Is it important to learn IPA?

Yes, that’s what I would tell them too. But that requires you to tell them that. If they understand phonetics, they don’t need that explanation. Also, I don’t think there’s such an easy fix for the “l” and “r” problem for Japanese.

There are also a lot of really crap explanations and whatnot floating around for how to make this sound or that - not just in language books but also from language teachers who have no phonetics training, but who read the explanation in a book and are just repeating it.

If you understand phonetics, it gives you (I think) a certain amount of confidence and independence to evaluate these tips and tricks. Because I understand phonetics, I can look at your explanation and say it’s a good one. But if I didn’t, I’d just have to go on faith.

I’m still chewing over the idea that there are 7 different “R” sounds in the IPA. Do you know what they are?

I feel that the consonant included in “ラ(ra)” in the Japanese language is more akin to /l/ than to /r/. Am I right?

@ skyblueteapot:
Have a look at Paul Meier website, you can click on the symbol and listen to what it sounds like.

No IPA symbol alone can teach us pronunciation, but if the sound of the symbol is explained, then we know the sound - as well as the symbol (which may be be helpful for other languages).

I haven’t studied Japanese, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve known that there was a Japanese “l/r” consonant. I’ve heard people come up with wild ideas of the sound in words like ‘karate’ (空手) , including separating r and l (“kar-late”!) based on this. I skimmed through a book on Japanese 15 years ago, where the sound was explained as a flap, and the American pronunciation ‘better’ as an example. This might not be 100% water proof, but nevertheless pretty close to the sound I imagined. If I’d spent some time listening to Japanese some decades ago, I’d probably have figured it out in no-time, but seeing the explanation made a lot of sense (since I know how American English sounds).


[ɹ], [ɻ], [r], [ʀ], [ʁ], [ɾ], [​ɽ], [ᴙ], [ɺ], to name a few.

Dear gizmo2012,

This is an excellent question, and you are wise to ask it. If you were only studying Spanish, for example, I might say, no, you can get by without learning IPA. However, I peeked at your profile and I think you are interested in learning multiple languages. Because of this, if you have the opportunity (at school, for example) to learn IPA, I would recommend it.

I understand why Steve may not see how IPA is useful. It’s probably not useful for him, (plus he seems to be decent at figuring out a lot of sounds on his own). He learned/learnt English (as young child of five or so and in elementary school in Canada) and French (as an English speaker in school in Montreal, then at the university).

IPA would probably be very useful for English and French learners because these languages have plenty of spelling exceptions. It’s not easy for a learner to figure out all these rules and guess with any confidence as to how a word should be pronounced.

If a dictionary includes IPA symbols, then the learner has confidence that he can pronounce the word even if he hasn’t heard the word before.

Jeff’s analogy of musical notation and IPA is very apt. A musician who only plays by ear has to hear the musical composition first in order to reproduce it again. Some people can do this immediately (like Mozart), but others have to hear the music a few times before they can remember the tune. A musician who can sightread (basically this is what IPA allows for language), can read a piece of music he has never heard and reproduce it.

Now that sigma_20xx has provided us with an excellent resource and link, I hope this will convince Steve and other skeptics that this is not some esoteric impossible-to-understand-barring-genius system. It’s simple. It’s useful…and it’s easy.

No chance Vi7. It is simply not of interest to me. I do not think it is hard to understand, I just feel it is useless for me. I prefer to listen. I even prefer text to speech.

But that is just me, and I fully accept that others find it very useful.

I know the IPA quite well. But in the context of language learning it is a waste of time. All IPA shows you are the various points of articulation inside the speaking mechanism (bilabial, velar etc) and some of processes (+/-voiced, aspiration etc) of sound production. The IPA describes sounds precisely and objectively, but if you are learning it all comes down to imitation anyway, and you judge your success on the feedback of listeners. No description will take the place of imitation.

IPA is a nice, elegant system of symbols, and some people love that, but it is a mistake to confuse a sensitivity to the beauty of a formal system, for actual efficacy in getting something done.

Dear dooo,

Maybe IPA is taught in a different way to people studying linguistics or a related subject. I understand words like “voiced” and “bilabial”, but I don’t recall my teacher stressing the linguistic aspects. I don’t think it would have worked anyway. None of the other people in my class at the university were majoring in linguistics. Maybe they dumbed it down for us, but I have used what I’ve learned over and over again.

I’m a very practical person. I would never suggest that language learners learn a bunch of terminology that wouldn’t be of immediate and practical use. I think learning the symbols has to be taught in conjunction with example words and phrases, otherwise the knowledge is not going to stick in the mind of the learner. In other words, hearing the sounds is part of the equation, not separate from it.

@dooo, I really disagree with your point. No one is arguing that knowledge of phonetics can replace listening. But knowing the mechanics behind a sound will help you both to recognize it and produce it. And just the process of going through the range of sounds in human language and understanding how they are produced and how they sound (a huge part of phonetics is listening and learning to make fine distinctions between sounds) - I think that’s very beneficial.

I do not doubt that many of you feel IPA is useful. Please accept the fact that I and many others do not.

Bortrun, I do not agree with anything you say in your post.

Knowing the mechanics behind a sound may help some people, but for many it is irrelevant.

If it were just a matter of knowing the mechanics we would not have so many people struggling with their pronunciation. I doubt if there is any relationship between how well people pronounce a foreign language and knowledge of IPA.

I completely accept that many people don’t find the IPA useful. And that’s fine. One of my points is that it’s not just a knowledge of the IPA - it’s knowledge and understanding of phonetics (and phonology). Personally, I think that just learning the IPA symbols is not very helpful - I agree with you on that. However, where I disagree, is about learning phonetics. I don’t think we would argue that speech therapists are just wasting their time. And some of that knowledge is very useful for language learning.

Also, it’s my understanding of the research that’s been done into how the brain processes sounds that you are more likely to perceive a sound that you are able to produce. And you are more likely to be able to produce a sound that you can perceive. In other words, they feed into each other. So, I personally think that it is faster to approach sounds from both sides, and work on both production and perception. But to each his own.

@tora3, yes I think it’s fair to say that it’s closer to an /l/ than an /r/. However, as another poster pointed out, it’s very similar to a flap, like the sound in “city” in North American speech. The “t” sound becomes kind of like a really fast “d”. And this fast “d” sounds similar to the Japanese sound, at least under certain circumstances. To English speakers, I think the sound in ラ sounds like an /l/ under certain circumstances and an /r/ under others. Probably mostly like an /r/ between vowels, and an /l/ under other circumstances. So, a Japanese speaker trying to say “fried rice” may sound like “flied lice”, and someone trying to say “elegant” may sound like “arrogant” (that final example was something I encountered recently).

It seems that your explanation about ラ is right. I suppose we need a new symbol or a combination of several symbols in order to describe らりるれろ, although we use ra-ri-ru-re-ro in romaji writing.

tora3, if ラ has this sound in one context, and that in another, that’s nothing new (nor unique to Japanese). There are at least two IPA symbols for ra-ri-ru-re-ro (‘ɾ’ as in 心/こころ/kokoro [ko̥koɾo], and ‘ɺ’ as in ラーメン / rāmen [ɺ̠aːmeɴ]).


Yes, the letter r should be pronounced differently in “kokoro” and “ramen.” Thank you for your explanation. You know more about Japanese pronunciation than me. I think IPA symbols are very useful. By the way, have you tasted Japanese rāmen?

If we don’t know any IPA symbols, we cannot understand what the following sentence means.
“Plural ‹s› after ‹th› may be realised as either /ðz/ or /θs/” Pronunciation of English ⟨th⟩ - Wikipedia

“. . . [ or /ts/].”

I think I know how to pronounce /ts/, but I have no idea how to pronounce “/ss/[sic].” Is it a long s-sound?