There is a lot of resistance to the use of the international Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in English language teaching, partly because it is a complex new set of transcription symbols to learn, partly because the effective use of the chart requires an understanding of the patterns of pronunciation that
are used in a language at different levels, and partly because it is assumed that students don’t know the phonetic alphabet. This article aims to show why the use of IPA is an essential tool for teaching and learning pronunciation, and that it is worth the effort to learn and use in language lessons.
Disclaimer: In this article, I will refer to the IPA of standard British English simply because it is the most widely used layout of the IPA. For reference I am describing the Underhill (1983) layout of the IPA as it presents the simplest way of organising the sounds of English to date. To engage with the issues I describe below it would be a good idea to have a copy of the chart to hand.
Is the IPA actually difficult to learn?
At first, learning the 44 phoneme symbols which make up the IPA of English may seem like a mammoth task, but on closer inspection, the majority of these symbols are more intuitive than you might think. Of the full set of 44, there are 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds. Of the consonant sounds, only 7 or 8 symbols differ from the letters we use to commonly denote those sounds in writing, so once you have learned those, you will have a total grasp of the consonant sounds in English. Not as difficult as it seems, and you already know nearly half of the chart intuitively!
Vowel sounds, however, present different problems, but with some application of the system used to organise them in the Underhill layout of the phonemic chart, many of these can be learnt physiologically, by finding the mouth position used to produce them in speech. Of the 20 vowel sounds on the standard British English IPA, there are 12 monophthongs (single sounds) and eight diphthongs (double sounds), which breaks this area of pronunciation down nicely from the beginning. The way that they are organised on the IPA chart helps us to identify how we produce them, in terms of the shape of the mouth and the length of sound which each phoneme symbol represents.
How can the IPA chart help us to learn vowel phonemes?
The really clever part about the Underhill layout of the IPA relates to the 12 vowel phonemes laid out in the top left hand section of the chart. The ordering and design of this section helps us to understand the formation of vowel sounds through the physical act of producing them.
Take the first row of the 12 vowels presented here: /iː/, /ɪ/, /ʊ/ and /uː/, the vowel sounds found in ‘pea’, ‘pit’, ‘put’ and ‘pool’, respectively. If you say these four words one after another, you will notice that your lips get more and more rounded as you go through the sequence. Say the four words now, and see if you can feel this. Now, take away the consonant sounds from these four words and just pronounce the vowel sounds alone. This is the essence of isolating phonemes to think about how they are formed, a really important skill for teachers and students alike.
In this way, we can feel that the phonemes to the left of the vowel section of the IPA are produced with spread or wide lips, whereas those on the right are pronounced with very rounded lips. In the middle, there are two degrees of rounded-ness which flow from left to right.
Now look at the very left-hand column of phonemes in the vowel section of the chart: /uː/, /ɔː/ and /ɒ/. These sounds relate to the vowels produced in the words ‘who’, ‘horse’ and ‘hot’, respectively. If you say these words in sequence, you should notice that your jaw drops more and more as you read through them. Now take away the consonant sounds from the word, as before, and you will be left with the pure isolated vowel sounds to think about.
This activity shows that the vertical arrangement of the phonemes on the vowel section of the chart relates to jaw position - the top row of phonemes are pronounced with a raised jaw, the middle with a semi-closed jaw and the bottom row with an open or lowered jaw. If you go back to the ‘pea’, ‘pit’, ‘put’ and ‘pool’ examples from the top row of the chart, you will notice that your jaw is raised during the production of all of these sounds, because they are all in the top position on the chart.
Knowing the jaw / lip position arrangement of the chart, we can now move on to think about the other sounds of the twelve, and use your lip position and jaw to produce them. Can you guess what they represent? OK, that’s tough without any word examples, so find an IPA chart or use the phonetic transcriptions in a dictionary to find the sounds for each symbol.
As a final note about the single vowel area of the chart, you will notice that some of the phonemes have a symbol which looks like a colon (:) after them. This denotes length, so if you see this symbol, it means that the vowel is sustained a little longer, as in ‘pea’, ‘pool’ and ‘horse’ in the examples above.
So what about the double phonemes?
Well, once you can read the single phonemes from the chart, you can apply these to the 8 double sounds (diphthongs) on the top-right area of the chart. Basically, two monophthongs pronounced one directly after another make up a diphthong, so some of these are easy to guess. Others not so much, but as soon as you start to get the hang of it, you will remember them more easily - after all, eight items is not a lot to remember, in the big scheme of things!
do some practice with these 8 diphthongs, and you are ready to start transcribing short words (with two or three phonemes), longer words (with five to ten phonemes) and then move on to phrases and whole utterances, as you get better at sounding out and recording the symbols from speech.
Why is this useful for students?
You might ask why it is worth bothering with such a complex system for transcribing speech into symbols, especially when students have their work cut out for them working towards their exams or other goals in English. True, focused pronunciation work does entail more time spent learning and practising sounds and systems in pronunciation, but we have to remember that pronunciation, along with grammar and vocabulary, is one of the basic language systems necessary to communicate in another language. Pronunciation is one of the most needed and least effectively taught areas of English in most classrooms, so finding a way to work with sounds systematically is a real boon for students who want to improve in this essential area.
English has one of the lowest sound-to-spelling correspondence levels of any language (meaning that how words look on paper differ wildly from how they sound when spoken). This causes massive problems for learners from all language backgrounds, so they need a reliable, predictable and systematic way of assigning sounds to letters and patterns of speech. This is the function of the IPA as a teaching and learning tool, and knowledge of how pronunciation works can really help you to teach many different areas of language in a logical and progressive way.
Yes, it takes time to learn the chart, but there are a lot of activities and games which can be played with the IPA, and a little time spent early on in a period of study can save hours and hours of problem-solving and correction later on, if students don’t have a reliable system to work with to fix their pronunciation issues.
In many countries (China, for example), you may be surprised to learn that most students start working with the IPA in primary school, and have a much greater receptive knowledge of transcription and sounding out these phonemes than do most language educators. By learning the chart and being able to work with it flexibly, you can enhance this knowledge in students and help them to take control of their own development in how they sound.
Take this opportunity to engage with the IPA, and you will get a much deeper understanding of the reasons behind pronunciation features in English, enabling you and your learners to develop their speaking to a much higher level, and to have some fun along the way.
The Language Point resource pack for pronunciation teaching: Pronunciation Card Games, brings a game-based element to this important area of study by using phoneme cards to help students take hold of their own pronunciation and develop awareness of the sound changes in the English language as it is spoken authentically.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or visit our CertTESOL FAQ and CertPT FAQ pages for details.