The International Phonetic Alphabet is a system of symbols that denote all the different units of sound — called phonemes — that make up words in any language. It was first developed in the late 19th century, and has been developed and updated ever since.
I learned the IPA in my first year at Macquarie University in 1985. and found it to be an incredibly useful extension of my literacy and learning. It is knowledge and fluency that I have actively maintained ever since.
While it has more symbols to learn, it is more straightforward than the English alphabet, where letters can have more than one sound, and a sound can have multiple letters and letter combinations assigned to them. In the IPA. there is one symbol for one sound. There are no silent letters, and there is clear differentiation between words such as ‘foot’ and ‘boot’ that look as though they should rhyme, but do not. It also avoids situations such as that created by the letter a having six different pronunciations from which the reader must choose correctly if they are to understand what has been written. Syllables in words are marked, so that the pronunciation of the word is clearly and accurately transcribed.
Hypothetically, one could write any word of any language as it was heard, and anyone fluent in IPA could read it regardless of which other languages they could or could not speak or read fluently.
That came in very handy when lecturers and tutors in other courses used words or names I didn’t know: I used the IPA to write them down, so that I could research and identify them later. When I wanted to keep something confidential, I used the IPA to make notes or records, confident in the knowledge that my friends and family would have absolutely zero clue what was written. That probably wasn’t always entirely necessary, but it did give me a sense of security at the time. The IPA also helped me learn and perfect key phrases to use when family from overseas came to visit, and again later on when I was visiting other countries.
A number of dictionaries, both online and hard copy, provide the pronunciation of every word in IPA, giving clear guidance to how unknown words should be spoken. As a fan of the IPA, this is something I consider essential in a dictionary for my own use.
Because it is an international system of transcribing language, the IPA does include symbols that are not often used in standard UK or Australian English. They may, however, be very useful in transcribing the spoken English of migrant communities. It also has some symbols that are only used in English, and some that are used predominantly in American English.
All of this makes the IPA a versatile tool for all sorts of contexts: work, travel, study, clear communication, and general word nerdery.