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Beginner’s Guide to Phonetics

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Last week we talked about why so  many words in the English language are so hard to pronounce, or don’t sound the way they look on paper. This week, I’m going to show you a great, practical system to help you deal with the problem!

Introducing: The International Phonetic Alphabet

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a collection of symbols that represent ALL the sounds made in EVERY language in the world.

Pretty impressive, don’t you think?

Especially when you remember that English alone has 44 distinct sounds, and some of them are completely unique to the English language. It’s amazing to think that all the sounds made in every language in the world fit into one manageable list.

When you look at it like that, learning a language isn’t so scary, is it?

How it Works

Every sound in the IPA is called a phoneme and is represented by a different symbol. These are also divided into three categories: vowels, consonants and diphthongs.

How to Use the IPA

The first thing you need to do is learn what these phonemes actually sound like. A really handy resource for this is the IPA chart provided by internationalphoneticalphabet.org.

Here, you simply click on the symbol in the chart and the audio will play for you. As you can see, the chart groups phonemes by the parts of the mouth and tongue you use to make the sound. This means that they use lots of complicated-sounding terms (like “lateral fricative alveolar”… phew, what a mouthful!) to define the sound as precisely as they can, but don’t worry – you don’t need to know all this stuff. Just click on the symbols to hear the sound.

A word of advice: don’t try to learn ALL of these sounds in one go. That’s way too hard! Pick one or two at a time and practise them, then add a few more and build it up slowly. Like any language, you’ll need to keep repeating and practising phonemes until they’re fixed in your memory.

How Does this Help You?

Once you’ve got used to the phoneme symbols and how they sound, all you need is a dictionary that shows you the phonetic pronunciation and you’ll never be stuck wondering how to pronounce a written word again!

Lots of dictionaries spell words phonetically underneath their actual spelling. Look out for respected brands like Macmillan and the Oxford English Dictionary. You may be surprised to find that words you thoughts were pronounced one way in English are actually written very differently using their phonetic spelling.

Take Better Notes

You can also use IPA spelling in your notes to help you remember how a new word should be pronounced. Write down the new vocabulary using its correct spelling, with the phonetic spelling underneath. That way, it should stick in your mind far better.

Listen More Carefully

The great thing about using the IPA is that it helps you to distinguish between sounds that are very close to each other, or to get to grips with unfamiliar sounds.

This means you will start to notice these sounds more in conversation, and you’ll be able to mimic the pronunciation of difficult words faster than before.

Are you serious about improving your English and having real conversations with native speakers? Take a look at our full range of courses at www.Eurocentres.com