The Basics of English Phonetics Every English Learner Must Know

Learning the English language is beneficial in society today. It is currently the most spoken language around the world, with roughly 1.5 Billion or nearly 1 in 3 people communicating with it.

If you can converse in English, you have access to many opportunities in business, social relationships, and travel. It is a crucial skill worthy of investing time in.

But English is more than just grammar and spelling. You need to have better pronunciation for people to understand you.


Difference Between Vowels versus Consonants

The problem is, the English language is not phonetic. The first thing you must know is the difference between vowels and consonants. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. 5 represents vowels and 21 for consonants.

The main difference is the way you produce the sound.

Vowel sounds can be produced by continuous airflow. Try speaking A, E, I, O, U. The sound is made without interrupting (like closing the lips or blocking the air with your tongue).

On the other hand, consonant sounds are made when you obstruct the airflow by closing your mouth (try producing the “m” sound), blocking your tongue (try the “l” sound), or similar actions (try saying the “p” and “k” sound).


The Problem with Learning English

But these sounds can differ when based on the position of the vowels and their combinations with the consonants. And sometimes, it just is plain confusing.

Certain words that look alike might not be said the same way. It is because words with similar spelling might not represent the same sounds.

For example, similar-looking words like “tear” (as in the fluid when you cry) and “tear” (as in to pull apart in pieces by force) have different pronunciations despite having the same spelling.

Another example are words like “stair” (as in the flight of steps) and “stare” (as in to gaze fixedly) have different spellings but the same pronunciations.

How can you learn English when pronouncing simple words is this complicated?


The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) Standard

Linguists all over the world recognized this problem not only in English but also in learning other languages. That’s why the International Phonetic Standard (IPA) was developed in the 19th century.

The IPA is a set of unique symbols that represent only one sound for pronouncing words. These symbols are currently used in numerous dictionaries and English Pronunciation books to guide you in learning English pronunciation.

Knowing the commonly used IPA symbols for English will give you an advantage in your English learning journey. Here are some of the symbols you should be familiar with.


Short Vowels

These are vowels you pronounce with a short breath. Here are the common symbols for short vowels.

  • æ (sound) – pass, back, have, had, contact
  • ɛ (sound) – every, ever, never, necessary, end
  • ʌ (sound) – cup, flood, love, come, thumb
  • ʊ (sound) – book, foot, woman, full, would
  • ɒ (sound) – of, often, office, squat, offer
  • ə (sound) – mother, stuff, ago, action, never


Long Vowels

These are vowels that are pronounced the same way you pronounce its name. Here are the common symbols for long vowels:

  • i: (sound) – be, need, feel, she, free
  • ɜ: (sound) – her, word, turn, world, girl
  • ɔ: (sound) – your, more, also, small, sure
  • u: (sound) – new, too, value, school, you
  • ɑ: (sound) – ask, party, father, star, bar


Diphthong Vowels

These are sounds produced by combining two vowel sounds. Here are the common symbols for Diphthong vowels:

  • ɪə (sound) – here, period, idea, career, clear
  • eə (sound) – care, share, where, there, hair
  • eɪ (sound) – later, eight, day, play, age
  • ɔɪ (sound) – voice, enjoy, join, boy, choice
  • aɪ (sound) – life, buy, why, guy, high, five
  • oʊ (sound) – open, only, follow, home, hold
  • aʊ (sound) – town, house, allow, now, how



These are consonants that are pronounced by blocking the airway with your teeth, mouth, lips, or palate and releasing the air afterwards. Here are the common symbols for plosives:

  • p (sound) – happen, program, keep, play, pay
  • b (sound) – but, before, best, maybe, job
  • t (sound) – take, tell, time, study, talk
  • d (sound) – day, idea, decide, friend, do
  • k (sound) – can, require, think, take, school
  • g (sound) – give, go, group, agree, good



These are consonants where the sound is produced by blocking the airway that causes friction when you pronounce it. Here are the common symbols for fricatives:

  • f (sound) – from, phone, self, fact, family
  • v (sound) – move, value, live, provide, even
  • θ (sound) – thing, month, thank, health, truth
  • ð (sound) – with, smooth, brother, they, then
  • z (sound) – these, reason, those, zone, citizen
  • ʃ (sound) – push, show, sure, wish, finish
  • ʒ (sound) – decision, pleasure, television, vision, version
  • h (sound) – whole, help, perhaps, who, hello



These are consonants pronounced by lowering your soft palate and producing the sound through your nose. Here are the common symbols for nasals:

  • m (sound) – man, summer, more, million, come
  • n (sound) – not, know, into, number, woman
  • ŋ (sound) – thank, think, feeling, thing, song



These are consonants that pronounced beginning as a plosive and ends as a fricative. Here are the common symbols for affricates

  • ʈʃ (sound) – church, century, culture, change, challenge
  • dʒ (sound) – job, join, general, energy, huge



These are consonants that are frictionless and sounds like a vowel. Here are the common symbols for approximants:

  • r (sound) – carry, program, very, ring, road
  • j (sound) – unit, beyond, argue, during, usually
  • w (sound) – where, world, wait, require, we
  • l (sound) – leave, last, look, control, people



Learning English phonetics is quite hard, especially for non-native speakers. Alongside with the guide above, you can get reliable TESOL-certified mentors to help you, depending on your current English proficiency level.

With that, LingualBox offers affordable one-on-one live coaching sessions for as low as $2. With flexible 24/7 schedules, you can speak like a native speaker in your convenience.

Cheers to speaking the English language effectively!


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Miko Eclipse is a digital nomad writer who travels the world while working online! He likes to meet new people, experience the culture, and gobble on the best food the country has to offer. English is his 2nd language for travel. And it can be yours as well by reading our weekly updates on our blog!