Sustainable learning

Are you afraid of the big bad wolf?


Are you afraid of the IPA?

Does it give you butterflies in your stomach just thinking about it?  Don’t be scared, like anything, if you are familiar with what it is exactly, you can use it.  I promise!

Firstly, what is the IPA?  It stands for International Phonetic Alphabet.  But what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?  Good question.  Let’s take the key word:


Ok, sorry that was sneaky.  I’ll admit it.  But how did you do?  Can you read it?  That’s right, ‘phonetic’.  Let’s compare them side by side.

(1) /fəˈnetɪk/

(2) phonetic

So what do you notice?  (1) Well, the first one tells us exactly how to say the word (leaving aside the question of dialectal accent variation for a moment).  It gives us all the vowel sounds.  This is usually the tricky bit for students.  It also shows us which part of the word sounds stronger.  Is it the first or the second part (syllable)?  If you look a bit closer, you’ll see that there is a small apostrophe after the /əˈ/ symbol.  The key is that, after the apostrophe, you say the next consonant and vowel stronger than the other parts of the word.  This softens the pronunciation of the rest of the word, but gives important linguistic information to English speakers.

Try to move it around.  If you say /ˈfonətɪk/ you might be understood as saying phoner tech.  What is that?  An on-call internet technician?  This is troublesome for many of our students.  Some are tempted to go straight for the written version of English (maybe it’s all they have access to) and to pronounce each letter as they see it.

(2) The second one tells us how the word was possibly said a very long time ago when French and English were fighting for top spot in world politics.  It takes us on a historical journey.  Fascinating though it is, its main purpose these days is to write.  Not speak.  It’s not a good system in my opinion.  But it’s an old system and it’s the one we’ve got.  From a student’s perspective, what can we do?  As an educator, we need to tell them to close their books for a while, tell them to close their eyes and let them listen to the language rather than seeing it.

A piece of advice.

As  educators we also need to develop some confidence in guiding our students with these hieroglyphics.  Start working on the /ə/ sound, it’s commonly called a schwa, but don’t worry too much about that, a student will rarely need to know that.  Try to locate it in relation to the apostrophe.  You may notice that more often than not, the stressed syllable does not contain an /ə/ sound.  If students can work on this sound first, it could help them to soften their pronunciation and improve their word stress awareness at the same time.

How can you find out?

Go to the dictionary before your class.  Just write down the phonetics for key vocabulary items in your class.  Start with just one or two.  Five or six if you’re feeling brave.

If in doubt, check out an online dictionary.  You can also click and listen to the word.  If you’re like me, if you think about the pronunciation too much, you might change it.  Here are a few useful free dictionary sites:

/ ɡʊd lʌk /  !


2 thoughts on “Are you afraid of the big bad wolf?

  1. To be honest with you.. Phonetics really do scare me. However I have also utilised the dictionary in the past to make sure I use the correct sounds hehe.

    There is also a useful application on the apple store (for those that have iphones/ipads) its called sounds: the pronunciation (by macmillan) useful for self revision!

  2. The IPA can be quite challenging to begin with. There are a few textbooks around with activities to familiarise students with them. They are quite engaging as a warmer for your lessons too! I’ve used English Unlimited (Elementary and Pre-Intermediate) from Cambridge University Press recently. It has some quick stand alone activities to encourage students to speak using these symbols.

    Check out the link here:

    All the best, and thanks for following my blog 🙂

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