Hacking Pronunciation in Any Language with the IPA, Part 3: Phonetics

Posted on 01. Apr, 2015 by in Language Learning

Jakob Gibbons writes about language and travel on his blog Globalect. He often shares his experiences with learning languages on the road, and teaching and learning new speech sounds is his specialty.

In the first and second posts in this series on pronunciation, we delved into phonology and using the IPA for learning consonants and vowels in any new language. If you’ve been practicing, you should be ready for the third and most difficult part of pronunciation: phonetics.

In the first post on consonants we learned that, for example, the /p/ in the English word ‘pin’ is a voiceless bilabial plosive. But the same /p/, that very same voiceless bilabial plosive, is not the /p/ found in Spanish or Dutch or Hindi. In fact, a /p/ isn’t always the same /p/ even within any given language – can you tell the difference between the /p/ in English words ‘pin’ and ‘spin’? Probably not; their pronunciation is so natural as to be made effortlessly by native speakers, but the difference also contributes to that ‘almost perfect but not quite’ accent that many English learners have.

These most minute details of pronunciation are called phonetics, and they’re both the reason you have an accent in a foreign language and the trick to getting rid of that accent. And, just as with consonants and vowels, the IPA can help you train your tongue to execute flawless native-like pronunciation in any language.

Phonetics vs. Phonology

What we’ve talked about so far in this series is phonology, the system of phonemes or meaningful sounds in a language. In English, /p/ is a phoneme because the difference between it and other sounds yields the difference between pairs of different words like ‘pin’ and ‘bin’. However, the difference between the /p/ in ‘pin’ and that in ‘spin’ (we’ll get to just exactly what the difference is in a moment) is not phonemic because it’s never used to distinguish between different words.

These are phonetic differences, and they’re the most subtle details of pronunciation in any language. They’re the reason why, even after your 10 years living in Mexico, your todo doesn’t sound quite like the Mexican todo. You’re probably saying something like [`tho-do] or [`tho-ðo], while natives say [`to-ðo] without that little puff of air represented by the superscript h.


The IPA diacritics chart, with many symbols for representing the phonetic details of sounds. Third from the top on the left, you’ll see aspiration, and ways of representing degrees of rounding are just below.

Using the IPA for Phonetics

Phonetics is not as neatly organized as phonology, and it’d be impossible to discuss it exhaustively in one short blog post. Instead, here’s a short sampling of the typical phonetic differences that give away even the most fluent of foreign language speakers as non-natives:

Aspiration: I’ve mentioned this one several times already because it’s probably the number one sign of an Anglophone in any language. English stops [p, b, t, d, k, g] often have a lot of aspiration, meaning a puff of breath from the throat following the release of the sound, but this is not necessarily normal in most world languages.

Hold your hand in front of your mouth and say the words ‘pin’ and ‘spin’ (be sure to say them naturally and don’t overemphasize any part of the words). You should feel a noticeable puff of air after the /p/ in ‘pin’, but not in ‘spin’. That first /p/ is aspirated, as are most word-initial stops in English, but the one that follows the /s/ is not.

If you can practice saying words like ‘pin’, ‘tab’, ‘kit’, and others that start with stops, but saying them without releasing their normal puff of aspiration, you’re on your way to a flawless accent in a language like Dutch that features little aspiration. Even more, many South Asian languages (like Hindi) make a phonemic distinction between aspirated and unaspirated sounds, so that [pal], a verb meaning ‘to take care of’, is different than the word [phal] with its aspirated /p/, meaning ‘knife blade’. Important distinction, I’d say.

Degree of rounding: If you listen to an American English speaker say ‘no’, and a native Spanish speaker say no in Spanish, the difference is easy to hear. There are two aspects to this difference: one is diphthongization (which can be talked about just using the regular IPA vowel chart), and the other is degree of rounding.

Essentially, the English /o/ is made with the lips a bit more open than its Spanish cousin, whose articulation requires the lips to form a tight, nearly perfect circle. So if you hear a tiny difference like this one with a rounded vowel like /o/ or /u/, but your IPA vowel chart says you’re using the right phoneme, try playing with the shape of your lips as you say it. You might find that a little more or less puckering was all you needed to cover up the little Union Jack that falls out of your mouth every time you answer in the negative in Spanish.

Prosody: Prosody is the rhythm of speech, where the stresses fall within words and sentences, and it is another phonetic aspect that often pulls the trigger on the non-native flare gun. Prosody at the word level is fairly easy to learn: most English learners wouldn’t say something like “I’m goING to the supermarket”, with the emphasis on the latter half of the word ‘going’, but they may not know where to place the stress within the suprasegment of the sentence, whether ‘going’ or ‘supermarket’ is getting the most vocal attention.

Even for phonetic details, prosody is tough to get down. It’s often one of the very last aspects of nonnative speech that remain to give away the speaker’s true identity, partly because it’s nearly impossible to practice in any structured or focused way. Look at phonetic spellings in the dictionary to figure out where to put the stress within a word, and look for their patterns (for instance, affixes and grammatical inflections normally aren’t stressed). For sentence prosody, try watching speeches or documentaries and repeating entire sentences exactly how you hear them, with an ear for which parts are receiving more or less stress.

IPA suprasegmentals, various marks used to show the prosody of speech. In the first line, for example, the word "phonetician" is transcribed phonetically, marking where the primary and secondary stresses fall.

IPA suprasegmentals, various marks used to show the prosody of speech. In the first line, for example, the word “phonetician” is transcribed phonetically, marking where the primary and secondary stresses fall.

Getting control of the proper consonants and vowels is the first step toward proper pronunciation in a foreign language. When learning English, it’s important to master the sound represented by the letters <th>, by putting your tongue between your teeth and squeezing air out. Escaping the trappings of your mother tongue and picking up the proper vowels of another language – like the notoriously difficult nasal vowels of French, or the series of sounds in Northern European languages that just sound like a flat /ǝ/ to English speakers – is the second step, after which you can be sure you’ll always be understood and probably even receive compliments on your pronunciation.

But once you’re in control of the basic sounds of your new language, if you want to reach all-star status, you’ve got one final step to go. Want to see that gratifying look of surprise on someone’s face when you say “oh, no, I’m actually not from here”? Then it’s all about phonetics.

Play Ball… En Español!

Posted on 31. Mar, 2015 by in Events, Language Learning, Product Recommendations

Fear not, sports fans. We may be wrapping up the Multilingual Madness Tournament, but baseball season is just around the corner.

This year, the Major League Baseball season will not commence with an international game as it has in previous years, so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to add a little international flavor to opening day! What better way to kick off America’s pastime than by learning some baseball terminology in the most widely used second language in the country?

Originally created for a professional baseball organization, these Spanish baseball lessons have a little something for everyone. Baseball fans and Hispanophiles alike can enjoy beginner lessons on basic game vocabulary and game rules. Those looking for a bit more of a challenge can use this intermediate lesson on baseball procedures.

spanish baseball

So gather your amigos, throw some hamburguesas on the grill, and prepare for the big game… en español! And of course, “¡Pleibol!”

Interested in using this technology in your own classroom? Want to bring language learning to your customers or employees? Learn more about Transparent Language Online for schools, libraries, corporate organizations, or simply contact us!

Not Improving? Wrong.

Posted on 30. Mar, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Benign Ignorance

My stepfather, Stan Hirsch, is a professional blues guitarist. His story is so classic it’s almost cliché: when he was ten years old he mowed lawns and raked leaves to save up money to buy his first guitar, and when he got it, he decided he wanted to be brilliant at playing it. He wanted to be able to play anything on that instrument. He’s been playing ever since—every day for 56 years. One might think he’s reached his goal; he can indeed play just about anything, and some even consider him the best blues guitarist in America. Yet still he practices at least four hours a day, every single day, and not just because he loves it. He wants to get better. He wants to be the best he possibly can.

Whenever I got frustrated with something I was trying to do, feeling like I wasn’t getting any better, he would say “that’s just how it is.” Learning any kind of skill puts a weird distance between your self-awareness and your abilities. The more you work at something, the less apparent your progress becomes—to yourself, anyway.

It’s much like when someone you know gets a puppy or kitten or has a child. You’ll probably notice this creature balloon in size every time you see it. “Amazing!” you remark. “Last time I saw you, you were only thiiiiis big!” But the owner or parent just shrugs. “Really?” they’ll say. “I didn’t even notice.” The same illusion is at work here. Our close perspective prevents us from seeing what’s changed. The progress is so minute we can no longer see it.

But every day, that kitten is getting a little bit bigger, and every day, my stepfather is getting a little bit better at guitar.

So it is with you and your language learning. At the beginning, you’re improving in leaps and bounds—today you can say “hello” and “what’s your name,” tomorrow you’ll tell time and ask directions! But the more you learn, the less obvious your progress becomes, until you become all but blind to it.

When that happens, you need an outside perspective to break the spell. Sometimes it’s a break in the pattern (“hey, the ticket seller didn’t immediately switch to English that time!”), or it could be a new situation (“I’ve never had to use that word before, but it just came out of my mouth like magic!”). Sometimes it’s just the simple pleasure of ordering a beer and absolutely flabbergasting whoever you’re with (see above comic).

Whether you practiced 100 vocab words today or just five, whether you talked to 25 people today or just two, whether you gave a rousing speech at a banquet hall or just ordered a couple brews in the local watering hole; you’re always getting better.

How about you? Are you finding progress difficult to notice, or do you still get a kick out of every little improvement?