Learn how to READ the pronunciation of English words using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

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Dear reader, if I were to ask you, "Hey, how can I look up the pronunciation of a word in English?", you will most likely tell me, "Well, just listen to a recording on an online dictionary... or google it, I don't know." Looking up and listening to a recording of somebody pronouncing the word in English that you need to know sounds like the best option. In fact... it sounds like the only option. Because how else could we look up the pronunciation of a word if not by listening to it, right?

Well, it turns out that there's something else you can do besides listening to the pronunciation of a word: You can read its pronunciation. Remember that English is a non-phonetic language – the way you write a word in English doesn't tell you how to pronounce it. There are many words in English that are written very similarly, like "bough", "cough" and "dough", but they have very different pronunciations.

This doesn't happen only in English, so, to be able to write on paper how words sound in any language regardless of its writing system, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was developed. This alphabet IS completely phonetic, and each symbol has a distinctive sound assigned to it.

A sub-group of all the symbols of the IPA can be assigned to each language in existence, so that we can write down the pronunciations of words on each particular language. Thus, English has its own sub-group of IPA symbols, which you can use to read and write pronunciations in English. For instance:

Word: bough
Phonetic transcription in IPA: /'baʊ/

Word: cough
Phonetic transcription in IPA: /'kɔf/

Word: dough
Phonetic transcription in IPA: /'doʊ/


Why learn the IPA for English


Most software dictionaries have audio recordings for almost all words. If you want you could get by with recordings to verify the pronunciation of words in English... but believe me, it's very useful if you also learn the IPA for English.

It's worth it because, first, in my experience, reading the phonetic transcription in IPA of a word in English gives you much more security about how it should sound, in comparison to just listening to a recording of the word. Basically, reading a pronunciation is less ambiguous than just listening to it.

As Tom from Antimoon.com explains, because of lack of experience, or the bad quality of the recording you are listening to, you could confuse certain sounds in a word, and you could end up not being sure about how to really pronounce it. Or worse, you could end up thinking that its pronounced in one way, but the correct pronunciation is another.

Moreover, sometimes you can't listen a recording of a word. Maybe the word doesn't come with a recording, or maybe it includes one, but you cannot play audio in that moment (but you CAN read the pronunciation written in IPA).


How to learn the IPA for English


Learning the IPA is not difficult once you get used to how English should sound. To learn it I recommend you follow these steps:

First, if you are starting to learn English from scratch, I suggest you don't learn the IPA yet. Get used to listening to content in English for about one or two weeks before that. Once you get a bit more used to the sounds of English, then learn the IPA.

The next step is to see the IPA symbols themselves and learn how they sound. A good guide that shows you all the IPA symbols for English (consonants, vowels, dipthongs, etc.) and an example of how each one should sound, is the pronunciation page at the Oxford Learner's Dictionary. Another pronunciation guide I like is the one at Antimoon.com.

Some things to have in mind:
  • >Usually, phonetic transcriptions (or to be exact, phonemic... but don't worry about that) in English are written within slashes, like this: /ˈɔsəm/ (Awesome).
  • If you see an apostrophe-like symbol in a transcription, it means the word has it's accent or emphasis there. For instance: /ɪɡˈzɪstɪŋ/ (Ex-IS-ting). If the emphasis is at the beginning of the word, the apostrophe is usually omitted.
  • If you see a comma-like symbol in a transcription, it means the word has a decreasing accent there. For instance: /ˈɑrkəˌtɛktʃər/ (ARKI-tecture).
  • Be careful with the "flapping t". In English from the US, words like "water" or "butter" are usually not pronounced with a "t" sound in the middle. Instead, the 't' is pronounced kind of like a 'd'. That sound is known as the "flapping t". I really like the Oxford Learner's Dictionary because it includes the flapping t symbol (/ t̮ /, that is , the 't' with a small curve below) on words that have that pronunciation. Other dictionaries like Cambridge don't include the symbol, and just leave the normal 't'.
Learning the IPA symbols and their respective sounds shouldn't take you a lot of time – maybe an hour at most. Pay attention to the subtle differences between certain sounds. For instance, the / d / does NOT sound the same as the / ð /, and the / s / doesn't sound the same as the / z /.

As you look up words in the dictionary in the coming months you will be practicing reading the phonetic transcriptions. With time, reading IPA pronunciations will become natural to you.

If you are interested, a methodical way to review the IPA is to use a spaced repetition program like Anki, which I used to use to review kanji, kana (for Japanese) and the English IPA. You can learn how to use Anki here, and then download and install my custom IPA deck at Anki's shared deck page.

Lastly, if your native language uses the Latin alphabet, then you might already be familiar with most of the IPA symbols for English, like the 'p', the 't' and 'I'. But there are symbols like the 'ʌ', the 'dʒ' and the 'ð' that might be totally new to you. If despite using Anki you are having issues remembering these symbols, then I recommend you try to use mnemonic techniques to help you remember them. For instance, invent stories that relate each symbol with words in English that contain the sound they produce, like this:

If the / ʃ / is the integral symbol in math, and the word 'she' uses the / ʃ / sound, then why not say:

"¡Wow, look at that guys, she has such a beautiful and integral hair hanging from her head!

Wait a minute... she has no head... she's just floating hair... man, integrals are scary D:"



Or we also have the / ð / that occurs at the beginning of the word 'then'. This symbol looks like a flaccid 'd' that got a tilde ( ~ ) stabbed through his... whatever it is :P. You could invent a story like:

"Imagine the 'd' is a Jason wannabe (with a belly), with a hockey mask and everything. The killer 'd' is chasing through the forest the word 'then' and the letter 'ñ' from Spanish to give them a good ol' stabbing. The 'd' traps 'then' and 'ñ' in a cabin, and gets ready to chop them into pieces. And then, 'then' yells to 'ñ': "¡ñ! ¡Give me your tilde! ¡¡It's our last hope!!" And the 'ñ' rips off the tilde form her head (and she becomes just 'n') and gives it to 'then', who firmly grabs the tilde and furiously stabs the 'd' on its... yup. Ouch."

Make your stories as crazy, irreverent, colorful, sexual, etc. as you like. Those stories will be inside your dirty, dirty mind anyways, and nobody has to know them but you :D

And that's it. That's how you can learn the IPA for English, and really, it's worth it to have this tool to help you master the pronunciation of English words. Use it!


Summary


With the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) you can read the pronunciation of words in English. It's good to learn the IPA because reading the pronunciation of a word is less ambiguous than listening to a recording of said word.

Learn the IPA: If you are learning English from scratch, get used to listening to it for a week or two first. Then, read this IPA guide and/or this one. Pay attention to the sound of each symbol and their differences. Looking up words in the dictionary and reading their phonetic transcriptions for days, weeks, months, will get you used to reading said IPA transcriptions.

Optional: Use Anki and this deck to review methodically. Use mnemonic stories to help you remember the symbols.


Last updated: May 20 of 2015

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