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The International Phonetic Alphabet: As Easy As /eɪ/ /bi/ /si/
Proper pronunciation is one of the hardest things to master when learning a foreign language. Read on to learn more about the alphabet that makes any word easy to translate into speech.
No matter what language you speak, your words can be broken down into small units of sound called phonemes. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) gives all of the phonemes in the world their own symbol. The IPA contains more than 160 graphic symbols; most are Latin or Greek letters, or modified Latin or Greek letters—for instance, some of the symbols are upside-down Latin letters, such as the schwa (ə). Since the symbols in the alphabet represent sounds rather than words, any language in the world can be transcribed using IPA, which makes it a helpful tool for those learning to speak a foreign language.
Imagine you are learning to speak English for the first time and you’re confronted with the following words: tough, ghost, and through. In these cases, gh makes three different sounds. It mimics an F in tough, a hard G in ghost, and in through, it sounds like a falling tree when no one is around to hear it. Employing the IPA clues readers in to these kinds of lingual nuances, eliminating any confusion: tough is /tʌf/, ghost is /goʊst/, and through is /θru/.
Incidentally, the different sounds of gh has led to some controversy among English linguists. Around the early 20th century, an anonymous language reformer—some say it was George Bernard Shaw—presented the made-up word ghoti as an example of the inconsistencies in English spelling. The word, in theory, was a variant of fish, written as /ˈfɪʃ/ in IPA, using the various ways gh, o, and ti could be pronounced in English. Regardless of the particular foibles of English, when approaching new words in any language, whether Spanish or Cantonese, seeking out an IPA transcription can help students master the pronunciation with confidence.