What is “The International Phonetic Alphabet” (IPA), and does the accent student need to know it?

Updated: Apr 21, 2019

What is the "International Phonetic Alphabet" (IPA)?

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabetic system to represent speech sounds in the world’s languages.  Each symbol represents a “sound,” as we cannot rely on spelling to know how a sound is pronounced. For example, the words “phone” and “foam” begin with the same sounds, although they have different spellings.  The first sound in “phone” and first sound in “foam” are represented by the same IPA symbol /f/. The words “thick” and “though” both begin with the letters “th,” but the “th” in these two words are actually slightly different sounds and represented by different IPA symbols.  There are many professions that need to be proficient in the IPA, including accent coaches, linguists, speech-language pathologists, singers, actors, and constructed language creators (such as “Dothraki” language in Game of Thrones).

The "Dothraki" discuss their fate in Game of Thrones. Dothraki is a constructed language created by David J. Peterson, with International Phonetic Alphabet sound representation and rules.

The IPA consists of different charts of symbols to represent how sounds are produced in the world’s languages.  The main chart is a consonant chart of consonants produced with the air source flowing outwards from the lungs (most consonants in the world’s languages fall into this chart, and all consonants in English are on this chart).  There is a vowel chart to represent vowel sounds in the world’s languages, placed in a quadrilateral. There is a diacritic chart to represent specific features to how a sound is made, and a tone symbol chart (English is not a tonal language).  

You have probably encountered symbols from “The International Phonetic Alphabet”

As a person interested in accents, you have probably seen IPA symbols on the internet, whether you know it or not.  You may do internet searches about “American accents,” encountering symbols such as [ʃ] (representing the sh in shoe).  Tutorial videos about American accents, such as on YouTube, often describe American English sound rules using IPA symbols.  When you look up a word definition in a dictionary, the symbols next to the word in backslashes is the IPA representation (showing how the word is pronounced.

We see the IPA all the time, maybe without even knowing it! When you look up a word in a dictionary (paper or online), the pronunciation of the word is shown using IPA symbols in backslashes on the right.

Do I need to know the IPA as an accent student?  Are there learning benefits?

The description above of the IPA is very simplified, but also shows that the IPA can be very complex and overwhelming to accent students.  Therefore, it is not necessary for the accent student to get too caught up in learning the IPA and what it means. It can take years of graduate level education and use in the workplace to understand and be proficient in the IPA system. Much of the termonology used for the IPA requires in-depth understanding of the anatomy and physiology of speech sound production, not necesary for accent students.  Rather, I encourage students to “hear” and “feel” their own speech sounds to increase awareness, without memorizing linguistic definitions.

There are benefits to learning some IPA symbols specific to your needs as an accent student, and your needs are determined in conjunction with your accent coach during an in-depth assessment.  Learning the symbols of sounds that you work on with your accent coach can help you the student access more resources online. There are lots of online resources where you can hear examples of the pronunciation, but the majority of these resources use basic IPA symbols.  Learning basic symbols can also give you some visual understanding in the differences between sounds that you are working on. As an accent coach, I encourage students to learn a few basic symbols specific to their needs, and I do explain these few symbols in lessons.  However, I don’t think it is necessary for an accent student to get too caught up and overwhelmed in the IPA system and sound distinctions, and not all sounds apply to your needs as an American English accent student.   

Language learning and accent learning is about accessibility, fun, and constant speaking practice!

Enjoy speaking English with confidence, and your language journey!

Leann Rhoades, M.S. CCC-SLP

Accent Coach/ Speech Language Pathologist

All About Accents

E-mail- Leann@allaboutaccents.com

Website- Allaboutaccents.com

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