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Accent Reduction Explained: The International Phonetic Alphabet

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The International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA can be extremely useful for learning English pronunciation and also helps with accent training, including accent reduction. Originally developed to make teaching foreign languages easier, the “alphabet” was started in 1886 by a linguist named Paul Passy. The IPA first transcribed the sounds of French, English, and German, but later added symbols to handle Arabic and Hindi, and even the click-sounds in some languages. 


International Phonetic Alphabet, English Pronunciation, Accent Reduction


The IPA uses phonetic symbols to represent the sounds, not the spelling, of a language. One symbol represents one sound. And since English spelling is inconsistent, and a letter does not always represent how a word is said, learning the phonetic symbols should help you pronounce any word properly. Sounds great, right?

Well, the IPA is be a valuable tool,but it can also be really overwhelming! With so many symbols to learn and the endless number of sound combinations in English, the IPA is definitely complex. So how do we simplify it for speakers who are learning English?  

Think of learning the IPA as a 4-step process. First you have to figure out how the IPA works, and then you have to learn the phonetic symbols for consonants, vowels and diphthongs. Once you know the symbols you can apply them to help with English pronunciation. The key is to only focus on the symbols that are most important for learning English.

1.  Understanding the IPA 

The best way to understand the International Phonetic Alphabet is to start with an example. The English letter “c” can be pronounced in different ways. In the word “cut”, you say the letter “c” as a “k” sound. But in the word “cent” you say the letter “c”  as an “s” sound. In the IPA, the “c” letter in both words would be represented with two different symbols. This shows that the first letter in each word is pronounced differently.
2.  Learn the consonant symbols that are not represented by the spelling letter
Many of the phonetic symbols in the IPA match the spelling.  For example, the sound “d” uses the symbol “d” to represent the sound.  The symbol and the letter match. So you don’t have to worry about learning the symbols that match the letters— you already know them. This makes it much easier. The symbols you have to learn are the ones that don’t match the spelling. Here they are:
ϴ as in “thin”
ð as in “the”
ʃ as in “she”
Ʒ as in “message”
ʧ as in “chin”
ʤ as in “job”
j as in “you”
ŋ as in “sing”

3. Learn the vowel symbols, a few at a time.  

There are many vowel symbols to learn for English pronunciation. Concentrate on the most commonly occurring vowels to make it more manageable.

i as in bea
ɪ as in bit 
ʊ as in foo
u as in boo
e as in bai
ɛ as in bet 
as in bu
ə as in bitte
o as in boa
æ as in bat 
a as in bought 
ɚ as in butter

4. Learn the diphthongs

Diphthongs are two vowels sounds which are blended together, and there are a number of them in English. Concentrate on learning the most frequent occurring diphthongs.

aɪ  as in hide
aʊ as in how
oɪ as in boy

Now that you understand how the IPA works and have learned the symbols, you can apply the IPA to study English pronunciation.

We hope this tutorial has been helpful.  For more information on accents and accent reduction, check out

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