Your Mouth Is a Precision Instrument: Learning the IPA

I’ve been talking my whole life, but never been aware of how my mouth actually makes these sounds. Now, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is revealing the hidden, intricate precision of how my mouth constructs thousands of sounds per day.

Pronunciation, Or, the Fascinating Study of How Your Mouth Constructs Sounds

I’m going to learn basic Spanish in the next six months, and I’m following opera singer Gabriel Wyner’s method for learning languages fast and well. Unlike anyone else I’ve ever heard of, Wyner insists that you learn pronunciation first. Not just the particular pronunciation of the new language, but how your mouth actually constructs sounds.

Every language only uses a particular set of sounds. Smarter people than you and I have already charted (almost?) every sound used by every language. They’ve codified this knowledge in an alphabet, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), where each symbol has exactly one sound.

I’m so glad that part’s already done.

You Can Sound Like a Native

Once you learn this alphabet, and learn how your mouth works, you can learn to construct any sound in any language.

Whenever I used to read about other languages, and they said, “This sound isn’t in English,” I would shrug and move on. Especially if the writer said, with a dismissive sniff, that English speakers usually couldn’t make this Very Special Sound.

It seemed like people in other countries had different mouths, somehow. Or that learning to talk happened to you, as a baby, in a magical process that defied comprehension.

Talking is Like Drawing

I felt the same about drawing. A lucky few could magically draw, and the rest of us could barely scrawl caricatures of faces. We didn’t have those magical artist hands.

But if you try to learn to draw, the first lesson demolishes this whole idea. Your hands are fine. If you can write your name, you’re physically capable of painting the Mona Lisa. The problem lies in your mind, in how you think about what you see.

Normal people think of things as, well, things, but to draw them, you need think about how they’re put together: shapes and colors, light and shadow. You need to break the world into pieces, so you can reassemble the pieces on paper.

I never realized that talking would work the same way. You can take apart sounds.

Taking Sounds Apart

For instance, with a “t” and a “d”, your tongue does exactly the same thing. It touches this ridge behind your teeth, called the alveolar. Try it. The only difference is how much air you push out with your throat.

The “t” is “voiceless”, while the “d” is “voiced”. If you touch the top of your throat, you can feel the muscle that moves when you “voice” the “d”.

The alveolar is the only place in your mouth where you can make those sounds. If you move your tongue forward, to your teeth, you get “th”. If you touch your tongue farther back, you get “ch”.

On the other hand, you can also touch your tongue to the alveolar and say “l”. Feel it. It’s the same place. But you’re pushing the air out in a different way.

Or, say “s”. Your tongue still touches the alveolar, but the air comes out in yet another way.

[UPDATE: After I wrote these examples, I found one source that explains that the Spanish “t” is actually dental (against your teeth), rather than alveolar. This dental “t” seems to be a slightly different sound from our “th”. At least, I think I can make a sound in between “t” and “th”. However, since this is an enthusiastic “Wow, this new thing is cool!” post, rather than a tutorial, by someone who knows what they’re talking about, I’m just going to admit I’m not sure yet. Comments from actual linguists welcome!]

Learning New Sounds

Once you understand how you construct the sounds you already know, you can learn how to construct new sounds.

For instance, take the Spanish “j”. Many pronunciation guides will blithely assure you to pronounce “j” like the English “h”. Although some regions do have a pronunciation that is close to “h”, the more common pronunciation is quite different. Usually, the Spanish “j” sounds like the “ch” in the German “loch”.

I don’t know why the books don’t bother to teach you that. It’s easy to learn. If you don’t happen to know how to make that sound, you can construct it easily. The sound is the “voiceless velar fricative”.

  • Voiceless: Remember the difference in your throat between “t” and “d”? This is voiceless, so your throat should feel as it does with “t”. (Don’t overanalyze this part; focus on the next two.)

  • Velar: The position of your tongue. Velar means your tongue will touch the top of your mouth, towards the back. Here’s the key: your tongue touches this same place when you say “ng”. Say tongue. Feel that spot?

  • Fricative: How the air comes out. Say tongue again, and hold the “ng”. Feel how the sound seems to resonate in your nasal cavity? Now keep your tongue in the same place (velar), but this time, try to blow the air between your tongue and the roof of your mouth (fricative). Blow it the way you do with “s”, but keep your tongue in the velar place. You should hear the new sound!

Still not sure? You can hear the Spanish “j” in this short mp3. Or find /x/ on this Wikipedia IPA chart with audio.

Sounds Are Made, Not Just Thought

I still can’t get over how different a sound you can make just by changing the air flow or shifting your tongue slightly. I feel like foreign languages have finally been unlocked.

All these sounds happen in my mouth. Maybe that sounds obvious, but talking is so instantaneous that I seem to think of it as happening inside my mind. Because I can think so many sounds, I’ve ignored how precisely my tongue has to shape each sound.

That’s fine once you know a sound, but when you’re learning it, you need to know where your tongue actually goes, and how the air actually comes out. With the IPA, you can learn this.

Go Learn the IPA!

Wyner has made tools that make learning the IPA extremely simple.

First, watch his free IPA videos, so you understand the basic concepts.

Then, pay the measly three bucks and get his excellent IPA Anki deck. Work your way through. As you pay attention to how you form familiar sounds, you’ll gain a whole new awareness of how your mouth works. Your mouth is a precision instrument. Learn to use it, and you can make any sound you like.

Note: When you get to the vowels, I recommend printing this printable IPA vowel chart. I have a hard time feeling where vowels are in my mouth. Locating them on the chart helps me place them.