For developing and mature singers alike, the International Phonetic Alphabet—commonly known by the abbreviation IPA—is invaluable. This standardized system contains a symbol for every vowel and consonant sound, precisely stipulating the way the sound should be formed by the mouth and tongue, voiced or unvoiced. It is a singers’ greatest tool for understanding the sounds of foreign languages.
The uniform and un-biased approach of IPA allows singers to develop a feel for the unique differences between languages. And in doing so, it far surpasses the usual method of spelling words phonetically using English-based sounds (such as “meh-nee” for the word “many”). This method is compromised by the endless dialects and variations of the English language. For example, every English speaker does not pronounce the word “boat” the same way. Further problems arise when trying to represent sounds that don’t exist in English—how does one spell out a French nasal vowel or a trilled R?
Using IPA with your students has many benefits. To begin with, the teaching process will be easier with a standard pronunciation system. The symbol [e] means [e], no matter the language. Having such a system in place will also help with motivation—your students will begin to feel that foreign language pieces are more manageable and approachable without the language barrier. What’s more, you will be endowing them with a valuable tool to take forward into future choral and vocal experiences. What a gift!
Whether you are just now learning the system or looking for a refresher, Alfred’s IPA Made Easy is a straightforward reference for the symbols used in IPA: what they look like and how they are pronounced. Example words for every symbol are included in English, Latin, Italian, German, French, and Spanish. And an online listening lab includes recorded demonstrations of every sound. It’s a clear and concise tool for singing in foreign languages, equally useful in the choir room and the vocal studio.