Pronunciation – Getting to know the phonemic chart

Written by
Nicholas Wheeldon

Academic Manager at Milestones English Academy.

Getting to know the phonemic chart

The phonemic chart is a visual representation of different sounds – meaning you are able to see how a word is pronounced. It might look like you are learning a whole new alphabet, but just learn a few symbols gradually – it really helps with your pronunciation. Once you know what a symbol means or how it sounds you won’t have to listen and repeat anymore, you will just know how it sounds. All dictionaries have the phonemic spelling of words, so again, when you understand the symbols, you will know how to say a word.

In English there are 26 letters in the alphabet, but there are 44 sounds. Included in these 44 are 20 vowel sounds. We separate these vowel sounds into two categories – monophthongs and diphthongs. Basically, monophthongs are single sounds within a single syllable. – so, one sound. For example, the word ‘girl’ has one vowel sound / ɜ:/ (er) Diphthongs are single-syllable vowel sounds however the beginning of the sound glides to another, slightly different vowel sound – so two sounds. For example, the word ‘boy’ has two sounds and your lips change positions to make the sound / ɔɪ /

Let’s take a closer look at monophthongs. The symbols follow the shape of your mouth. Starting with the / i: / your lips are wide and your jaw is closed and as you move right to the / u: / your lips open to a round shape.

Understanding Pronunciation

Pronunciation then, is knowing how words sound and not how they are spelt. The spelling of the word does not help us pronounce them. Just like English grammar, and its grammatical rules, pronunciation has its own set of rules too. To make it a little harder, but fun, good pronunciation is not just ‘how words and letters sound’ it involves other important features too; for example: Intonation – how your tone of voice changes (going up and down) during a sentence. Stress – the words and syllables which have more prominence when we are speaking. Connected speech – how words can sound different when they are joined together in natural speech. All of these features contribute to good pronunciation – but don’t confuse them with accent. 

Over the next few months, we are going to be looking at some of these pronunciation features and rules, allowing you to practice at home. But first, let’s look at some basic tips to help you on your way 😊 

Going from the top to the bottom from the / i: / to the /æ/ sound your jaw is closed and your mouth is wide. As you go down your jaw and lips open to make a round shape.

The two dots /  :  / after a symbol indicate that the vowel sound is long. Can you hear the difference between sheep /ʃi:p/ and ship /ʃɪp/ ?

Try saying the sounds and feel the way your lips and jaw move.
The sound / ə / is a neutral sound and is known as the schwa / ʃwɑː / It is the most common vowel sound in the Australian English language.

The diphthongs (2 sounds) are grouped in rows according to their second sound

Try saying the full words as seen on the left and then focus on the vowel sound within those words, for example, ‘here’ – now just say the vowel sound /ɪə/ – can you hear the two sounds gliding together? First the / ɪ / sound and then the / ə / sound. They glide together to form the sound / ɪə/ ‘here’

Next, we have the consonants – some are voiced, and some are unvoiced – voiced means that your vocal cords vibrate and are unvoiced if they do not. Basically, if it is unvoiced more air is needed to make the sound. The symbols with the blue dot ( ) are unvoiced and the voiced sounds have an orange dot.

Each pair of sounds (one blue dot and one orange dot are exactly the same as to how the sound is made, but the sound with the blue dot needs more air.


Try saying these words and notice the difference – say them normally and then whisper the words – try and hear and feel the difference in the force of your breath. 

Coming next…

Next month we are going to look at the ending of words and how the sounds differ.

Written by
Nicholas Wheeldon

Academic Manager at Milestones English Academy.

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