The International Phonetic Alphabet, also known as IPA, is a series of symbols that represent the sounds of speech. You already know that the letter a can be pronounced differently depending on the other sounds around it. Because every sound in a language does not have one letter to represent it and only it, we use IPA.
Most people who learn IPA are speech-language pathologists or linguists. However, I believe that IPA is for everyone, especially those of us who want to improve our accent in a second language. After all, if you understand how a native language affects your pronunciation in your second language, you can do something about it.My favorite resource for general IPA information is Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article for the International Phonetic Alphabet has a lot of different tables and charts that explain all the sounds of speech. These charts use very specific vocabulary to describe how these sounds are produced. You don’t have to be an expert to understand it; the text of the article explains what this vocabulary means.
Another thing I like about the Wikipedia article about IPA is its treatment of vowels. Describing the pronunciation of vowels is particularly challenging because the tiniest change in tongue position can result in a big change in how we hear a vowel sound. The Wikipedia article has charts showing how tongue position affects vowels, and text that explains further.
As it is the International Phonetic Alphabet, the speech sounds illustrated in these charts are not just for English, but for all the languages in the world!
The other day I was talking with Amber Franklin, a researcher at Miami University in Ohio. She shared with me an excellent resource called The Speech Accent Archive. This website has a list of hundreds of languages. For each language you can find charts of that language’s speech sounds (in IPA, of course) and a recording of native speakers reading the same paragraph in English. The recording has been transcribed, or translated, into IPA beside the standard written English paragraph.
This resource is extra useful because you can compare your native language sample with the example for English from the geographic area closest to where you are (currently, there are 584 speech samples from English speakers) and identify the differences. Once you have identified the differences, you can work to reduce them.
IPA is the key to improved pronunciation of English speech sounds. Arm yourself with knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet, and you can improve your understanding of why you have an accent (despite years of study of English) and what you can do to improve your accent.