Let’s face it, learning English pronunciation is infamously tricky. The trouble is, English is not a phonetic language – meaning the way words are spelled doesn’t easily translate to how they are pronounced.
While some languages, like Italian and Japanese, offer simple ways to figure out proper pronunciation of a word based on how it’s written, English can be unpredictable from written to spoken word. Fortunately, unpredictable does not mean impossible! The good news is that there are a finite number of possibilities for how each letter or letter combination can be pronounced and a finite number of standard sounds. In this article, we’ll break down vowel sounds, consonant sounds, and share some sneaky tricks to help you improve your English pronunciation.
Mastering the vowels and consonants of the English alphabet can take a bit of practice, there’s no time like the present to start tackling the building blocks of natural pronunciation.
Learn how to learn language pronunciation and it’ll help you with all languages! In this article, we’ll be using something called IPA. No, it’s not a particularly hoppy beer – it’s the International Phonetics Alphabet.
IPA is an alphabet specifically for sounds. It’s used in linguistics (and for actors who need to do an accent!) so we have a shared way to represent the sounds of human speech. That means anyone who can read it can see how a word is pronounced, even if they don’t speak (or read!) the language. You’ve probably seen it in use next to words in the dictionary or on Wikipedia. You can recognize it in your lessons by the slashes on either side of it, like /əʊ/ or /z/.
While we’re not going to make you memorize the whole of the IPA right this instant, it can be a fantastic tool if you’re someone who enjoys learning new languages.
Worth noting: We’re going to go over the basic building blocks of sounds in English, but the reality is that different parts of the English-speaking world have very different accents. The good news is, you can have some variation in your pronunciation and still be fairly well understood. The bad news is, there really are no hard and fast answers for how to correctly pronounce some words. That’s why, when you use learn English with Busuu, you’ll hear examples from a variety of different accents to help you get acclimated to the wide range of English pronunciation.
Mastering English vowels
Alright, with that out of the way, let’s talk about vowels!
The written English vowels are: a, e, i, o, u. (Sometimes y can also act as a vowel when it behaves like an i, as in rhythm or fly.)
As you can see, there are 5 vowels, but there are actually a whopping 20 different vowel sounds in the English language. (In fact, this sentence alone contains a wide variety of pronunciations for each vowel!)
There are 12 pure vowel sounds:
|sum, bud, rough, again
|egg, any, said
|ee (like the letter e)
|be, meet, fiend
|oh (like the letter o)
|toe, know, omen
|ooh (vowel sound for u = /juː/, as in fume)
And an additional 8 vowel sounds made by combining those sounds (also known as diphthongs):
The 8 English Dipthongs
|eyy (like the letter a)
|aye (like the letter i)
*primarily used in British English, while in American English these words typically just use the simplified version of each sound, like /iː/ and /ʊ/ – see the two pronunciations of toe, for example.
So how do you know which sound to use? Well, to be honest, there are very few hard and fast English pronunciation rules (sorry!), but context clues can help you.
For example, when you have a 4 letter word – like made or pose – typically the e at the end is silent and the middle vowel is often the letter pronounced as its own name.
- Lose – still a long vowel but uː instead of ʊ
The easiest way to learn is to practice
English pronunciation is complicated! You can try to memorize all the rules and exceptions, but we find it’s better to break it down into bite size pieces. Learn at your own pace and get tons of practice with Busuu’s award-winning English course.
Next up, English consonants
Fortunately, English consonant sounds are a hair more predictable than English vowels. Most consonants only have one or two possible sounds, and the ones that transform are pretty easy to spot – with a few sly exceptions, of course.
Let’s start with the consonants that stay predictable, with just one sound in standard English pronunciation. (There are, of course, exceptions for loan words from other languages, but you have enough to worry about without thinking about jalapeños!) We’ll get to letter combinations that change their sound in a moment.
The consistent consonants are:
** In British English, an r after a vowel is often not fully pronounced or only suggested, but in American English it pretty much stays static.
And look at that! We’re more than halfway through the building blocks you need to pronounce English words!
The remaining consonants vary their sounds based on context. Let’s take a look at all the consonants in English with more than one pronunciation, not including letter combinations.
Consonants in English with more than one pronunciation:
|hit, hope, hour, when
|bath, think, then, bathe
|/j/, /iː/, /ɪ/, /aɪ/
|yellow, truly, rhythm, fly
As you can see, the letter ‘h’ in English, in particular, has incredible power to change how other letters are pronounced.
Let’s take a deeper dive into how it transforms letters.
The power of h for English consonants
C pronunciation in English
C can be a /s/ or /k/ sound until you add an h, in which case it typically becomes “ch” as in “change” or church, written in IPA as /tʃ/ – a t and a sh together. But, just to make things trickier “Ch” can also still be a /k/ sound as in school or character.
There are rules around how to figure out which c sound to use when pronouncing a word – typically a c before an i, e, or y is an /s/ sound and all others (not accompanied by an h) are /k/ sounds, except for loan words from Greek and Italian and a few other exceptions, but that could be its own blog!
G pronunciation in English
G can be a /g/ as in go or goggle, or a /dʒ/ as in engage or gerrymander. But add an h and take it off the beginning of the word and you get an /f/ sound, as in tough or laugh. (Frustratingly, perhaps, at the beginning of a word it remains a /g/ as in ghost!)
P pronunciation in English
P in English on its own is almost always /p/ as in porch or pig, but add an h and it’s now an /f/ too, as in phone or graph.
Going back to the effect Greek has had on English, we also have a number of Greek loan words, especially but not exclusively in medicine and science, that have a “ps” at the beginning of the word (or beginning of the word after any prefixes), which is simply pronounced as an /s/ – think psychic and psychiatrist.
S pronunciation in English
S is typically pronounced /s/ as in snake or sip or, less frequently, /z/ as in as or basil. However, when matched with an h, it becomes sh, as in shake or dish, represented by the symbol /ʃ/.
T pronunciation in English
T is usually a /t/ sound, as in team or root. With an h, it becomes either /θ/, a voiceless th like thigh or thistle, or /ð/, a voiced th like then or though.
Voiceless and voiced simply mean what they sound like – you make noise or not. A few other voiceless/voiced pairs include /f/ and /v/, /t/ and /d/, and /k/ and /g/. Say it out loud if you’re having trouble telling the difference!
G also has a little special power. It affects just one other letter – n. When you seen ng, you get the IPA sound /ŋ/, as in sing or English.
A few more English pronunciation tips
When in doubt, schwa
Remember /ə/ from the vowel section above? This sound is known as the schwa in IPA and – handy trick – it’s used for most deemphasized syllables that are pronounced in English. In fact, it’s the most common vowel sound in the English language.
For example, it’s used in syllables, broken, vowel, and common.
The trickiest vowel sounds in English
This sound, /ɔː/, is nicknamed the claw, and is probably the hardest to pin down, in part because it’s used so differently from one dialect to another. In fact, the difference between /aː/ /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ is incredibly tricky (some accent coaches call it hell’s corner…) and comes down to tongue placement, with /aː/ having your tongue furthest forward, in the canter of the mouth, /ɔː/ the furthest back, and /ɒ/ in between.
Practice with this video
Think you’ve got it down pat? Want to test your skills? Take a peek at this video where we challenged native Spanish speaker Álvaro’s pronunciation chops.
Now you know the basics of pronouncing English words
From here, the best thing you can do is practice, practice, practice! And we can help…
Continue working on your English pronunciation with Busuu’s pronunciation course. When you learn with Busuu, you get bite-sized lessons designed by experts and a community of native English speakers ready to help you learn.