seems to think that the IPA cannot represent the full gamut of human sounds in terms of pronunciation in languages. Not wanting to argue on a point about which I cannot claim to know, I decided to email you.
If it is the case that any language can be represented by the IPA, is there a good book which one can use as a pronunciation reference when looking at IPA? And an unrelated question, can anyone actually really use IPA to speak like a native speaker if they don't have reference sounds (given they could reproduce them if they tried)? I would guess you would need some tutelage in order to properly use IPA...?
I replied along the following lines.
1. There is no universal enumerable list of discrete “sounds”, and therefore there can be no set of symbols in a one-to-one relationship with them. Rather, we are faced with a multi-dimensional continuum of possibilities. Putting it another way, there is no super multilingual phoneme system in the sky, of which the sounds of each particular language are a subset.
In principle, the IPA contains all the symbols needed to represent the pronunciation of any human language so far described — that is, it is adequate to cover the contrastive sounds (phonemes) of any language. Not all finer shades can be represented except by ad hoc symbols. For example the English ʃ sound in sheep is somewhat different from that in sharp and that in short. But it is not necessary to symbolize these finer nuances. The French ʃ (orthographic ch) is not identical with any of these, being usually “darker” than in English ʃ, nor in the other direction is the Japanese ʃ (orthographic し, romanized sh). However the same IPA symbol will serve for all. For languages that do make phonemic contrasts among sounds that we English speakers would regard as varieties of ʃ, the additional symbols ʂ (less palatal) and ɕ (more palatal) are available. As far as is known, these are sufficient to cater for the ʃ-type sounds of all languages.
2. It is of course true that learning a set of symbols does not equip you to pronounce any language perfectly. Phonetic symbols are a reminder of what you should be aiming for when pronouncing a word in a given language. They still need to be interpreted in the light of detailed phonetic information about that language (point 1 above). And even possession of this knowledge does not automatically give you the articulatory motor skills to perform the sounds accurately.
3. Yes, study phonetics! Or at least consult the IPA Handbook (CUP 1999) and a textbook or two.
More generally, it does seem to be the case that for many people practical phonetic skills are best learned through face-to-face tuition given by an expert. Partly, this is to do with the “hearing bias” imposed on us by our native language. We just don’t automatically hear all the details of speech sounds if those details are irrelevant in our L1. A tutor can draw our attention to aspects we may have overlooked, and perhaps offer ear-training to improve our perception of “foreign” sounds and sound contrasts. It ought to be possible for experts to deliver this kind of tuition through distance learning rather than face-to-face, but that’s something we’re still working on (though we made a start at UCL with PhonLine).
For original investigation into the phonetics of a language, there is no substitute for dealing with a live native-speaker “language consultant” (informant).