Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Clickable IPA

Posted by Neal on September 5, 2018

One of the courses I teach is individual pronunciation tutoring for international students who are going to be teaching assistants here at Ohio State University. One of the resources I use a lot is this clickable IPA chart. Click on any of the sounds in this chart, and you’ll hear a recording of someone uttering the sounds.

Sometimes, though, I wished that it was possible to reduce the visual clutter by having the chart show just the sounds of English, or just the sounds of Chinese, or Korean, or whatever other language a student spoke. I could toggle between the different languages’ phonemic inventories, allowing us to quickly view the phonemes common to multiple languages, and those that are in one phonemic inventory but not another.

At the same time as the chart had too many sounds, it also didn’t have enough of them. Some sounds, like the affricates /tʃ/ (as in chump)and /dʒ/ (as in jump) are displayed on a supplement to the chart (not shown in the screenshot here). There are even bigger gaps for Chinese, since it has three times as many affricates as English, and some of them aren’t displayed on the chart anywhere at all. This is because they’re versions of some affricates that are already shown in the chart, but they’re aspirated (i.e., pronounced with a short puff of air after them). It makes sense not to show these, because if you recorded aspirated versions of all the consonants, it would double the size of the consonant chart. And if you’re going to have separate recordings for the aspirated consonants, why not for the glottalized ones, or the pharyngealized ones, or the nasalized vowels, or the creaky vowels? But still, when I’m working with a Chinese student, and want to show them exactly how the set of sounds they’re used to matches up with what we have in English, I’d like to have all the affricates, aspirated and unaspirated, up there in the main chart with everything else.

A more elaborate clickable IPA chart that I recently learned about and have been using is this rtMRI IPA chart. This one was created by the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory at the University of Southern California. When you click on the IPA symbols in this chart, you not only hear them pronounced, you also see them pronounced with a real-time MRI (rtMRI) video clip. It is incredibly useful that someone took the trouble to do one of these rtMRIs for each of these sounds, and as a bonus, there are also clickable rtMRI recordings of some minimal vowel sets, some short sentences, and a couple of longer passages that I suspect are panphonemic, though I haven’t checked to be sure.

However, as with the other chart, you need to already know what sounds are in a language in order to know which ones you’re interested in clicking. And like the other chart, this one sidelines the affricates, and shows even fewer of them than the other chart. It wasn’t the customized tool that I sometimes wished were available to me and my students.

A few months ago, I was telling the ESL Programs’ curriculum director, Karen Macbeth, about the kind of chart I wished existed somewhere. As it happens, she was (and is) working on creating an e-textbook for all our Spoken English courses to use, and she said a chart like this one would go well in this kind of digital resource. She put me in touch with one Mike Shiflet, who works for Ohio State University’s Office of Distance Education and E-Learning and who has been helping Karen with her project. I gave Mike some printed IPA charts with different languages’ phonemic inventories highlighted on each one: English, Chinese, Korean, Turkish, Hindi, and Spanish. I showed him the clickable IPA chart that inspired this project. I provided him an audio clip of me pronouncing each of the sounds I wanted. From there, Mike produced the chart I had been dreaming of, and it’s now on OSU’s ESL Programs Spoken English web page for anyone to use! Me, I’m going to start using it tomorrow.

Below is a screenshot of just the (Mandarin) Chinese version of the chart.

I hope this chart proves to be as useful to some ESL/EFL teachers and students as the other clickable IPA charts have been for me.

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2 Responses to “Clickable IPA”

  1. Rachael said

    That’s great! Very useful, thank you 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for sharing. I’m excited to use this.

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