How to use the International Phonetic Alphabet to nail the correct pronunciation of English

If you struggle with the correct pronunciation of English words, you’re not alone. Here’s how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and the phoneme chart to get it right, every time.
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Why is English pronunciation hard?

English pronunciation is hard, no doubt about it.  But why is English pronunciation hard?  Well, the history of English pronunciation is at least as diverse as its motherland.  England was invaded from all sides as the language developed and other cultural influences, for example from France, has resulted in a mish-mash of spelling and vocabulary with roots in languages across Europe.  

A survey by the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the modern English language is made up of about 28% French, 28% Latin, 25% Germanic roots.  The spelling was not standardised at the point of formalising the written language and the result is that English is not a phonetically spelt language.

What is phonetic spelling?

Some languages such as Thai and Spanish, are spelt phonetically.  This means that the language is pronounced exactly as it is written.  If you can read it, you can pronounce the words clearly.  English, however, is different.  The way that a word is written is not necessarily how you pronounce it.  Moreover, some words can be pronounced in various ways and some pronunciations can serve multiple words all with different meanings.  How complicated! 

What is the correct pronunciation of words in English?

There are a wide range of regional and international English accents and therefore, it is fair to say that there is a range of pronunciation of any given word that could be considered correct.  

The biggest international dictionaries use the standardised approach to pronunciation in both British English and American English accents.  In British English, the standard accent is known as Received Pronunciation. 

 

How to pronounce English words correctly

You can use the International Phonetic Alphabet to find out how to pronounce English words correctly.  The IPA is used in both American and British dictionaries to clearly show the correct pronunciation of any word in a Standard American accent or a British RP accent.

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As we have already learned, the English language is not spelt phonetically but the IPA is used to give the phonetic spelling for any word, and even, in any accent.  As the IPA is a phonetic alphabet, you can therefore use it to understand how to pronounce English words correctly without ever hearing them.  Let’s find out more about the IPA in the next section and how to use it without getting lost in the detail.

What is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA Alphabet)?

Now, if you go in search of the IPA on the internet, you’ll quickly find that it is extremely complicated.  There are as many as 173 characters and the IPA can be used to understand the pronunciation of ANY LANGUAGE and accent.  However, as the English language does not include all of the sounds found in other languages and vice versa, naturally we only need a portion of the full alphabet.  But, there is more good news.  There are actually only 44 phonemes (sounds) in the British RP accent.  Our recommendation is that you focus on being able to nail the pronunciation of these sounds and then work on flow, intonation, articulation, etc, through a more natural approach like the one we offer in our Pronunciation Course

The 44 phonemes of the British RP accent are helpfully structured in the following table:

 

IPA Phoneme chart for British Received Pronunciation

What is the Phonetic Chart? 

The phonetic chart (or phoneme chart) is an ordered grid created by Adrian Hill that helpfully structures the 44 phonemes of Received Pronunciation into three categories: monophthong (single) vowels, diphthong (double) vowels and consonants.  Additionally, the sounds are ordered to be close to other sounds that are similar, to help you understand the difference between them.  You will also notice that within the single vowels, there are are five with colons (:).  These represent long vowel sounds.  In the example of PIT vs. SEA, they are the same sound, only SEA is a long version vowel sound. 

What is the IPA vowel chart?

The IPA vowel chart is one section of the phoneme chart and splits the 20 vowel sounds of the British RP accent into monophthongs (which have one sound) and diphthongs (which are two sounds together).  

What is the IPA consonant chart? 

The IPA Consonant chart is the second section of the phoneme chart and contains the 24 consonants in the British RP accent.

Get familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet

Join our Headteacher and Pronunciation Coach, Anna, in this video to get familiar with the International Phonetic Alphabet.  You can also join regular drop in sessions in the ELAN Community and practice your pronunciation in the Conversation club.

 

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Can I use the International Phonetic Alphabet to improve my pronunciation and accent?

The International Phonetic Alphabet is designed to give a clear and accurate guide to correct pronunciation, in any accent.  Most good online dictionaries provide the pronunciation of the word you are looking for in the IPA as well as the normal spelling.  Therefore, using the IPA to improve the accuracy and understanding of the correct pronunciation of any word in either the Standard American accent or the British RP accent is an excellent way to speak more clearly.

Do I need English pronunciation classes? 

If you are unsure if pronunciation classes can help you to speak more clearly, build your confidence and help you to achieve your goals, then we have developed a unique Pronunciation Assessment.  We have built a tailored, comprehensive set of exercises which you complete in the comfort of your own home and submit to our expert Pronunciation Coach for analysis.  We’ll provide you with a full breakdown of your pronunciation accuracy vs. the 44 sounds of the British RP accent as well as overall guidance and recommendations on your speaking flow, articulation and clarity.  Students love our Pronunciation Assessment due to the clear, written guidance that is yours to keep and we find that working from your recordings gives us the ability to play back, slow down and have time to really focus on your needs.

Should I do an English Pronunciation Course? 

Native English speakers and English as a second language learners both benefit from our highly rated Pronunciation Course.  We recommend completing the Pronunciation Assessment first as the written guidance works perfectly with our pronunciation course and will allow you to fast-track your improvement by focusing on the areas you need to work on most. 


Our pronunciation course is different to the majority of courses on the market as it is built by our Headteacher, Anna, and not only covers the 44 sounds of the British RP accent in great detail but goes on to focus on articulation and speaking confidence and fluency.  The course includes 189 lessons supported by video, activities, shadowing exercises and over 5000 audio files.  That’s why our Pronunciation Course really is the most comprehensive offering on the market.

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