Why All (Serious) English Teachers Should Know the IPA

20120707043356!IPA_consonants_2005IPA as in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and not India Pale Ale, to be clear. 🙂

I recently posed this question on Twitter, and got a variety of responses. Some agreed that it was helpful but not necessary, and others pointed out that knowing IPA is one thing, but knowing the phonology and phonetics that underlie it, and also knowing if/how to use it in class, is another.

I still think that any teacher worth their salt should know it, though. At least the IPA for the sounds of English. Here are my reasons, in no particular order.

  • Credibility. Many of our students know it. (Especially those from certain countries in Asia). Many (though not all, of course) learner’s dictionaries use it. Isn’t there a lack of credibility if the teacher doesn’t know what seems to be a pretty common tool in ELT?
  • Phonological awareness for teachers. In learning the IPA for the phonemes of English, one could assume the teacher has come to the realization of just how many phonemes there are in English, how some of the closer vowel phonemes, for example, resemble each other but are different, and how there is a discrepancy between the sound system and the writing system of English. It is not a given that someone will have gained this awareness simply by learning IPA, but I think you could assume this happens in many cases. This awareness is invaluable for teaching pronunciation and speaking. Our subject matter as English teachers is language, and it is our duty to deepen our knowledge not just of grammar and use, but of the sound system as well.
  • Phonetic awareness for teachers. This one could be even less of a given that the point above, but if a teacher learns the descriptive name for each of the symbols (e.g.: /p/ voiceless bi-labial stop) they will hopefully gain awareness of the place and manner of articulation of the sounds of English, which is also important for the teaching of pronunciation.
  • Precision in the classroom. Though the nuances on how and if to use IPA in the general English classroom are debated, it’s just a concise tool for raising students’ phonological and phonetic awareness. If English had a one-to-one grapheme to phoneme relationship, it wouldn’t be so necessary. But alas, IPA is just a concise way to break students’ habit of speaking English as it is spelled. I don’t know how you can take the teaching of pronunciation beyond “No, just say it more like ME!” if you don’t have the tools to precisely think about and describe the sounds of English. If you didn’t know the types of and names of verb tenses and how they were composed, it would be hard to teach grammar. Isn’t this the same thing?
  • Cross-linguistic potential. This is a minor one, but since IPA is cross-linguistic, it can be a neat way to compare the sounds of English to your students’ L1 and talk about they ways they are similar and different. It’s also useful for writing down and correctly pronouncing your students’ names.

Any reasons I’ve missed? Do you think that IPA is a must for English teachers?

PS: I’m going to cheekily add that in my experience the people who I’ve had most insistently argue that knowing IPA isn’t necessary have not known it themselves. 🙂


3 thoughts on “Why All (Serious) English Teachers Should Know the IPA

  1. Hi Jennifer,
    My name is Yossi and I am currently an elementary school English teacher in Jerusalem in my first year of teaching. I am not a young person, however, and this could be counted as a second career for me. Reading what you wrote on the IPA I find it something of a question myself. I learned the IPA in a linguistic course that I took but have never really thought about it as something that was necessary for me to know in the classroom. And I’m not just talking about elementary aged pupils but also junior high and high school aged pupils. I speak English at a mother tongue level and it is very important for me to always stress to my pupils the importance of correct pronunciation. Israelis have a hard time hearing the difference in pronunciation, for example, of the words ”saw” and ”sow” or ”raw” and ”row” and between the words ”live” and ”leave”. I feel that knowing the IPA and explaining the name of the place in the mouth the sound is created is just not going to interest them in any way. The best way, in my opinion, is to read out loud a lot. To basically speak the language as much as you can. And of course to hear the language being spoken by someone with the right pronunciation. But that just raises the question of what is considered the ”right” pronunciation. English is becoming such a global language that the ”right” pronunciation is slowly dying and being reborn in tens of different accents.
    Thanks for your post,

    • Hi Yossi! Really interesting to hear your perspective. I haven’t had much experience teaching kids and teens, and haven’t tried to teach them IPA; you’re right that maybe they’re not as interested in learning about articulation, etc. as an adult might be.

      I agree with you too about “the question of what is considered the ”right” pronunciation. English is becoming such a global language that the ”right” pronunciation is slowly dying and being reborn in tens of different accents.” There some work being done on teaching the pronunication of English as a Lingua Franca (https://www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/how-teach-english-lingua-franca-elf) that is really interesting.

  2. Yossi,

    I think because IPA was developed with European speakers in mind – I may be wrong, but it’s Latin-based so it certainly looks that way – it is of less value to speakers of languages using non-Latin writing systems, such as Chinese, Arabic or Hebrew.

    When I was teaching in the UK, I had an Italian student who knew the phonemic chart -not IPA, but the one developed by Adrian Underhill (http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/pronunciation/phonemic-chart-and-app/interactive-phonemic-chart-british-english/) better than me. I would always ask her to transcribe the words on the board for me. I could certainly see its value for her and other speakers of European languages. But when you are dealing with learners whose L1 uses a non-Latin alphabet, learning IPA or any other phonetic alphabet doesn’t provide much support. It’s basically like learning ANOTHER language in addition to English. I hope what I’m saying makes sense.


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