Pronunciation Trainer Resources

English Pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet (Video Transcript)

Note: This is an older video containing information about using our legacy products (pronunciation trainers) in the Anki software to learn pronunciation.

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Video transcript

Hi, this is Gabe from TowerofBabelfish.com.

This is the first of four or five videos on English pronunciation and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).

In these tutorials, I have two smaller goals and one overarching goal. The first is to teach you how the IPA works, and two maybe more important how English works in your mouth: what’s going on in your mouth to make these sounds.

Overall, we’re looking to give you a tool for understanding pronunciation in your own language, so you can apply it to your target language.

If you start with correct pronunciation in your target language, you get so much:
– You retain vocabulary better
– You have better listening comprehension
– Later, you get native speakers who won’t switch to English when you speak to them
– In the end, you won’t be training bad habits – bad pronunciation habits – for years and have to unlearn them somehow.

And so, let’s get started. We’ll first talk about some basics: What is a consonant and what does IPA do?

IPA is a sound alphabet. It gives you a symbol, like this one or this one, and it means one sound, always.

In English, we have a bunch of letters which correspond to vowels or consonants, and many of these have multiple sounds. The letter “c”, for example, as in cat, and “c” as in nice are totally different. They have totally different sounds, and IPA has two symbols for those two sounds.

On the other hand, symbol and cymbal sound the same, even though they’re spelled differently, and so IPA for both of these words is exactly the same. IPA only cares about the sound.

Every time I write in IPA, I’m gonna surround it with two slashes, and every time I refer to the letters and words in English as they’re spelled, I’ll put it in quotes around them, like this.

So the letter “s” can make this sound /s/ in IPA – it has the same character. But the letter “s” can also make a /z/ sound, like in rose, or /ʃ/ as in sure, or /ʒ/ as in pleasure. IPA splits all of these sounds apart and really tells you what you can expect to hear when you see a symbol.

Over the next few videos, you’ll be learning all these symbols, but for now, we’ll talk about the three things that make one consonant. These are voicing, place, and manner. We’ll talk about them in that order.

Voicing is perhaps the simplest. Put your hand on your throat and say, “fun,” but stay on the “f.” Go “ffffffffffffffun.” Do you feel anything at your throat? You shouldn’t.

If you were to compare that with “van,” for example, and you stay on the “v”: “vvvvvvvvvvvvv,” your hand should feel buzzing in your throat. /f/ and /v/ are a pair of consonants that are identical except for that buzzing in your vocal cords. /f/ is known as an “unvoiced consonant” because your voice isn’t active, and /v/ as a “voiced consonant.”

Most consonants in English come in voiced/unvoiced pairs, like /t/ and /d/, and /b/ and /p/.

Place is a little more complicated. We’ll need to look at a picture of your mouth. Here’s a very detailed one from Wikipedia. To get oriented, 1 and 2 on the left are your lips. You’ll see two copies, up and down. 3 are your upper teeth, and 4 is that ridge behind your teeth, known as the alveolar ridge.

Jumping around a bit, 13 through 18 corresponds to your tongue, from the root (13) to underneath the tip (18), which we don’t use in English; we only use the tip.

11 are your vocal cords. 9 is your uvula, 7 is your soft palate, and 6 is your hard palate. All the remaining numbers are just in-between spots, so 5 is in between 4 and 6 – in between your alveolar ridge and your hard palate.

To make any sound, you’ll need to blow air out of your throat. If you don’t get in the way, you make a vowel, like “ah,” “eh.”

If you do get in the way, you make a consonant. Usually, you do this by putting two parts of your mouth together, like your lower lips and your teeth. When you make the sound /f/ as in fun, you do just that. Your lower lips (2) come up and touch your upper teeth (3) and you blow air through. “Ffffffun.”

The two things that touch are called articulators. One is passive and doesn’t move – in this case, it’s your upper teeth, which hopefully don’t move at all; and one is active – here, your lower lips are moving up to contact your teeth.

When you learn the symbols for all the consonants, I’ll remind you about all of these locations, but we’ll learn them here for the first time.

The important places have names. We’ll start at the front of the mouth and move towards the back. There are 10 places we really care about.

So, the first two use the bottom lips as their active articulator.

The first one we care about is bilabial – from bi, meaning two, and labial, meaning lips. This is where your upper and lower lips come together, like in man or banana or pot – /m/ /b/ /p/.

The second place we care about is labiodental. This is lips and teeth, and you might have guessed, we’ve encountered this already. This is “f” and “v” in English.

Now we’ll switch to the tip of the tongue as the active articulator here.

Place #3 is dental – the tip of your tongue is touching your teeth. We have two consonants in English; they’re both spelled “th.” One is /ð/: this – it’s voiced – and the other one is /θ/: thing.

Place #4 is alveolar. This is the alveolar ridge we talked about, just behind your front teeth. Here, the tip of your tongue touches that ridge and you get four sounds in English: t, d, s, and z. All of these are tongue against alveolar ridge.

The next place is just a little bit behind that, maybe a quarter of an inch or a half centimeter. If you move your tongue just a little bit back, instead of getting “s” you get /ʃ/ as in show or /ʒ/ as in pleasure.

The next places involve the middle or back part of the tongue as the active articulator.

Place #6 is palatal. This is the soft palate, right in the middle of your mouth. The only sound we have in English is /j/, but you’ll get all sorts of sounds in other languages. Like, in Italian, you’ll get agnus and aglio, and cha in Korean. These happen all at the same place, at the palatal, sort of middle of your mouth.

Place #7 is called velar, which is up at the back of the soft palate. In English, we have the sounds /k/ and /g/ here.

Place #8 is uvular. We don’t have any sounds like it in English. This is the back of your tongue against your uvula, the little hangy-downy thing in the back of your throat. You’ll encounter it in German and French, in their /R/. They get “rrrrrra,” “rrrrrra.”

Place #9 is pharyngeal. This is the root of your tongue – the base, base of your tongue – and the back of throat, which apparently sounds like getting strangled. But I don’t speak any languages with these sounds, so I can’t demonstrate. I’m not gonna demonstrate something that’s just made up.

Our last place, #10, is glottal. This is right at your vocal cords, and the only thing you can do to stop air from flowing is bring your vocal cords together. If you bring them together a little bit, you’re going to get the sound /h/ as in ham – our “h” sound.

The other sound is when you close them completely. You get this sound: /ʔ/, which is in English. This is called a glottal stop, and you get it in words like, in between words like “uh oh!” and “nuh uh!” Right in between those two sort of syllables, you get a stop: /ʔ/.

These are all the places that you have to worry about. We’ll cover them again when we discuss each consonant individually, and I’ll be making an Anki deck to help you remember them as well.

To recap, we’ve discussed voicing: this is fan and van, for example – the difference between those – and place: the difference between, say, fun, sun, and shun.

In the next video, we’ll discuss manner. This is how you make different sounds in one place – the difference between, say, son and ton, which are both alveolar consonants.

That’s it for this tutorial. I hope you enjoyed yourself and learned something. And be sure to check out towerofbabelfish.com for new videos, new articles on language learning – everything. Until next time!

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