What do English, Maori, Vietnamese and Zulu have in common? Along with another 131 of the world’s languages, they all use the Latin script.

If your first language uses the same alphabet, you’d think that learning the sounds of English would be easy. But, for many learners of English, pronouncing words accurately can be a real challenge.

Why is English phonology so complicated? And how can learning to use a phonemic chart improve your pronunciation?

This week, we’ll answer these questions and help you get to grips with the 44 sounds of English!


English, The Linguistic Mix

We talk about the English language as a single entity, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona

English actually consists of a mix of different languages. For centuries the British Isles were invaded – Romans, Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Each invading culture brought with it a new language and each language (and many more since) has contributed to the formation and evolution of English.

As a result, English now has a lot of different words, with different sounds and different spellings. So, we’ve ended up with a language that doesn’t really follow any rules.

This video by famous typologist Ed Rondthaler shows just what a nightmare English spelling can be!



A World of Englishes

Another reason why English phonology can be complicated is that there are many Englishes out there. From American Samoa to Zimbabwe there are millions of people who speak English as their first language.

Although British and American English are the most frequently taught varieties, these standardised forms don’t represent the phonological diversity in the UK and the USA, let alone the rest of the world.

Here’s what eminent English linguist David Crystal has to say about it!



What Is A Phonemic Chart?

A phonemic chart, like this one from Macmillan English, is a set of symbols that represent the sounds of English. There are a total of 44 phonemes in (British) English, but only 26 letters.

Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona

The symbols used in a phonemic chart come from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). These are the same symbols that you’ll see when you look up a word in the dictionary.



At first glance, all these symbols can seem confusing, but a lot of them are exactly the same as letters in the alphabet. If you look at the consonants in this colourful diagram, designed by Language Base Camp, you’ll see that there are very few surprises.

Starting with ‘spy’, try pronouncing the words in the diagram and notice how your lips and tongue move to produce the different consonantal sounds.

Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona


Spanish has just 5 vowel sounds, which correspond neatly with each vowel in the alphabet (a, e, i, o, u). By contrast, British English has a total of 20 vowels (12 pure vowels and 8 diphthongs).

In the image below, you have the Spanish vowels in the centre of the circle and the equivalent English vowels around the outside. As you can see, they don’t match up and this can make it very difficult for Spanish speakers to hear the difference between certain English vowels.


Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona

2014-2016 Version created by Janet Auckland R.S.ADipl. for Anglès per Adults students


How Can It Help My Pronunciation?

As we’ve said, when it comes to spelling and pronunciation, English is a bit of a mess! With 26 letters but 44 sounds, the way a word is written and how it is pronounced can be very different.

By learning phonemic symbols, you can be 100% sure that you’re getting it right. You can start perceiving the differences between English sounds, but also the differences between English sounds and those of your first language.

The phonemic transcription doesn’t just give you information about individual sounds, but also the number of syllables a word has.

Guess how many syllables these words have in standard English pronunciation:

(answers at the bottom of the page)*

– Business

– Vegetable

– Wednesday

– Comfortable


3 Exercises To Get You Started


1. Example Words

Start by trying to learn small groups of similar sounds, for example /t, d, θ, ð/. These consonants are all produced at the front of the mouth, with your tongue between or just behind your teeth.

Make a short list of words that include these sounds and practise saying them.

Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona

2. Minimal Pairs

Next you can start looking for minimal pairs. These are words that are pronounced the same, apart from one sound. Practising with minimal pairs is a great way to start perceiving the differences between similar sounds.

Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona

3. Accent Coach

Once you’re feeling more confident with the phonemic chart, you can do some listening practice. English Accent Coach is an online game, that is designed to train your ear to recognise the different sounds of English.

Click ‘Play Game’ and then you can choose between vowels and consonants. You then select which specific sounds you want to practise. You’ll hear some examples and you have to click on the correct symbol.

Improving your pronunciation with a phonemic chart | Oxford House Barcelona

For more on pronunciation take a look at 5 Powerful Tools to Perfect Your Pronunciation.

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Accurately (adv): an individual installment of a TV show.

To get to grips with (exp): to watch lots of episodes of a TV series all in one day.

Let alone (exp): a sequence of related episodes, usually in one year.

Phonemes (n): to go more quickly.

At first glance (exp): to take or throw away.

Diphthongs (n): to dub is to use a different language from the original version.

To match up (pv): an adjective describing a strong emotional feeling.


adv = adverb

exp = expression

n = noun

pv = phrasal verb

Study English at Oxford House Barcelona

Interested in taking an English course at Oxford House Barcelona? Check all the different Summer English classes we can offer you contact us for more information.

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