Improve your accent with the International Phonetic Alphabet (part 2)

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This is a continuation from two weeks ago. Please read that post first if you haven't yet.

Vowels can be the bane of accent improvement for native English speakers because the Great Vowel Shift has caused English vowels to be misaligned with the vowels used in continental Europe or even much of Africa and Asia. The biggest difference is that many English long vowels are really diphtongs, e.g. make is /meɪk/, boat is /boʊt/ (American) or /bəʊt/ (British RP), mine is /maɪn/, and so on.

By contrast, there is a set of 5 basic vowels that are shared by German, Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, Chinese, Hawaiian and most languages on the planet - and only two of these five vowels are present in English in clear form (outside of diphtongs). The basic vowels are:

- /a/ as in German Katze, Spanish/Italian casa, French chat... in American English and British RP it only occurs as the first part of the diphtong in mine /maɪn/. The more typical English A as in father is spelled /ɑ/ in IPA and the main difference is that /ɑ/ is pronounced in the back of the mouth (refer to the previous post in this series).

- /e/ as in German Leben, Spanish peso, French thé, Italian te... in American English and British RP it only occurs as the first part of the diphtong in make /meɪk/. It's how Scottish people might say "may". The more typical English E as in bed is spelled /ɛ/ and this sound also occurs in German, French and Italian (but not Spanish), in addition to the /e/.

- /i/ as in English meet

- /o/ as in German oder, Spanish Hola, French tôt, Italian ombra... in English it doesn't occur at all. The more typical English O as in bought is spelled /ɔ/ in IPA and this sound also occurs in German, French and Italian (but not Spanish), in addition to the /o/.

- /u/ as in English boot

If your native language is English, it is generally a great investment to learn these basic vowels. If you get the vowels right but not the consonants, people may think you're not from their country, but they usually won't think you're an American tourist.

Minimal pairs

Apart from referring to the IPA vowel chart a lot and playing with the front-back, open-closed and rounded-unrounded distinctions, a great way to practice the vowels of your target language is by using minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are two or more words that differ only in one sound (one IPA symbol, independent of spelling).

For example in English the words
pat – pet – pit – pot – put – pout
are minimal pairs and can be used to help immigrants master the English vowels. In French, you might use
sa - sans – sein - son – sceau
which, despite the differences in spelling, are really just /s/ with a different vowel following. Use Google in order to find a list of minimal pairs for your target language and use in order to listen to each word and practice imitating it.

The term "minimal pair" comes from linguistics. Linguists look for these sets in order to figure out which of a language's sounds are actually important to master (because people might think you're saying a different word) and which sounds might reveal you are not a native but won't lead to misunderstandings.

Note that the notion of minimal pairs also applies to consonants, e.g. zoo and Sue are a minimal pair for those struggling with the /z/ vs. /s/ distinction.


IPA consonants are mostly what you'd expect: /s/ as in sand, /t/ as in time, /n/ as in name, /p/ as in part, /v/ as in vein, /z/ as in zoo, and so on. You might be surprised that the Y in year is represented as /j/ in IPA (as in German).

A few extra symbols had to be found to represent all the consonants of the English language:

  • /ŋ/ is the NG at the end of a word like going
  • /θ/ is the TH in think
  • /ð/ is the TH in this, which sounds slightly different from the above
  • /ʃ/ is the SH
  • /ʒ/ is the S in pleasure - /dʒʌmp/ is how you'd spell jump in IPA
  • /ʔ/ is known as the glottal stop, which you find for example in the middle of the exclamation uh-oh. Some variants of English use a glottal stop rather than /t/ in the middle of words like bottle.

Here's a chart of some IPA consonants - not all, just the English ones and a few extra:

(Sounds that occur in English in black; others in purple)

The rows are for different forms of articulation. Let's look at the first column as an example of this: 

- /m/ is pronounced via the nose ("nasal"), you don't even need to open your mouth. 

- /p/ and /b/ are pronounced via a sudden release - think of it as a little explosion from your mouth ("plosive"). 

- "Fricative" means that the consonant encounters some friction on the way out but it's a sustained release of air - you can say fffffffffff or vvvvvvvvvv for as long as you have air, while holding pppppppp or bbbbbbb is impossible. 

- The last row, "Approximant" is for sounds that are pronounced with parts of the mouth approaching each other but not close enough to cause real friction as in the fricatives. Do note that the /r/ sound may not be where you're expecting it to be - English varients use a variety of /r/ sounds which are spelled with a variety of symbols in IPA, but in IPA it's also permissible to simply write /r/ if the language context is clear.

Looking at the columns, just as in the vowel chart we saw in part 1 of this series, there is a progression from front to back as you go left to right. labial = pronounced with your lips, dental = pronounced with your teeth, the next few refer to different places deeper and deeper in your mouth and glottal refers to the opening between your vowel folds, deep in your throat. You don't have to become proficient at using these words; it is possible to learn the pronunciation of consonants by triangulation, just as for the vowels.

Learning consonants through IPA

An example: if you'd like to learn to produce the consonant /x/ - which is the last sound in the name of the German composer Bach and also comes up in a lot of German and Spanish words - you'd

  1. Locate /x/ in the chart.
  2. Find a consonant that you know how to pronounce that is in the same column as /x/, e.g. /k/
  3. Find a consonant that you know how to pronounce that is in the same row as /x/, e.g. /h/
  4. Say /k/, don't change anything about the position of your mouth or tongue, and then use the same mode of articulation as for /h/. (Or: pretend you're saying /h/ but without changing anything). This should get you to /x/.

You can apply the same triangulation for almost all new consonant sounds in your target language, as long as you've figured out their IPA symbol. For example, try to master /ç/ (the German CH in ich) and /ɲ/ (the Spanish ñ)

If you're learning Arabic, you cannot apply the above technique to master /q/ (corresponding to the letter Qaaf), because there is no English consonant in the Uvular column. In rare cases like this, you'd just take the nearest sound, e.g. /k/, and apply the minimal change that is velar -> uvular (just pronounce it further back).

The above chart is just a selection from the complete IPA consonant chart which you can find here. You will never need most of the consonants in the full chart, which are enough to describe all the languages in the world, so I recommend learning the IPA consonants one by one as you need them, by going to Wikipedia phonology page for the language you're learning, e.g. German phonology, French phonology, Spanish phonology... Don't get scared by the scientific terminology, just use the triangulation method, and refer to the big chart if you need to compare/triangulate between several languages.

More in part 3! Please share this if you found it helpful!

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