English Pronunciation Guide

THERE ARE 44 BASIC SOUNDS IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, REPRESENTED BY 26 LETTERS OF THE ALPHABET. Of these, 23 are vowels, which is quite a lot more than in some other European languages, like Spanish, or Italian. Nonetheless, English leans more to the consonant side when it comes to the vowel/consonant balance. The preponderance of consonant clusters causes a lot of trouble for east Asians learners, in particular.

Vowels are pronounced with the mouth open, while consonants are created by obstructions to the breath. Labials, for example, are consonants made by either of the lips. [ð], on the other hand, is a dental fricative and is produced by pushing the tip of the tongue into the top teeth. Dentolabials, found only in pathological speech, refers to pushing the tip of the tongue into the bottom teeth.


Vowels can make syllables on their own, or join with consonants to become a syllable. Every syllable must have a vowel, however.

Short vowels of English

Introducing the Schwa, the Upside Down e

BECAUSE OF THE mismatch between the number of sounds in English and the number of letters used to represent them, there are often difficulties in trying to spell English words phonetically. This is actually one of the biggest complaints of non-native speakers when they learn English.

To help overcome this problem, phonetic symbols were developed to represent the natural sounds of language in a scientific way. The International Phonetic Association has created a system that catalogues the sounds which can be used not only in English, but any language in the world (even Klingon, and Sindarin!).

While some of the IPA symbols look quite familiar to most people (for example, [i] and [a]), others are more abstract. The letter [ǝ], otherwise known as the schwa, is one of the most common sounds in the English language, but is often ignored by foreign learners. It is a vowel, designated as the mid central vowel to be specific, and sounds something like "uh". Because it doesn't exist in many languages apart from English, it is difficult for English learners to master.

Some other common vowels in English are [æ], which is pronounced like "a" in "bat", and [ɛ], pronounced like the "a" in "fat" in New Zealand English, or the "e" in "bed" in North American dialects.

Stress & Articulation

STRESS REFERS to the prominence given to particular syllables in a single word. By making the syllables longer, louder and higher in pitch, we draw attention to them. This can be done for grammatical reasons (to differentiate between verbs and nouns, for example), or simply to highlight a particular word.

While some languages like French stress syllables at the end of the word, in English the first or second syllable are usually stressed. Interestingly, loan words from French have maintained their original style of pronunciation (such as "hotel" (hotel) and "cafe" (cafe).

Many English words have the same spelling for both the noun and verb form. When the noun and verb of a word from the same family are spelt identically ("insult", "address", "lecture", etc), the syllables are stressed differently. For nouns, the first syllable is accented; for verbs, the second syllable is accented. Eg:

Progress (Noun) .......... Progress (Verb)
Produce (Noun) ......... Produce (Verb)
Convert (Noun) ......... Convert (Verb)

Just like verbs, prepositions (like "between" (between)) are mostly stressed on the second syllable.

When two words are often said together (like "White House"), the noun is given more stress than the adjective, since it is the important part of the phrase (thus, "the White House.)

The addition of suffixes or prefixes often changes the pronunciation of a word. If a word ends in "ion", for example, the penultimate syllable will be stressed (hence, revoLUtion, commenDAtion).

In compound adjectives with a hyphen, the stress usually falls in the second adjective (such as "open-MINDed").

When a word ends with a consonant and then "le", the word is divided just before the consonant: for example, "peo/ple". The [l] sound should be pronounced dark, as it follows a mid vowel [ǝ]

Stress Within a Sentence

WHEN NATIVE speakers talk in English at a regular speed, certain words are stressed while others are left unstressed. In general, new information is often stressed, while old information is not.

Often the unstressed words are the "grammatical" words, like modal verbs ("have", "can" and "will"). Articles, pronouns and prepositions are also unstressed. The humble schwa is often used to replace unstressed syllables.

Here are some examples:

"I'll have gone home by then" .......... [I'll ǝv gone home bī ðen].
"You can sit down here" .......... [Jǝ kǝn sit down here].
"I do yoga every morning" .......... I dǝ yoga every morning.
"Do you know the way to the station?" .......... Dǝ yǝ no ðǝ way tǝ ðǝ station?"

When a word ends with "l", "r" or "f" or other consonants and the next words begins with a vowel sound, the consonant moves to the beginning of the next word. For example:

"Later on" .......... Latǝ ron
"Far away" .......... Fa rǝway
"Still advertising" .......... Sti ladvǝrtīziNG
"Surf's up" .......... Sǝrf sǝp

When an unstressed word starts with the letter "h", the "h" sound is not pronounced. For example:

"I wouldn't have met her" .......... I woodn tǝv me tǝr.

I was watching the NBA news from America and one commentator said, "That's the one thing I miss about the end of live matches: I DON"T KNOW WHAT"S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT." I noticed that she stressed every word at the end of the sentence, and she spoke slower. It seemed to me to be an American style of speaking, they like to sound dramatic.

Using rising intonation to contrast different parts of the sentence, or to end a sentence in a question.

Voiced vs unvoiced sounds

VOICING IS is a distinctive feature of English. In English, sounds can be voiced or unvoiced. This makes a contrast with some other languages like Korean, which do not recognize any distinction between the two.

Voiced sounds are produced by vocal chord vibration. For example, all vowels are voiced, while "l" is unvoiced. The choice of how to pronounce the "ed" at the end of verbs in the past tense is determined by whether the final sound in the verb stem is voiced or unvoiced.

If a verb base ends in a voiceless sound, then "ed" is pronounced "t". If the base ends with a voiced sound, it is pronounced as "d". If the base ends with a "t" or "d" sound, then the full "ed" is pronounced.

See Google's pronunciation tool!

TH sound: push your tongue into the top teeth, and blow air out.

Learning an Accent

IT IS a good idea, when learning a foreign accent, to start first with an extreme stereotype of the dialect (say Steve Irwin, for Broad Australian) and then become more natural later on.

Consonants: click here.

Common Weaknesses in Different Language Backgrounds

THERE ARE probably some sounds in English which do not exist in your language, and others which are similar but not exactly the same.

See here.

Alveolar trill (rolled [r]).

Lack of aspiration.
Use plural "s" after verbs, nouns, etc, inappropriately.

Open-mid back rounded vowel.

Say "gammer" instead of "grammar".


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