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There are many resources that I wish I could use, but can't, because I don't understand the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) fluently. I constantly need to refer to a table of characters, and I'm still never quite sure how each symbol sounds when spoken.

I'd love to be able to write down how a word sounds, for example, or be able to pronounce a word based on its IPA representation. What strategies can I use to get a better understanding of the IPA system, so that I can actually use it?

  • See Step 3 in languagelearning.stackexchange.com/a/151/90 which answers this question. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Apr 6 '16 at 1:02
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    What is your intent in learning the IPA? – callyalater Apr 8 '16 at 16:37
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    @fi12 I don't even get why it's divided: I understand people thinking, "Well, just look up the symbols, and learn it like anything else", but this is literally about language learning! Beside that point, I expected that with all of the knowledgeable people on this site, there would be some great suggestions or resources that I just simply don't know! (Which I have gotten; the two answers so far are exactly what I hoped.) – Numeri Apr 9 '16 at 23:14
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    @callyalater My intent is to be able to 'produce' (at least in my head) the sounds of words of any language, more accurately than with pronunciation guides such as "pronunciation: pro-nun-see-ay-shun". – Numeri Apr 9 '16 at 23:20
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How do you learn IPA and the basics of Phonetics?

'IPA' and 'Phonetics' may appear difficult terms; but not after you spend 5 minutes to read the following.

IPA Chart with Sounds & Video Animations

  1. While reading the books below, you should listen to and always refer to the sounds themselves. Keep these links below open on your computer for instant reference as you have your book open (I do, whenever I read about phonetics and phonology).

1.1. Bookmark this IPA Chart with Sounds.

1.2. If hearing the sound still does not help you to determine how to produce some particular sound, try watching video animations or clips (see this answer for links) that depict exactly and precisely where your articulators (eg: your lips, tongue, etc...) must be.

Books

  1. For your debut, read the 2 chapters on Phonetics that also discusses IPA, in The Study of Language 5th ed. (2014) by George Yule. This reading should take less than 1 hour. Easy, right?

  2. Then after 2, read the 2 chapters on Phonetics and Phonology in An Introduction to Language 10th Ed. (2014) by V Fromkin et al.

Do NOT miss or neglect the IPA chart on p 2 (directly after the book cover). Instead, print it and keep it handy! I especially like this IPA chart because it lists and shows you where these strange IPA sounds can be found in English words (e.g. the IPA symbol [ʍ] equals the 'wh' in which, and [w] equals the 'wh' in witch). This reading should take less than 3 hours.

  1. If 2 and 3 are not enough, then try http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Introduction-Phonetics-Textbooks-Linguistics/dp/0199246351.
  • It is not at all possible to read the book in less than 1 hour unless you know all of the jargon in advance... – Blaszard Apr 7 at 20:44
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Getting fluent in the full range of IPA is overkill for the most practical purposes (essentially, you only need it for phonetic transcription or documentation of unwritten languages/dialects).

Instead, concentrate on the subset of IPA used in the target language you want to learn. Langenscheidt dictionaries come with handy tables in the front matter of the book for this purpose.

Note also that IPA can be used in a very subtle way denoting even sub-phonemic variation, but usually a lot of information (e.g., on aspiration of voiceless stops) is left out and has to be added by the reader. Again, the front matter of Langenscheidt dictionaries gives this information.

  • do you need to know the IPA at all if when learning a new word, you always hear how it sounds? – Ooker Apr 26 '16 at 8:43
  • @Ooker: You often learn new words by reading foreign language texts, and than knowing IPA is very handy because you can look the pronunciation up. When you have a speaking device reading the word aloud, you can get by without IPA indeed. – jknappen Apr 26 '16 at 9:06
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As with most subjects, taking a class or receiving private tutoring is probably best. A course in phonetics will teach you not only the International Phonetic Alphabet itself but enough information to know how to use that alphabet correctly. This free online course from MIT, called "Phonology", is actually a phonetics and phonology course and covers the IPA.

If you prefer a book to a class, Ladefoged, A Course in Phonetics, should do you good.

  • Is the MIT class not the online one? The UI is obnoxious and I don't understand how I can take it. – Blaszard Jan 9 at 22:18
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For those who know German, there is an unusual set of books by Vera F. Birkenbihl and Jan Müller:

  • Vera F. Birkenbihl & Jan Müller: Das Falschschreib-Spiel fonetix: Wir schreiben ohne Regeln frei nach Gehör. Alfa-Veda-Verlag, 2005; fourth printing 2014. ISBN 978-3945004104. This book was originally published as a supplement to Trotzdem LEHREN (Gabal, 2004).
  • Vera F. Birkenbihl & Jan Müller: fonetix II: Wir lesen und schreiben streng nach Gehör. 10 Übungstexte in der Lautschrift IPA. Alfa-Veda Verlag, 2006, third printing 2014. ISBN 978-3945004111.

The first book does not teach IPA (except on the book's last pages). Its publication was prompted by the observation that many German-speaking children with spelling problems have only an approximately correct pronunciation of the language. And since the German writing system is not really "phonetic" (in spite of what many German think), incorrect pronunciation contributes to incorrect spelling. For this reason, the book contains "games" with several types of texts: texts that are written in correct German spelling and with a "phonetic" version below each line, texts that are only available in this "phonetic" version etc. The point is to learn to write what you really hear.

The second book introduces IPA and contains three types of exercises.

  1. The first type of exercises uses text with in interlinear IPA transcription. These texts should be read out loud so learners can compare their pronunciation with the IPA transcription. Once you are familiar with IPA, you should cover the IPA transcription with a piece of paper and write your own IPA transcription on it.
  2. The second type of exercises gives you texts that are transcribed in IPA and you should write down the text in correct German. So this is a kind of spelling exercises that uses IPA.
  3. Finally, the last exercises gives you a normal German text that you need to convert into IPA.

Obviously, these books focus on German, not English, but the last one will make you thoroughly familiar with phonemic transcription.

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