I think there is general agreement that IPA is crucial for learning pronunciation of a language like English, because there are no strict rules of pronunciation, and plenty of exceptions.

IPA is close to roman alphabet (with plenty of special characters). But for learners of English whose L1 is not written using roman alphabet (Japanese, Thai, etc), this adds additional load: they need to learn not a single new alphabet, but two.

I was surprised when I learned that in Thailand, when learning English pronunciation they do not rely much on IPA, but more on sound recordings. Which is problematic, because it was proven that it is hard for learners to distinguish between sound differences in L2 which do not exist in L1. Like well-known problems for L1=Japanese to distinguish between L and R.

When I was learning English decades ago, I had very little access to sounds of native English (beyond music), and relied heavily on IPA. I admit that my L1 uses roman alphabet, and IPA was a bit simplified (/i/ merged with /ɪ/, /e/ with /ɛ/, /u/ with /ʊ/, /o/ with /ɔ/, /ɑ/ with /ʌ/) I think - I do not remember the details now.

Is there any evidence that "sounds without IPA" approach may succeed? Or it requires of many more hours of exposure to the sounds of native speech?

2 Answers 2


My experience with the Perso-Arabic (Arabic and Persian) and Hebrew alphabets tells me that you don't need IPA. Romanization/transliteration in a consistent way is perfectly good. The romanization should of course be combined with native audio of the same text, in order to confirm proper pronunciation. And it's much easier, for the average person, to look at and read romanization than IPA.

This is certainly the case for Japanese and Mandarin as well. Romanization (pinyin, for example, in the case of Mandarin) is quite necessary in the absence of audio. Again, no IPA necessary. A learner has no concept of how to pronounce character-based languages without being specifically instructed.


IPA is a relatively new tool, and historically many people successfully learned a foreign language without it. It's obviously very useful for linguists but not necessary for learners.

When I started learning English as a Polish kid we didn't have IPA (even though it obviously existed). English pronunciation was approximated by Polish spelling with few special characters for sounds that don't have any near equivalents. This «Polish extended spelling system» (a name I just made up now) was explained in practical terms, for example: «try to say "a", while your mouth is making an "e" shape».

If you think about it, IPA symbols also need to be explained to people who only know their own language. Many people would be very surprised if you showed them their own language spelt with IPA. Why learn two new spelling systems (the target spelling, and IPA) if you can use the system the learner already knows (their own) with few modifications?

The side effect of this approach is that many people learn their target language with a strong accent, basically applying a sound system of their own language to the target language. But this is considered an acceptable cost for easier acquisition of new language at beginner level. On the intermediate level, more focus is put on "proper" pronunciation, e.g. by having a native speaker teacher assistant once a month or so (in cheaper schools/poorer countries) or immersion camps in the target language environment (for those who can afford it).

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