One thing that frustrates everybody learning a new language is pronunciation.
We get shy, think we are not able to do it, that it’s too hard, that we are dumb, yada yada yada. The reason for this is probably the social pressure we are usually subjected to. Quite often we have that friend, who speaks the language we are learning, and who may tease us for not being able to reproduce the sounds of that language properly. And the jokes are everywhere, not only in our social circles, but in the internet – obviously – as well. Here are some…
Let’s get down to business, shall we?
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There is one thing called IPA which means International Phonetic Alphabet.
Phonetics is the science behind pronunciation studies; that is: how you should reproduce words using your mouth.
Alright, great, but why would I need to learn a new alphabet if I already know how to pronounce all the latin alphabet letters and I’m learning, say, Spanish which also uses the same set of letters?
Well, that’s simple: same alphabet but different languages thus different sets of sounds.
I know, that’s difficult to accept. People (and other animals) don’t like changes; it’s uncomfortable. But if you have a goal, speaking a new language, you have to be open-minded and accept new things.
Words written in another language won’t be pronounced the way you would in your native tongue. To make things even worse (or fun :D), within a language you’re going to find exceptions to the language’s pronunciation standard. English, for instance, has lots of pronunciation exceptions. Words in modern languages come from different sources, i.e. different languages. These words are called loanwords and their pronunciation can’t aways be adapted to the “borrower language”‘s phonetic standard. Sometimes, they could – phonetically – but they become so widespread and popular with a different pronunciation that trying to change them would be just pointless.
Luckly I’ve convinced you, haven’t I? IPA is important! Well, I tried…
As the IPA has a lot of characters it’s not easy to learn it completely. Good news: you don’t have to. As each language has its own particular sounds, you should only care about learning the IPA characters used to represent those sounds – the sounds of the language you’re studying.
Okay, you’re really interested but have no clue how you’re going to study the IPA nor how you’re going to use it. It’s easier than you think.
Good dictionaries include – even in their pocket versions – the IPA transcription next to the words. Be careful, some dictionaries are just crazy: some don’t use proper IPA characters, mix IPA and latin alphabet characters or use another kind of non-standard phonetic transcription. Usually, expensive and famous dictionaries will contain IPA transcriptions. Just check with other people (or Mr. Google) whether the dictionary you’re interested in acquiring really has IPA transcriptions.
Once you get one of these dictionaries, you’ll start to understand IPA automatically. It will be little confusing at first, but with time you’ll be able to read the phonetic alphabet as you read texts written in your mother tongue.
Stay tuned as I’ll post the most common IPA characters in English, Portuguese, German and, who knows, Japanese.
If you’re curious to know more about the history and other interesting stuff about the conception of the IPA, please read the excellent International Phonetic Alphabet Wikipedia article.