The phonemic alphabet: Learning to use the symbols

Most dictionaries use phonemic symbols to indicate the pronunciation of a word, so understanding how sounds are represented with symbols will help the student to know immediately how to pronounce the word even without hearing it.

Learning the 40+ symbols used in English is actually easier than it may seem. For starters, many of the symbols look just like the letters which represent them most frequently, so they are learned quickly through natural repetition. The word “best”, for example, is represented phonetically as /best/. Secondly, many of the symbols represent sounds that also exist in the student’s native language, so recognizing them as something already understood makes learning them much easier. For example, the first sound in the English word “shave” /ʃeĭv/ is the same as the first sound in the French word cher” /ʃɛʀ/.

After that, there may only be a dozen or so new symbols left to learn. Studying them one or two at a time (rather than all at once) can make the remainder of this seemingly arduous task much more manageable. For instance, it would be pointless to ask a French person to begin by using nothing but the symbols to pronounce a phrase like /ðæt θɜːd hʌŋk/ (“that third hunk”) impeccably on the first try, but by isolating one of the sounds, perhaps /θ/, in words whose other sounds are familiar, such as theme”, “theft”, “teeth“, or “bath“, the student can master each sound individually and gradually collect all of the sounds of the language.

There’s more to say about phonemic symbols; scroll down to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

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