Why you should learn the IPA

Before starting to learn any language, there's something you can learn that will make acquiring excellent pronunciation much easier for any language.

Last updated: January 2023

Before starting to learn any language, there's something you can learn that will make acquiring excellent pronunciation much easier for any language.

I'll illustrate with an example. Imagine you've just started to learn Swedish, and you've encountered the word "sjuksköterska". Imagine you didn't have access to a recording. How would you know how this word is actually pronounced? I could tell you that it sounds something like "hwookhertershka", but that isn't much help at all.

Alternatively, I could tell you that it's pronounced /ɧʉːkɧøːtɛʂka/, or even [ˈxʷʉ̟ʷːkˌxʷœːtɛʂkʲa], depending on how specific I was willing to get.  If you had the right set of background knowledge, these transcriptions would tell you all you needed to know about the pronunciation of this word, and you could pronounce it with a native-like accent immediately.

The system I used to transcribe the pronunciation of this word is called the IPA, short for the "International Phonetic Alphabet", and before I go on, check out this interactive IPA chart.  Just click on the different symbols to get an idea of all the different sounds the IPA can transcribe.

Here's a couple screenshots of the official IPA chart:

Vowels Consonants
vowels-IPA consonants-IPA-1

This is a set of symbols that can describe the sounds of any language without a bias towards a particular language; the idea is that these can describe English phonology just as well as Swedish or even Mongolian phonology.  The symbols are reminiscent of their common pronunciations in European languages purely for convenience's sake.  The organization that is in charge of managing this alphabet is the "International Phonetic Association".

This post will explain why it was created and why you should learn it.  If you decide you'd like to learn it, check out my post so that you know where to start!

An unambiguous writing system

You might think to yourself, "Why don't we just use the English letters to transcribe things, wouldn't that be simpler?"

Here's why this wouldn't work: Take the English words "win", "white", and "wide". The letter "i" in each of these words has a different sound (for most northern American English accents).  So, if we wanted to use "i" in our hypothetical transcription system, how would we really know what it means when there are at least 3 different possibilities already based some common English words?  The letter "i" would be ambiguous in our hypothetical transcription system, but with the IPA, the different sounds are accurately represented:

  • win: [wɪn]
  • white: [wʌ͡ɪt]
  • wide: [wa͡ɪd]

Here's another example: transcribing the Arabic consonant "ق".  It's /q/ in the IPA, which represents a sound that doesn't even exist in English.  Therefore, just English letters would not be sufficient to transcribe it, since there's just no letter or letter combination that would actually explain how it's pronounced.  

So, how can we accurately transcribe every sound in every language with no ambiguity? The answer is to pick one sound for each symbol.  In the IPA, the /i/ symbol always represents the vowel sound in the word "tea", and the /q/ symbol always represents the Arabic consonant above (this sound exists in all these other languages, too).

In the same way, each of the other IPA symbols represent exactly one sound that's been agreed upon.  The exact sound pronounced can vary slightly in individual language transcriptions (so /q/ in Arabic may sound just a tad different than Uzbek, for example), but the idea here is consistency within the transcriptions of a single language.  In other words, if you're reading transcriptions for words in, say, Swedish, the same symbol will always have the same exact sound, so you never have to guess how things are pronounced.

Imagine being an English learner and encountering the following words: "thought", "through", "though", and "plough".  The "ough" combination, in addition to being a very confusing letter combination to begin with, also has a different sound value in every one of these 4 words:

  • "thought": /θɑt/
  • "through": /θru/
  • "though": /ðo͡ʊ/
  • "plough": /pla͡ʊ/

Thanks to the IPA, however, you can glance over the transcriptions for a words you have no idea how to pronounce, and understand exactly which sounds a particular word is made of.  This is especially useful for languages with confusing orthography (like English or French) or for languages that use a writing system you might be unfamiliar with (such as Arabic or Hindi).

To expand on the Arabic example, there's a couple challenges learners face when learning to read Arabic:

  1. It's a totally unfamiliar writing system, and it's hard to remember the letters at first
  2. Arabic does not write short vowels.  For example the word for "France" in Arabic, which is pronounced /fa.ran.saː/, is written as "frnsa" (without the /a/ sounds)

The result is that when you see an Arabic word without an IPA transcription, it can be very challenging to know how it's actually pronounced.

Similar issues arise when learning other writing systems like that of Hindi, Thai, Mongolian, etc.

To summarize, learning the IPA allows you to sidestep the issues presented by confusing, ambiguous writing systems that don't give you enough information to actually know how a word is pronouncd.  With the IPA, what's written is exactly enough to know how the word is pronounced.  You never have to guess or be unsure.

No more sound miscategorization

To expand on this, if you do choose to rely on audio recordings without IPA transcriptions, you run the risk of having mixed up mental categories for the sounds of the language you're learning.  For example, you might mistakenly assume that /æ/ (as in "bat") and /ɛ/ (as in "bet") are the same sound in English because they sound similar to you, especially if you come from a language like Russian that doesn't have this distinction.  You could drill "bat" and "bet" over and over again, but if you're mistakenly pronouncing both with /ɛ/ because you don't hear the difference, you're just wasting your time.

Or maybe you're aware that English has /æ/and /ɛ/ as two different sounds, but you have a hard time hearing the difference, so when you hear the word "gnat" in a conversation for the first time, you decide it sounds like /nɛt/, when it's actually /næt/.  If you'd just looked up the IPA transcription for it, you'd know how it's pronounced and not miscategorize the vowel sound.

Knowing the IPA allows you to always learn a word with the correct pronunciation, and never mistakenly pronounce things with the wrong sound (even though you're capable of pronouncing the right one).  This concept of mental categories is a hugely important one for perfect accents that I rely on heavily and will continue to expand in this blog.

Precise articulatory information

Another benefit to learning the IPA is that it unlocks very precise phonetic transcriptions that can you tell you exactly how a word sounds without even any audio to accompany it!  For example, given the IPA transcription for the Swedish word "sjuksköterska", [ˈxʷʉ̟ʷːkˌxʷœːtɛʂkʲa], I could pronounce it with a very passable Swedish accent, even if I'd never heard the word before in my life.  This makes acquiring a native-like accent very efficient, because you no longer have to rely on drilling audio recordings and hoping you're saying things right.  If you look at [ˈxʷʉ̟ʷːkˌxʷœːtɛʂkʲa], you have all the information you need to position your mouth, lips, tongue, and throat correctly to get the sounds right from the start.

Understanding the nuances of more precise transcriptions like this requires an understanding of "phonetics", the branch of linguistics that deals with describing linguistic sounds in a precise, scientific way.  For example, rather than describing the French "r" sound as "guttural", "throaty", "phlegmy", or even "nasal" (very wrong), we can instead precisely describe it as [ʁ], a "voiced uvual fricative", with a tendency to "devoice" into [χ], a "voiceless uvular fricative" when next to other voiceless consonants.  This type of precise terminology, once mastered, is another key to acquiring a native-like accent in any language.

Thoughts on recordings

Using recordings of native (or highly advanced) speakers to work on your accent is a fantastic strategy to work on your accent.  A technique I use is called "minimal pair drills", where I practice a single contrast (for instance the difference between /e/ and /ɛ/ in French) by pronouncing words that contain these sounds ("fée" and "fait" in this case ) after listening to the recording, and repeating until I'm confident I can reproduce the difference.

However, unless you're one of a few very gifted people, you probably won't be able to reproduce the recordings 100% correctly.  In my experience, people that only rely on recordings or repeating after native speakers in real conversations almost never end up with perfect accents - depending on their ability, they can get pretty close, but to really get the last 1%, it's important to understand the theory behind how sounds are produced and how speakers of the language mentally categorize them.  As I describe in the "Precise articulatory information" section above, learning the IPA allows you to actually understand how speakers of a certain language perceive their languages's sounds and produce them in a variety of different environments. Check out this post on phones vs. phonemes for more on this idea.

My suggestion is to use both the IPA and recordings to really nail your accent.  The IPA gives you the background information and a mental structure to start with, and the recordings allow you to fine-tune the sounds you're making to really match up exactly with native speakers.

Resources and further reading

Hopefully, by now, I've made a somewhat compelling argument for you to learn at least the basics of the IPA.  If that's the case, you might be wondering where you can start to learn it, and where you can read more about all these principles in general.  I'll try to provide some suggestions here for further reading, and I'll also continue to cover these concepts in this blog!

Good descriptions of language phonology and the particular sounds of each relevant IPA symbol can be found on a language's Wikipedia page in the format "[language] Language", "Help:IPA/[language]", and "[language] Phonology".  For example, for French:

  • French Language: an overview of the French language, from history and geographic distribution to grammar and phonollgy
  • French Phonology: a breakdown of the French sound system (making heavy use of the IPA)
  • Help:IPA/French: a reference chart for which letters (and combinations) correspond to which IPA symbols, so that you can go from e.g. "vingt" (meaning "twenty") to how it's actually pronounced: /vɛ̃/.  This also links to specific Wikipedia pages describing every single sound with an incredible amount of detail.  For instance, even the page for a common sound like /b/, or the "voiced bilabial plosive" (as in "bat" or "boy") has a diagram and technical explanations, and every other sound you can think of has a page with explanations and examples in different languages.

For an overall starting point, start with the "Phonetics" Wikipedia page.

Also, I will keep writing lots of content in this area, so stay tuned for more posts on this blog if you're curious!


I highly recommend that anyone interested in acquiring a native-like accent take the time to learn the IPA.  Doing so will allow you to:

  1. Always know how a word is pronounced, even with writing systems like English (confusing spelling) or Arabic (doesn't write down many vowel sounds)
  2. Have clear mental categories for what sounds a language has and which words use which sounds.
  3. Understand the principles behind how sounds are produced and accelerate the process of learning to pronounce unfamiliar sounds correctly thanks to having a theoretical base to work from.
  4. Super-charge recordings with an "answer key" of what sounds are actually in the word so you can quickly sound like a native speaker (and also have no trouble with listening comprehension tests)

Hopefully this post has convinced you to learn the IPA, or to at least be aware of it next time you're practicing your pronunciation.

If you've been convinced, check out this post on learning the IPA to get started!

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