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Introduction to The Sounds of English

Features of English

Sounds and spelling

It's important to note that the spelling of a word is not always an accurate guide to how it is pronounced. Similarly the pronunciation of a word is not always helpful when working out how that word should be spelt.

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet but there are many more sounds in the English language. This means that the number of sounds in a word is not always the same as the number of letters.

For example, the word 'CAT' has three letters and three sounds but the word 'CATCH' has five letters but still only three sounds.
If we write these words using sound symbols, we can see exactly how many sounds they have.

CAT is written - / kæt /
CATCH is written - / kæʧ /

In 'CATCH' the three letters TCH are one sound represented by one symbol / ʧ /

Exercise. In this activity you have to work out how many sounds there are in a particular word, remember, the number of letters is not usually the same as the number of sounds.
    Listen for exercise.

Schwa

Schwa is the name for the most common sound in English. It is a weak, unstressed sound and it occurs in many words. It is often the sound in grammar words such as articles and prepositions.

Getting the schwa sound correct is a good way of making your pronunciation more accurate and natural.

The phonemic symbol for this sound is / ə /.

    Schwa exercises, audio
    Lesson, video

Connected speech

When we speak naturally we do not pronounce a word, stop, then say the next word in the sentence. Fluent speech flows with a rhythm and the words bump into each other. To make speech flow smoothly the way we pronounce the end and beginning of some words can change depending on the sounds at the beginning and end of those words.

These changes are described as features of connected speech.

Voiced & voiceless sounds

Some consonant sounds are voiced and some are voiceless. A voiceless sound is one that just uses air to make the sound and not the voice.

You can tell if a sound is voiced or not by putting your hand gently on your throat. When you say a sound, if you can feel a vibration it is a voiced sound.

Voicing is important because sometimes it's the only difference in the pronunciation of two very different words, such as 'bet' and 'pet'.

Bet /bet/ - the /b/ sound is voiced.
Pet /pet/ - the /p/ sound is voiceless.