Smile… say “cheese”!

Why use phonemic symbols?

The alphabet we use to write English has 26 letters but English has 44 sounds. Inevitably, English spelling is not a reliable guide to pronunciation because:

  1. Some letters have more than one sound. “O in Nose, Hot, Ton and For”
  2. Sometimes letters are not pronounced at all. “Knife”
  3. The same sound may be represented by different letters. “Eye, Tie, and Pine”
  4. Sometimes syllables indicated by the spelling are not pronounced at all. “Vegetable, chocolate and clothes”

The letters of the alphabet can be a poor guide to pronunciation. Phonemic symbols, in contrast, are a totally reliable guide. Each symbol represents one sound consistently.


Do I need to have a perfect English accent?

Not at all. It is true that the 44 phonemes in British English are based on Received Pronunciation, an accent which is not frequently heard nowadays (approximately 7% of the current British population speak it and often it is called colloquially ‘The Queen’s English‘).

Most native-speaker teachers do not have this accent but still use phonemic symbols. When the symbols are arranged in a chart, each one occupies a box. This indicates that the real sound that you actually hear can vary up to certain limits, depending on the influence of other sounds and on individual ways of speaking. There is not just one perfect way to say each sound – there is an acceptable range of pronunciations. Think of the pieces in a game of chess. They can vary considerably in size, shape and appearance but we can always recognize a knight because it behaves like a knight and not like a king.

The point is that such words such as ‘ship’, ‘sheep’, ‘sip’ and ‘seep’ should sound different from each other, not that each sound is pronounced exactly like the sounds of RP.

Learning phonemic symbols will help students to understand the importance of length and voicing. Simply knowing that the symbol : indicates a long sound can be very helpful.

There is no end to our study of grammar and vocabulary but phonemic symbols are limited, visual and physical. They may seem challenging at first but it is like learning to swim or ride a bike. Once you do it, it is easy and you never forget.

What students need to learn:

Students need to be understood and to be able to say what they want to say. Their pronunciation should be at least adequate for that purpose. They need to know the various sounds that occur in the language and differentiate between them. They should be able to apply certain rules, eg. past tense endings, t, d or id.

Likewise, a knowledge of correct rhythm and stress and appropriate intonation is essential.


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