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.
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.
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.
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
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
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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