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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The phonemic alphabet: Why is it used?

English is a language with many ancestors, and many of its words have been derived, borrowed, or even lifted directly from hundreds of other languages.

Most of the time, these new words carry their original pronunciation, or a close approximation of it, with them when they enter the English language. This is the reason for the numerous apparent inconsistencies in the relationship of spelled words to their pronunciation. For example, the combination “ea” is pronounced differently in “great” [greĭt], “treat” [trit], and “threat” [θret]; the letter “g” has a different sound in “give” [gɪv] than in “gist” [dʒɪst]; and so on.

Some differences are easy to hear, but others are more subtle. Phonemic symbols connect the sounds to a consistent system of written representation that can be used for all spoken languages.

Go to “Follow AD” at the bottom of this page to learn more about phonemic symbols!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris

What is the phonemic alphabet?

Quite simply, the phonemic alphabet is a series of symbols that represent the sounds of spoken communication. Its fundamental principle is that one symbol represents exactly one sound, and one sound is represented by exactly one symbol.

For instance, the word “bags” has four sounds (b-a-g-s) and is represented by four symbols, as /bægz/; the word “green” also has four sounds (g-r-ee-n) and is represented as /griːn/; “listen” has five sounds (the “t” is silent) for /ˈlɪsən/; and “six” has four sounds, /sɪks/.

Of course each learner has his own learning style, and while it is possible to learn a language without using phonemic symbols, my teaching includes their use in order to give the student as many tools as possible to help them reach their goals. I’ll have more information about the phonemic alphabet in future posts; go to “Follow AD” at the bottom on this page to stay up to date!

Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris