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Theory Thursday:The International Phonetic Alphabet

Learning a new language can be exhilarating, but oftentimes the most challenging part of adopting a whole new vocabulary can be actually pronouncing the words. How on earth do you say “xie xie” ? Enter the International Phonetic Alphabet.

With the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), all of the world’s languages and accents – no matter how difficult – are at your disposal! First developed in 1888 by the Association Phonétique Internationale (International Phonetic Association), IPA is a standardized collection of symbols used to transcribe the sounds of all the world’s languages (otherwise known as those funky symbols you see next to dictionary definitions). Independent of the idiosyncrasies of individual languages, the IPA shows sounds in a way that spelling never could. For example, using the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet, you can represent the difference between “bow” (as in to respectfully lower your head) and “bow” (as in what you wear in your pigtails). So, homonyms – you’re on red alert!

Apart from academia, though, the IPA has a multitude of uses. Classical singers often use the alphabet to study and practice the sounds of other languages they sing but do not necessarily learn. Speech pathologists also use the IPA both when recording speech impediments and diagnosing disorders. And, perhaps most importantly, the Salvation Army Team Emergency Radio Network (SATERN) recommends using the IPA when communicating via text about international disasters. Basically, the IPA can save your life!

Of course, there are other phonetic alphabets as well, like the American Phonetic Alphabet (APA) and the Revista de Filología Española (RFE), however the IPA is the most widely used by linguists and civilians alike since it isn’t specific to any country or language. Overall, the IPA is the way to go if you want to understand more about the sounds and phonetics of any language!

Interested in the IPA? You’re in luck! Mango is excited to now be the exclusive licensed distributor of IPAflashcards. Pick up an IPAflashcards deck of your own and visit IPAflashcards.com for more information.

How have you used the International Phonetic Alphabet? Has the IPA helped you learn a new language?

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    • I love the phonetic alphabet. It’s really very helpful when you learn a language…if you know what the symbols mean and are able to hear the difference between the sounds. You can use websites like wikipedia to hear sound clips. This doesn’t necessarily help you make the sounds, but it will give you a place to start (especially if you’re able to read instructions about place of articulation etc). I like knowing what the official pronunciation of words is.

    • Great post Rachel. I’ve been wanting to study the phonetic alphabet in depth knowing it would help me learn languages quicker. I bought a book about it recently, but haven’t had a chance to sit down and look at it yet.

      I spent some time studying it several years ago while living in Chile and my Spanish accent improved incredibly because of this.

      Flashcards sound cool too, thanks.

      • Hi Jared! Thank you for the comment and I’m so glad to hear you’ve been able to use the IPA and it helped your accent! We hope you continue your studies and check out the flashcards. Best of luck and we’d love to hear about your progress!



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Mango Languages

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