The IPA provides a standard, unambiguous way of writing the pronunciation of words, which can be quite helpful when learning a language like English, which has very irregular spelling (with respect to pronunciation).

But when learning a language which has regular, phonetic spelling, are there advantages to using the IPA?

When I learned Spanish, I wasn't even aware of the IPA. I became aware of the IPA later, when I was learning Portuguese (which also has regular/phonetic spelling). Now I'm learning French, which is also phonetic, but with more complex spelling rules. How might the IPA be beneficial with these languages, or any other language spelled phonetically?

  • Your title talks about a language, and your question about learning several. If you plan to study many languages then a good grounding in general phonetics will help. And given the literature that exists today that will pretty much require learning IPA. Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 22:53

4 Answers 4


Learning IPA is useful if you want to learn the pronunciation of words from a dictionary.

However, IPA is less useful in the following cases (non-exhaustive list):

  • You are using dictionaries that use an alternative phonetic transcription system (e.g. the Encarta World English Dictionary used a different system).
  • You are learning a language with a very straightforward relationship between spelling and pronunciation (e.g. Finnish). In that case, IPA can be useful if you are not yet familiar with the pronunciation of the language, but you should be able to learn this quickly enough from listening to recordings, teachers, etc.
  • You are learning Chinese. For Standard Chinese, the main transcription system is pinyin; see for example Where can I find Chinese IPA transcriptions? on Chinese StackExchange. In some cases, e.g. if you are learning Chinese in Taiwan, Zhuyin fuhao or bopomofo can be useful.
  • +1 for pinyin. Hanyu Pinyin is obviously not international, but correct Hanyu Pinyin (that is, showing tone marks) is the finest phonetic orthography ever for a specific language. Commented Aug 14, 2016 at 22:44

While the IPA is an invaluable tool for English even if you're a native speaker, in languages spelled phonetically it's mostly useful for the initial stages and there's no reason to keep using IPA once you learn the rules. Being able to read IPA was useful for me when studying French, because it has a lot of vowels and the rules can get complicated to memorize at first.


Few languages are 100% phonetic. Even Spanish has oddities in a few foreign words which retain their foreign spelling, words from indigenous American languages, etc.

Also letters have subtle differences in their pronunciation between languages and even how they sound before or after certain other letters or sounds. IPA can render both phonemic (broad) and phonetic (narrow) transcriptions.

But be aware that even IPA can be used in two or more ways by two or more dictionaries, linguists, study materials, etc.


Learning IPA takes some time. If you plan to learn only one language that is mostly phonetic, it may be better to learn the sounds of the letter's combinations with examples from your source language, without bothering with new symbols of IPA (although that's risky, because you might end up with bad habits; trying to imitate native speakers is almost always the way to go, whatever the language). IPA can be useful if you want to master the pronunciation of each word, but there are so many words and the quickest way to learn the pronunciation is to speak with native speakers.

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