What is a phonemic chart and how will it help my English?

The ‘phonemic chart’ is a set of symbols that represent all the sounds in spoken English.

Although the most common phonemic charts are based on Received Pronunciation and therefore don’t include all the sounds needed for different accents, they give us a good idea of what any word will sound like without needing to hear it. There are several versions of the chart for the most common varieties of spoken English, but the most famous phonemic chart in common use was created by a man called Adrian Underhill, who is very well known for his work on teaching pronunciation.

Phonemic charts are useful for learning English pronunciation because the spelling of a word in English doesn’t always tell us how it is going to sound. If we write them using the symbols from the phonemic chart, then we can clearly show how a word sounds. That’s why so many dictionaries have phonemic transcriptions of words next to them.

The phonemic chart is also useful for practising pronunciation because it enables you to visualise the individual sounds you are having trouble with in English and practise those sounds accurately. Many language teachers encourage their students to learn the symbols so they can make a note of what new words sound like so they can remember them after class.

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Learning the phonemic chart is also great because it helps you see out how the sounds in English are related. By knowing the chart, you can see which sounds are voiced (where your vocal chords make a noise) and which are unvoiced.

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(Tip: Put your fingers on your throat then say ‘zzzzzzzzzz’. After that, do the same thing and say ‘ssssssss’. Can you feel the difference? Your fingers should feel a slight vibration with the first sound but not the second. Your mouth is the same shape when you make both sounds but ‘zzzzzz’ is voiced and ‘sssssss’ is unvoiced.)

Another useful thing about being familiar with phonemes is that they can show us the sounds between words. Some words actually have extra sounds in between them. When a native speaker says ‘do it’, it sounds like ‘do wit’ and we can write this easily using symbols from the phonemic chart.

Although the symbols take a little while to learn, there are some fun ways to do it. You can use the Pronunciation Lab at EF English Live to find out about the sounds of English and how they work. My advice is to become familiar with the phonemic chart because it really is useful for understanding English pronunciation and improving your own.