International Phonetic Alphabet and Phonemic Alphabets

/gɛt jɔː ʃwɑː ɒn/

Have you ever seen something that looks like the Roman Alphabet but then it has some extra dots, symbols and letters you have never seen before? Does it follow other words and come after vocabulary (usually)?

International Phonetic Alphabet

If you answered yes to these questions, then you have most likely come across something known as the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA. But what is IPA? As the terms ‘phonetic’ and ‘alphabet’ suggest, the International Phonetic Alphabet is an international writing system created to describe sounds that are made in languages around the world. IPA was created by British and French language teachers around the mid-1880s to teach students pronunciation. It is based on sounds found in English and French and was standardised so that it would be independent of either one (and successive languages that were added to it).

IPA is a huge alphabet (it has to be to distinguish all known linguistic sounds) which you can read all about on its Wikipedia page.

As you can see, while most of the symbols are based on either Latin or Greek letters, there are some that break this rule, such as the ð (eth), which is the original letter for where the ‘th’ sound came from (Old) English.

International Phonetic Alphabet Rules

In IPA, it is also important to note that, in addition to the letters that are used, there are also some symbols that are used during phonetic transcription. As we can see from the chart above (in the document), a colon (:) is used to represent a long vowel, but there are also symbols on the word level, such as the apostrophe (‘) which shows where the stress is in the word. Finally, IPA is always written between two slashes (/). For example, this last paragraph reads as follows in IPA (general British pronunciation followed by the same in general American pronunciation):

Generalised UK transcription

/ɪn aɪ-piː-eɪ, ɪt ɪz ˈɔːlsəʊ ɪmˈpɔːtənt tuː nəʊt ðæt, ɪn əˈdɪʃ(ə)n tuː ðə ˈlɛtəz ðæt ɑː juːzd, ðeər ɑːr ˈɔːlsəʊ sʌm ˈsɪmbəlz ðæt ɑː juːzd ˈdjʊərɪŋ fəʊˈnɛtɪk trænsˈkrɪpʃən. æz wiː kæn siː frɒm ðə ʧɑːt əˈbʌv (ɪn ðə ˈdɒkjʊmənt), ə ˈkəʊlən (:) ɪz juːzd tuː ˌrɛprɪˈzɛnt ə lɒŋ ˈvaʊəl, bʌt ðeər ɑːr ˈɔːlsəʊ ˈsɪmbəlz ɒn ðə wɜːd ˈlɛvl, sʌʧ æz ði əˈpɒstrəfi (‘) wɪʧ ʃəʊz weə ðə strɛs ɪz ɪn ðə wɜːd. ˈfaɪnəli, aɪ-piː-eɪ ɪz ˈɔːlweɪz ˈrɪtn bɪˈtwiːn tuː ˈslæʃɪz (/). fɔːr ɪgˈzɑːmpl, ðɪs lɑːst ˈpærəgrɑːf riːdz æz ˈfɒləʊz ɪn aɪ-piː-eɪ (ˈʤɛnərəl ˈbrɪtɪʃ prəˌnʌnsɪˈeɪʃən ˈfɒləʊd baɪ ðə seɪm ɪn ˈʤɛnərəl əˈmɛrɪkən prəˌnʌnsɪˈeɪʃən)/

Generalised US transcription

/ɪn aɪ-pi-eɪ, ɪt ɪz ˈɔlsoʊ ɪmˈpɔrtənt tu noʊt ðæt, ɪn əˈdɪʃən tu ðə ˈlɛtərz ðæt ɑr juzd, ðɛr ɑr ˈɔlsoʊ sʌm ˈsɪmbəlz ðæt ɑr juzd ˈdʊrɪŋ fəˈnɛtɪk ˌtrænˈskrɪpʃən. æz wi kæn si frʌm ðə ʧɑrt əˈbʌv (ɪn ðə ˈdɑkjəmɛnt), ə ˈkoʊlən (:) ɪz juzd tu ˌrɛprəˈzɛnt ə lɔŋ ˈvaʊəl, bʌt ðɛr ɑr ˈɔlsoʊ ˈsɪmbəlz ɑn ðə wɜrd ˈlɛvəl, sʌʧ æz ði əˈpɑstrəfi (‘) wɪʧ ʃoʊz wɛr ðə strɛs ɪz ɪn ðə wɜrd. ˈfaɪnəli, aɪ-pi-eɪ ɪz ˈɔlˌweɪz ˈrɪtən bɪˈtwin tu ˈslæʃɪz (/). fɔr ɪgˈzæmpəl, ðɪs læst ˈpærəˌgræf ridz æz ˈfɑloʊz ɪn aɪ-pi-eɪ (ˈʤɛnərəl ˈbrɪtɪʃ prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən ˈfɑloʊd baɪ ðə seɪm ɪn ˈʤɛnərəl əˈmɛrəkən prəˌnʌnsiˈeɪʃən)/

If you compare them, you can see that the main differences between the two transcriptions are in the vowels. This shows the typical, obvious difference between British English and American English, not to mention the many dialects. This is also the perfect segue into phonemics.

Phonemic Alphabets

Wait, phonemics?? I thought we were talking about phonetics? What is phonemics? Well, phonetics is the study of speech sounds physiologically and acoustically while phonemics focuses on sound distributions within a language. If this sounds confusing, it’s because there is much overlap between the two. For our purposes, what we need to know is that phonemics is more specialised for each language, dialect and general. Each one has a different phonemic alphabet, while phonetics does not have the same restrictions, thereby encompassing all of the world’s languages (i.e. only the one alphabet, IPA).

Image result for phonemic alphabet british english

For most European languages, phonemic alphabets are little more than simplified versions of the IPA alphabet; the unused sounds and modifiers have been removed. The chart above is the standard phonemic chart for British English. Let’s start at the bottom with the consonants. Amongst the different dialects of the English language, there is usually little variation in the consonants. This part of the chart is more or less the same for every phonemic alphabet (in English). In this part, you will see some letters in grey and some letters in black. The black letters are voiced, such as the ‘th’ in the word ‘this’. The vocal cords do some work when saying the letter. Put your fingers on your throat and if you feel it vibrating; the sound is being produced by the vocal cords. This is a voiced sound. In contrast, grey letters are unvoiced sounds. The vocal cords are not being used and the sound is being produced from some other part of your vocal pathway, such as from the lips like ‘p’ in ‘pea’.

Phonetic and Phonemic Alphabets in the classroom

So the big question for teachers: is it worth using IPA and/or phonemic charts in the classroom? This really depends on a few factors. Both systems provide advantages and disadvantages. A big disadvantage is that you have to learn the system and so do your students. Do you have enough time for that? Are your students familiar with the Roman and Greek alphabets? Students of non-Roman alphabet written languages, such as Arabic, Russian and Chinese, will easily become confused. They have to learn the alphabet for English and then have to relearn parts of it for the pronunciation alphabets. Or the other way around if you start with IPA.

Once you have invested the time though, it does help students tremendously. Students can now get the pronunciation of words from dictionaries. Note: some dictionaries use IPA while others use their local version of phonemic alphabets or their own system. Make sure you know which uses which before advising your students! This means they can study more on their own. It is also a way to show how to pronounce a word; students can look it up any time. In short, learning IPA or phonemics can make your students more independent in their studies.

Ok, so you’ll teach one of the systems, but which one? In my opinion, IPA is too complex for everyone to learn. English does not use many of these sounds so they won’t hear them in the classroom. If you know the local language and are sure about IPA transcription, you can relate IPA to the students’ native language(s) for them to learn. That means a lot more effort on your part.

My recommendation

My recommendation would be to go for a phonemic alphabet. If you are a mono-dialect teacher (e.g. you only teach British English or American English), choose the phonemic alphabet which corresponds to your dialect. If you offer multiple dialects for your students to learn (like I do), this can be more challenging. As I said before, the consonants are the same, but the vowels have some variation. The American phonemic alphabet has 11 monothongs (British has 12) and 5 dipthongs (British has 8). This means that in total, students have to learn 17 monothong sounds (5 American, 6 British, 6 common) and 9 dipthong sounds, meaning 26 vowel sounds in total.

If you think the students have enough time to do this and can keep the British and American (not to mention other) pronunciations separate (sticking to the one they are learning while still recognising whether the pronunciation they are faced with is the one they should use or not), then maybe a combination of multiple phonemic alphabets can be used.

If you have read all of that and are now thinking:

  • too long, didn’t read (my eyes glazed over)
  • this is too complex for my students

I would recommend a third option, which is to teach one sound only. This sound is so important is has a name: schwa.

The schwa

The schwa, or /ə/, is a vowel sound that occurs in many words; moreover, it is not confined to just one vowel in the English alphabet (a, e, i, o, u). All vowels can pronounce the schwa sound, but what is this sound? Have you ever heard a teenager say ‘uh, I don’t know’ with a noncommittal shrug of their shoulders? That first ‘uh’ sound is the schwa. You can also find it in words like (depending on the accent) important, paper, material, ferocious, tangible, giraffe, introduce, phonetics, picture, neighbour. Many unstressed vowels actually take the schwa sound. This is what makes it so difficult for students to understand when trying to pronounce words.

Schwas are also very important in English when we use connected speech – where words run into each other – as it is easy to go into and out of a schwa from just about any sound. Most people do not pronounce ‘Where are you going’ as /weər ɑː juː ˈgəʊɪŋ/ but run it all together as in: /weərəjəgəʊɪŋ/. When you write a word on the board and you have taught the schwa, you can give students the hint needed to pronounce words. As this letter shows up with an extremely high frequency in English, it is something they should definitely know!

If you liked this guide or would like to see other posts about the English language, I have a page dedicated to it!

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