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Pronunciation FAQ

Frequently asked questions and answers about pronunciation for English learners

What is the IPA and what does it stand for?

IPA stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. It is useful for teaching and learning English. The word “phonetic” relates to the sounds (pronunciation) of speech. The IPA chart uses symbols to represent the different sounds. Some of the symbols are from the Greek and Latin alphabet. When you check a word in most British dictionaries, you can look at the pronunciation of the combined consonants and vowels by checking the symbols. For example, the pronunciation for the word “coat” is written as kəʊt. You need to be familiar with the IPA chart to understand the pronunciation. Many modern American dictionaries do not follow the IPA, but offer pronunciation tips using the English Roman alphabet.

Who invented the IPA?

The IPA was invented by an organization under the same abbreviation. The International Phonetic Association was formed in Paris in 1886. It consisted of a group of language teachers who were looking for a way to teach the pronunciation of foreign languages. They wanted to create a universal alphabet to represent all of the sounds that could be made in all languages.

Who uses the IPA?

Foreign language teachers and students use the IPA. Others who use the IPA include speech pathologists, linguists, singers, actors, therapists and translators.

What is the difference between a short and a long vowel?

English vowels (a, e, i, o, u) can be pronounced with different lengths and sounds. The difference between short and long vowels has to do with the placement of the tongue and the position of the vowel in a word. Teachers often remind students that long vowels usually "say their names".

Is pronunciation important?

Speaking clearly is important in order to maximize communication. Having an accent that is the same as another person is not important, unless it is required for a specific job. Many students have an unrealistic goal to speak native English. Only native speakers can speak native English. Even then, there are numerous dialects and accents, and every English speaker has a unique voice. The goal should always be to speak in a clear way in order to be understood.

How can I type out the IPA phonetic symbols?

The website ipa.typeit.org has a handy keyboard for typing out the phonetic symbols. Be aware that you need to use a Unicode font in your document, email or webpage, otherwise the phonemic symbols may not appear correctly.

What is the difference between voiced and unvoiced (voiceless)?

In English speech, consonant sounds can be classified as voiced or voiceless. Voiced sounds are those in which the vocal chords vibrate. Unvoiced sounds do not create a vibration. You can feel the vibration by holding a finger to your upper neck as you speak. For example, the first sound in pan is voiceless and in ban it is voiced.

What are the slashes / / used for in pronunciation transcription?

Single phonemes are placed between slashes. For example /p/.

What are the square brackets [ ] used for in pronunciation transcription?

Square brackets are used to write phonetic transcriptions. For example: The word cat is transcribed as [cæt]. It uses the short vowel sound /æ/.

What are angle brackets < > used for in pronunciation transcription?

Angle brackets are sometimes used to write out a full word when it is being referenced in a pronunciation explanation.

Why doesn’t my dictionary use the IPA?

Not all dictionaries use the IPA because it does require a bit of work to learn the symbols. Some dictionaries try to make it easier by using normal English letters that are commonly associated with sounds. American dictionaries typically do this. However, by trying to simplify the system, it is no longer a universal notation.

Should I study British or American pronunciation?

British and American pronunciation are very distinct. Even within the UK and within America (or Canada or Australia) there are various accents. It is more important that you can understand the various accents when listening to them rather than trying to replicate a certain one when speaking. If you are unable to travel, expose yourself to a variety of accents via television, radio, and Internet, in order to maximize communication skills in English.

What is the ASCII Phonetic Alphabet?

ASCII is the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (typically the standard letters and characters that we see on most computer keyboards). Some people prefer to use the basic buttons on a keyboard to easily transcribe all of the IPA symbols and diacritics. Various efforts have been made to create alternatives to the IPA for the purposes of indicating pronunciation via a computer keyboard.