Note: All IPA symbols will be contained inside brackets [ ].

What is IPA?

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a set of symbols used to represent sounds. It was created by a team of linguists at the turn of the 19th century and over the past few decades has become an indispensable tool for language learners, actors, and singers.

Unlike in written language (orthography), where one written letter can change sounds based on its position within a word, with the IPA, one symbol represents a single sound within that language. For example, the English words “weak” and “week” have very different meanings but have the same pronunciation. In an IPA transcription these words are represented exactly the same – [wik]. Similarly, the present tense verb “read” [rid] is spelled exactly as the past tense “read” [rɛd], but interchanging their pronunciation would confuse the listener.

Do I need to learn IPA to learn the sounds of a language? 

The purpose of this app is to teach the sounds of different languages. BabelSounds utilizes the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to help in this effort. People have been learning languages much longer than the IPA has been around. It is entirely possible to use this app and learn the sounds of each language without learning the IPA. However, there are some benefits to learning and using it as language learners, actors, and singers. Continue read to find out more.

Why is it useful?

The IPA provides a system to help us learn and remember the sounds of a language. Learning new words and texts can be challenging if we don’t know what the sounds are or which syllable receives the stress. We don’t always have access to a native speaker when learning new words, but most dictionaries print a phonetic transcription next to each entry. Similarly, if a teacher, coach, or conductor gives specific instructions about a word’s pronunciation, writing it using an IPA symbol is a great way to help you remember and pass on to your fellow students or colleagues.

Do I need to become an expert in IPA to use it?

Absolutely not! The IPA has hundreds of symbols; many of those symbols can be combined together to represent thousands of sounds with great specificity. This is a powerful tool to help linguists work with and discuss the phonetics of the world’s 6000+ languages. As singers, our goal is to communicate, to be understood, and to be expressive, not to become experts in IPA.

For many people, recognizing and learning the consonant sounds will be very intuitive. The vowels may look a little odd at first, but with a little work will make sense and be helpful.

Will learning IPA help me to learn other languages?

Yes! It’s a powerful tool and can be applied to languages beyond the scope of BabelSounds. If you have a good understanding of the IPA symbols and their corresponding sound you will be able to apply that knowledge when learning the sounds of other languages.

If I can read an IPA transcription will I sound like a native?

The ability to read IPA doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically sound like a native speaker. You can have a good basic understanding of the sounds that make up a language but there is more to a language than just the sounds and the stresses that are indicated using the IPA. There is the melody or flow of language which can’t be captured and written down. Which words are important? How are words emphasized? How does internal word stress change the perceived meaning of the sentence or idea? This is why seeing the IPA transcription, hearing a native speaker demonstrate, and repeating back is so important.

Where can I find out more information about the IPA?

The International Phonetic Association  [ɪntə’næʃənəl  fə’nɛtɪk  əsoʊsi’eɪʃn]