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Spanish by Christmas: Learn the IPA for English and Spanish with Anki Flashcard Decks

By Bill Powell

I’m learning Spanish by Christmas, and the first step is learning the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). First for English, then for Spanish. The best way to learn the IPA? Anki decks.

English IPA with Wyner’s Deck

But before you download any decks, make sure you watch Wyner’s free videos on the IPA. If you skip these short videos, the decks won’t make any sense.

After watching the videos a couple times, I bought Wyner’s IPA Anki deck, and started working through it right away. Before this, I’d taken a long break from Anki reviews, so I was happy to find that coming back to the daily memory work felt really good.

I’ve written more elsewhere about learning the English sounds in the IPA. Here, I’ll just repeat that the IPA is definitely worth your time. At first, the concepts seem bizarre, and even tedious. Keep at it. Before long, you’ll break through to the underlying patterns.

It’s been about a month, and now I’m completely familiar with almost all the English sounds. If you ask, “What’s the voiceless alveolar fricative?” I can sound it out (/s/). I’m still refining my memories of a few vowels (is /o/ “close-mid” or “open-mid”?) but those are small details.

Spanish IPA with the “IPA Spanish” Deck

Of course, learning how I make English sounds, interesting as that is, wasn’t the final goal. I wanted to use the IPA to learn Spanish sounds. Once I had worked with this deck enough to feel comfortable, I looked for a deck that would teach me the IPA symbols for Spanish sounds.

And I found one! Searching for shared decks in Anki, I found a deck called IPA Spanish & English Vowels and Consonants. (If you search on IPA Spanish, that should work.) A guy named Jon Aske seems to have made three similar versions of the same deck, so I chose the longer deck, which includes vowels.

This excellent deck has cards for each sound in Spanish. Each card is accompanied, like the cards in Wyner’s deck, by an audio recording. (Obviously, the audio is crucial.)

The deck also includes cards for a few English sounds that aren’t in Spanish. This is good: you want to memorize which English sounds should never come out of your mouth in Spanish mode. These are exactly the sounds you’ll slip into without realizing it.

Make New Sounds with the Power of the IPA!

Here’s the exciting part: the IPA worked. Armed with my new, intricate knowledge of my own mouth, I could construct new Spanish sounds.

Voiceless velar fricative? I can do that. Behold my new superpower.

Glimpsing Spanish Dialects

The cards actually go into serious detail. Spanish, like English, has major differences between dialects.

I’ve decided not to memorize all these differences right now. This seems like trying to use cards to memorize a British accent before you’ve so much as watched Mary Poppins. But it’s still helpful to start exposing my brain to bits of this information.

For instance, a small percentage of Spanish speakers pronounce ll like sh. When I read that, I thought, wow, that’s obscure. But sure enough, one of the audio recordings I downloaded from Forvo pronounced a vocab word with that sh. If this deck hadn’t already made me aware of this dialect, I would have been seriously confused.

It’s funny how part of me resists these dialects. I want Spanish to be simple, elegant, a math problem with only one correct answer.

But in my own language, I love accents: London cockney, British lord, Scottish highlander, Southern belle, Australian … um … whatever Australians do … what do they do? Besides write awesome epic poetry? And invent permaculture?

Anyhow, one day, these Spanish “pronunciation differences” will be just as rich for me in cultural allusions.

For now, I just need to know when to cough up those Spanish g’s.

Add Formatting If Desired

My only suggestion for this deck is that it could use some extra formatting. On my copy, I broke up some of the long paragraphs, and color coded how this sound is used in Spanish:

  • green if all dialects use the sound
  • orange if some dialects use the sound
  • red if the sound never appears in Spanish

If you’re interested, let me know, and maybe I’ll release my update as a shared deck.

Don’t Try to Memorize Everything

Again, these cards have a lot of information. As far as I can tell, all you need to focus on are:

  • pronouncing the sound correctly
  • knowing whether it is used in Spanish
  • ideally, identifying how the sound is formed (like, “voiceless velar fricative”)

I could be wrong, but this seems to be the information we’re after.

Use At Your Own Risk

As far as I can tell, this excellent “IPA Spanish” deck will do just what it says: teach you the sounds of Spanish in the IPA.

Of course, since I don’t know Spanish, I’m not qualified to assure you that this deck is 100% correct. But it seems to agree with the pronunciation guides in my “official” books. There are some slight differences from Wyner’s deck, but only in terminology, not the actual sounds.

On the other hand, I’ve spotted plenty of errors in a Spanish vocabulary deck I downloaded. But that’s another story.

Posted: Thu, Jun 21, 2012