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Why it’s important to learn about the sounds of English

Listen to these three English sounds:

Depending on your native language, 1, 2 and 3 may sound like three versions of an “a” sound to you. However, to a native English speaker, 1, 2 and 3 are as different as the colors red, green and blue. Why do native speakers feel that these are three different sounds, not three variations of the same sound? Because in English, the choice between 1, 2 and 3 is functionally important – it can determine the meaning you express. As an example, consider three words: come, calm and cam (short for “camera”). The only audible difference between them is that come has 1, calm has 2, and cam has 3.

Why do some sounds seem similar, while others seem different? One reason is that certain sounds are just very different. But there is another reason. Our brains notice especially those differences which are functionally important in our native lan­guage – differences which are necessary to correctly identify the words that we hear. (We learn this when we are babies – here’s a scientific review of the process.)

For example, if you are Italian, you can easily notice the difference between u and o because this difference is impor­tant for under­standing Italian words (for example, it is the only difference between multi and molti). But you are probably much less sensitive to the difference between t and θ, since θ doesn’t occur in any Italian words, or to the diffe­rence between u and ʊ, since that difference is not function­ally important in Italian: Although some­times an Italian may pronounce an ʊ sound instead of u, that change doesn’t affect the meaning, so ʊ is just a version of u, not a separate cate­gory. Hence, Italian brains don’t pay much attention to the difference between the two. It takes training to overcome this “deafness”.

In linguistic jargon, we say that u and ʊ are contrastive (or “there is a phonemic difference between them”) in English, but not in Italian.

Listen to another set of English sounds: 4, 5, 6, 7. Although some of them may sound similar to you, each of them fulfills a different function in the English language. For example, 4 is the first sound in tin. If you replace 4 with 5, you get thin, with 6sin, and with 7fin.

English, like any language, has its own set of sounds, from which all words are made. (This set of sounds is called a phonology.) If you want to speak English well, you have to teach yourself to recognize and pronounce the set of English sounds. There are two obvious reasons for this:

  • If you can’t pronounce the sounds of English, people won’t understand you very well. Occasionally, this may lead to misunder­standings – for example, if your come sounds too much like calm, you may try to say “Can you come down?”, but the other person will hear “Can you calm down?”. More often, your listeners will have a hard time understanding you because you will say sounds that do not sound like English sounds at all, but rather like sounds of your native language. They will ask you to repeat what you said, or they will understand only 50% of what you said.
  • If you can’t recognize the sounds of English, you won’t understand people very well. You won’t be able to correctly identify the words that you hear.

But there is also a third, less obvious reason: If you cannot recognize all the sounds of English, you are not using spoken input fully. One of the reasons to listen to English input, such as podcasts, TV or movies, is to learn the correct pronunciations of words. But if your brain is not trained to recognize all the English sounds, you won’t hear what you need to hear. For example, if you don’t have separate “boxes” in your head for 4, and 5, when you hear tree and three, you will hear the same thing, so you will remember them as homophones. If you cannot notice the differences between English sounds, you’re actually learning the wrong pronunciations for many English words. At some point, you will have to re-learn them, which is a problem, because re-learning something is always more difficult than learning it right in the first place.

To put it another way, if you cannot recognize all the sounds of English, you’re not hearing English words the way a native speaker does – you’re hearing them through the filter of your native language.

How to learn to recognize all the English sounds

  • Spend some time playing with the English sound chart. Listen to the recordings, compare them with each other. Seeing all the English sounds on one page helps you develop a separate box in your head for each sound.
  • Look up some English words in a dictionary. Listen to the recording and read the transcription at the same time.
  • From time to time, when you hear an English word, ask yourself “What sounds did I just hear? How would I transcribe this word with phonetic symbols?”. If you’re not sure, look the word up in a dictionary.

“Studying English sounds feels unnatural. Why can’t I just listen to English?”

Who said you can’t? It’s quite possible that you will figure out (consciously or unconsciously) what the sounds of English are. But why not speed it up? Listening to some samples of English sounds doesn’t take that much time.