The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) isn’t just for linguists and speech-language pathologists. It’s for anyone who wants to know how to speak a language as intelligibly as possible.
What exactly is the IPA? It’s an alphabet designed to transcribe the sounds of words in any language, rather than the spelling of words. In fact, it’s the most widely used system in the world for representing the sounds of a language.
That means that if you knew how to transcribe speech sounds using the IPA, you could be dropped off in the middle of a remote village, anywhere in the world, transcribe the villagers’ speech, and be able to read it back to them, sounding practically like a native. You may not have a clue what you said, but you would sound great saying it.
If your goal is to speak English as clearly as possible, then learning the basics of the IPA will certainly help. When clients work with an accent trainer, they are taught the specific sounds they need to work on to improve their speech clarity. These sounds are represented by IPA symbols. Understanding the symbol tells you how to pronounce the sound correctly.
Writing in IPA looks like this:
ðæt goz θru ðʌ maɚkədɪŋ dəpaɚʔmənt = That goes through the marketing department
If we look at the example above, there are two different ways to pronounce the “th” sound in English. Knowing how to produce it correctly is difficult for some people. Sometimes we add our voice to the “th” sound, as in the word “that.” Sometimes we don’t use our voice, as in the word “through.” Understanding the symbols lets a speaker know the correct way to pronounce the word. Similarly, it’s common in English to soften a “t” sound to a “d” in the middle of a word as in the word “marketing.” Sometimes, the “t” sound is dropped altogether and replaced with a catch in our throat (known as a glottal stop) as in the word “department.” If someone were to speak these words as they are spelled, not only would they pronounce letters not heard in a word, but it would be difficult to stress the correct syllable. The combination of these two factors would make the word sound very different to a native speaker’s ear.
The good news is that you don’t have to become an IPA expert to learn how to speak more precisely in English. You only need to become familiar with the sounds you’re practicing. Many of the characters look and sound the same as the ones in the English alphabet; the additional characters can be easily learned. I’ve created an IPA American English Phonetic Quick Guide to help you.
Accent training is more than just learning how to read IPA symbols, but knowing the basics of the IPA can improve your speaking skills. It’s certainly not as hard as learning another language, which is something you’ve already accomplished. Accent training also involves learning the rules for proper stress, word-linking, rhythm and intonation, among other things. A certified accent trainer provides the guidance and feedback you need to build speech skills and confidence, and ultimately eliminate the communication barriers that interfere with achieving professional and personal goals.