Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Joy of Phonetics: Getting help with IPA

One area many students struggle with in linguistics is phonetics. Understanding IPA, the IPA charts, transcriptions, and the application of IPA to phonology can be quite frustrating for beginners. Luckily, there are several helpful websites that just might help those frustrated students. (Some of these are mentioned in a past post, but they are worth mentioning again.)

1. UCLA's Interactive IPA Chart (from Ladefoged's "A Course in Phonetics")

Screenshot of UCLA's IPA Interactive Chart
The IPA chart that can be seen in the screenshot is interactive in that it allows you to click on any area to zoom in; once you're zoomed in on an area, it allows you to click on an individual symbol, and a sound file will play so that you can hear the sound that particular symbol represents, which is incredibly helpful for those world sounds that may not be in your native language. The only downside is that the sound files take you to a different screen instead of playing while you're still looking at the chart.

2. York University's Interactive IPA Chart

Screenshot of York's IPA Chart

This IPA chart is similar to the UCLA chart above but was created by Eric Armstrong and has a few extra features that students may find helpful. Just like the UCLA website, you first have to click on a section of sounds to zoom in before you can play with the individual features. Once you're zoomed in, you can click on an individual symbol to hear what sound it represents; one advantage to this website is that the sound file plays without taking you to a different screen.

Another advantage is that if you mouse over any words/symbols on the chart, you can find out more information. For instance, if you mouse over a manner or place label on the consonant chart, a definition box will pop up, like this:

Definition box
If you mouse over a symbol in the chart, the IPA descriptors of the symbol and the "common" name will appear in the box over the top of the chart:

Symbol information
Students often get frustrated by words like 'engma' being thrown around when learning the IPA; this website can help those students learn those names while still learning the IPA descriptions associated with them.

3. Iowa's Interactive Sounds of Spoken Language

Screenshot of Iowa's Phonetics Website

If you aren't learning the IPA charts for world languages but are focusing on either American English, Spanish, or German, then you will most likely find this website helpful. From the home page (which you see in the screenshot above), you can click on your language of choice. Clicking on the American English option will take you to a new screen that looks like this:

The Sounds of American English
From this view, you can decide whether you want to look at consonants or vowels and which category you want to explore. For instance, you might click on the "fricative" button and then click on the "/z/" to get to this screen:

Focus on the /z/

Every aspect of this website is interactive. You can play the animation to watch what happens in the sagittal section when the sound in focus is made. You can choose a play-by-play, in which case each stage of the sound is fully described. Or you can listen to sound files on the right-hand side while watching what the outside of the mouth looks like during sound production. This tool is especially helpful for anyone working in the speech pathology field.

4. Interactive Sagittal Section

Screenshot of Interactive Sagittal Section website
Created by Daniel Currie Hall, this website allows you to choose the features of the sound you're working with (e.g., voicing, placement, manner), and the sagittal section on the screen changes to match the requirements, which can help internalize the difference between all those columns and rows in the IPA chart (and, in the end, help with understanding natural classes). After seeing Iowa's website before this one, you may wonder if it really is all that helpful. The answer is yes. This website isn't constrained to sounds in particular languages (but is constrained by types of sounds). Also, the sagittal sections more closely resemble what some students see on exams/homework assignments and might be more helpful.

There are other online interactive IPA tools, such as the University of Victoria's IPA chart and another IPA chart that is simply housed at www.ipachart.com. The goal is for you to find one that you can work with and that helps you understand the material better. Phonetics shouldn't be frightening--it should be fun to explore the sounds of language.

If you have know any other phonetics websites that you feel should be mentioned, leave the website (and the reason you like) in the comments below.