Native Speakers, Standard English accent, and the IPA

In Hong Kong, once in a while, you stumble on an advertisement selling a speaking course that will turn you into a native speaker. And their tool is the International Phonetic Alphabet. Can you spot the misconceptions in the advert below? Here is my attempt:

speak like a native speaker 3

1. You are either a native speaker, or you are not. If you are not, you can never BE a native speaker.
2. In L2 pronunciation pedagogy today, the notion that we should speak English like a native speaker is totally out-dated.
3. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a set of symbols for transcribing human languages. IPA can be used to transcribe any language: English, German, African languages, Cantonese, Hokkien …. It was not developed to capture ‘standard English accent’.
4. IPA was first released by the International Phonetic Association in 1888. The IPA symbols for transcribing English we find in learner’s dictionaries such as Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Longman Contemporary English, Cobuild, and Cambridge Pronouncing Dictionary, were first developed by Daniel Jones in 1917, when he published the first edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary. Jones adopted and modified IPA to capture sounds in British English. For example, IPA has only one /i/, but BrE has a long /i/ (as in ‘seat’), and a short /i/ (as in ‘sit’). Jones used /i/ for the short /i/, and added the vowel length symbol /:/ to capture the long /i/ (i.e. /i:/). (The symbol for the short /i/ was later changed to /ɪ/ by A.C. Gimson, to capture that vowel more accurately.) In other words, these symbols for transcribing English (notably BrE) are derived from IPA, but they are not the IPA itself. To see what the entire IPA chart looks like, go to
4. Today, the notion of ‘standard English accent’ is becoming more and more difficult to define. Even if there is one, native speakers do not necessarily speak standard English.
5. IPA is a transcription tool. IPA itself does not stipulate standard accents in languages.
6. IPA and phonics serve different purposes. We can’t say that one is ‘better’ than the other.
7. Pronunciation teaching is a special area in TESOL. Knowledge and training in IPA may help pronunciation improvement (e.g., with analytical learners), but is not crucial. Learners who need to look up the pronunciation of a word may benefit from knowledge of IPA. But with the advent of audio (online) dictionaries, even this advantage is becoming obsolete.
8. Serious students of phonetics and phonology, and of English pronunciation will need IPA. But IPA is not about ‘standard English accent’; IPA itself does not turn L2 learners into ‘native speakers’. In fact, what immediately reveals a person’s non-native speaker identity is his performance in supra-segmental features (stress, rhythm, intonation, weak forms, assimilation, elision, etc.), not his vowel or consonant phonemes.
9. At UCL’s Phonetics Dept, for example, there will be foreign students who are well versed in IPA, but they do not necessarily speak ‘standard English accent’, and they may have no intention to speak English like a native speaker.
10. I am not against learning the IPA. In fact, I teach IPA in my phonology courses. But we need to put the learning of IPA in proper perspective.


2 thoughts on “Native Speakers, Standard English accent, and the IPA

  1. Andrew Lyf

    Paul Sir, if I remember correctly, a few years ago there was harsh criticism against the LPAT oral test in which the examiners require the candidates to speak as much as like a native speaker. Someone from the HKIE (a foreign professor) stood out to comment that this requirement was already out-of-date and he, as a native speaker, had never been so strict with his students because he knew it well a non-native speaker would never be a native one.

    So does the LPAT still retain such a requirement? What do you think about this?

    1. Well, Andrew you ARE quite informed about such things. That was Andy Kirkpatrick of the HKIEd who made that comment. He is an active proponent of ‘World Englishes’. As for LPAT speaking, the task which is assessed for pronunciation is the reading aloud task. The marking criteria set out in the LPAT handbook (see page 71) does not stipulate that requirement. In fact, the marking criteria say nothing about the target speech model or accent. Of course, how individual assessors interpret that is another matter.

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