Pronunciation and IPA

French is a language that is fairly close to English both in terms of grammar and pronunciation.  I have taught grammar for many years and have been to many workshops going over how to teach pronunciation.  It is a hard topic to teach in a large class: so many students, so many mispronunciations.  Like with most things, a small class is better than a big one.

Do the diagrams below look familiar to you?  If the answer is no, you probably have not had a lot of experience with IPA, not the beer, the International Phonetic Alphabet .


French Vowel Chart











I did not know what IPA was and did not use it in the classroom until a couple of teachers.  Then, I noticed that two very good colleagues of mine, J.F. and Frank often used IPA in the classroom.  They were in the middle of completing their Master’s and Ph.D., respectively and definitely took a lot of linguistics classes.  I saw the way that they taught their students how to use IPA.

I was skeptical, at first: the system is not easy to learn.  Why teach students to learn all those weird symbols?  My skepticism was overcome because of the following: English spelling is ridiculous.  If a student takes the time to learn IPA both for their language and for the language they are studying, they can empower themselves to take notes.  Otherwise, recording every new word you hear as a sound file can be difficult.

The students that learn IPA can pronounce, and more importantly SEE PRONUNCIATION.  This is why IPA is powerful: it allows language learners to SEE what they are pronouncing.  Because of the similarities between English and French, especially abstract words, French students are often tempted to pronounce words they recognize exactly as they would in French.

This leads to all sorts of misunderstandings.  Let’s take a look at an example:


The word is spelled in exactly the same way in the two languages, but let’s take a look at the IPA:

Here is the English pronunciation: /ˌɪnfərˈmeɪʃən/ [ Click here to hear the word. ]

Here is the French: [ε̃fɔrmasjɔ̃] [ Click here to hear the sound. ]

Even if you don’t know IPA, you can tell they are different.

In fact, the French don’t really pronounce the ‘n’s!  This is another advantage of IPA: it allows you to notice things about yout own language (e.g., ‘m’ and ‘n’ are both silent in French)!

This is why I feel IPA is important and use it in all my classes.  I feel that it gives students a powerful way to visualize pronunciation, which is a tool for language learning that they can keep for life.

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