ⱱ, ɾ, ɢ̆/

TRILLS: We can release them by repeating the sound continuously
/ʙ, r, ɽ, ʀ, ʜ/

NASALS: We can release them with the nasal cavity open, nasally
/m, ɱ, n, ɳ, ɲ, ŋ, ɴ/

LATERALS: We can release them by the sides of the tongue:
/ɮ, ɬ, l, ɺ, ɭ, ʎ, ʟ/

INGRESSIVES: We can release them by sucking the air in:
/ɓ, ɗ, ᶑ, ʄ, ɠ, ʛ/

CLICKS: We can release them by sucking in with a snapping sound, and even combine these with all the other sounds
/ʘ, ǀ, ǃ, ǁ, ǂ/

APPROXIMANTS: We can release them approximately like a vowel
/ʋ, ɹ, ɻ, j, ɰ, w/

If you can control each of these release functions individually, you can theoretically pronounce the sounds of any language on earth very accurately with just a little bit of exposure and grasp the exact position native speakers use.

Recommended Free Resources

  1. Wikipedia: International Phonetic Alphabet

  2. Glossika: Phonics Channel


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Michael Campbell

Michael Campbell

Polyglot, phonologist, linguist specialising in Formosan, Proto-Austronesian, Sinitic, Slavic, typology, IPA, and L2. Does Glossika training daily.

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What is IPA and Should I Learn It?
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