The Value of IPA in Accent Training

Written by: Dain Hong / Accent Modification / August 2019

India pale ale is not what I mean, although a few of my accent modification clients have told me that inebriation helps them be more confident in their English pronunciation. The IPA I’m referring to—one that is significantly more helpful than beer for your pronunciation—is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)—a system of symbols standardized to represent sounds (or phonemes) of spoken language. 

The IPA is the perfect alphabet in which every letter represents one phoneme only, and each phoneme has its appropriate symbol. This is not so in English, where one symbol represents more than one sound, and various combinations of symbols can represent one sound. For this reason, the IPA approach to accent training is superior to the orthographic (or spelling) approach, as it allows learners to group the same sounds together, despite their orthographic differences. 

Consider the letter “g”. This letter can stand for the phoneme /dʒ/ ingel, magic, and gentleman, and also the phoneme /g/ in good, grandma, and ground. The symbols in slash brackets (/) are from the IPA. Such diversity in sound for a single letter can be seen in the letter “e”, where it can be /i/ in beor me, /ɛ/ in beor met, or /ɛ/, /ə/ and completely non-existent in the word celebraterespectively 


The opposite is also true where the same phoneme can be represented by various letter combinations. Homonyms offer an ideal example: eight/atetheir/there/they’reclose/clothes, and marry/merry, name just a few. 


Due to the inconsistencies between English spelling and pronunciation, the IPA approach, in which there isconsistency can help pronunciation learners move beyond the fickle orthographic patterns of English and study sounds.  

Is it necessary to learn the entire IPA?

No, there are more characteristics in the IPA that are irrelevant to English than there are relevant. The relevant consonants sum up to be 24 symbols, with only eight of them being exempt from the English alphabet /ŋ θ ð ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ j/ in words such as angry, think, this, shake, pleasure, choose, judge, andyes. The basic symbols like /p b m t d n k g f v s z l r w h/ have sounds that speakers are already interpreting correspondingly. Because of the exceptions and inconsistencies of English spelling- pronunciation, it helps to know what the letter sounds like typically, but also could uniquely sound like. 


IPA in vowels

The International Phonetic Alphabet becomes particularly useful when learning vowels. If native English speakers were asked how many vowels there are in the English alphabet, the majority would answer 5 or 6, thinking of a e i o u, and sometimes y. According to the IPA, however, there are 15 vowels in English! One consistent symbol or a combination of them represent one sound. 


For example, the phoneme /e/ in bake, wait, may, weight, and apronis represented in the following spelling varieties: “a__e”, “ai”,  “ay”, “ei”, and just “a”. Without continuous immersion in English and dedicated observation of the spelling patterns, it is difficult to learn that the same sound could be represented in so many ways! An IPA approach teaches English pronunciation through the IPA sound correspondent rather than by their spelling, ensuring that learners do not depend solely on the spelling of a word to determine its pronunciation. 

Seeing the bigger picture

Ultimately, the International Phonetic Alphabet allows learners to have a broader understanding of English sounds. Rather than trying to imitate a Native English speaker, they understand the functional difference between consonants and vowels—that the former has a greater degree of airflow than the latter. Learners grasp that consonants are divided into two general categories—stopping and flowing (p/t/k vs. s/f/l)—and that the aspect of vibration pairs sounds together (p/b, t/d, k/g). The learners have a deeper comprehension of the contact made between lips, tongue, teeth and the interior mouth to create the sounds that we take for granted. With regards to vowels, learners are better able to grasp more concretely the relationship between jaw opening and tongue protrusion to achieve target sounds. 


In addition to deeper understanding of sounds, IPA builds independence in accent training clients. Now able to access online resources that depict sounds using IPA, such as dictionaries and English learning websites, clients no longer require their clinicians to model words for them. 

With accent training being a long-term commitment, the International Phonetic Alphabet is a complimentary learning investment that allows learners letter-phoneme consistency, a deeper understanding of English sounds, and independence in continued training.  

To speak with one of the speech-language pathologists at Well Said: Toronto Speech Therapy, schedule an initial consultation by clicking the link below or calling (647) 795-5277.