Phonemes: The Sounds of English

Phonemes mean sounds. Each IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) represents a phoneme.  /k/ and /g/ are two phonemes that change the meaning of words like [curl] and [girl], right? Now, English phonemes fall into two broad categories: Consonants and vowels.

Phonemes k and g

The bad news is that each consonant and vowel has its own IPA symbol.  For example, there is phoneme  [kʰ]  in kill and [k] in skill.  The latter is unaspirated, while the former is (aspirated). You go ahead and pronounce the phoneme /k/ in [skill] in the same way you would pronounce it in [Kill]. It sounds a bit strange doesn’t it?

The other bad news is that we do not always pronounce those phonemes exactly in the same way. It depends on the surrounding phonemes, meaning,  rhythm and speed etc. You must know how the phonemes blend and assimilate to speak English fluently and naturally. You need to understand what happens to phonemes during natural speech. If you do that, you will no longer need subtitles when you watch American or British movies (assuming you have a reasonably good vocabulary).

There is no way for anyone to cover every nuance in speech. I am very confident though the list and categories I have included are quite comprehensive. Based on my experience, there are 5 important categories or keys, as I call them, that you need to be aware of when learning English. The 5 categories are as follows:

1-Consonants
2-Vowels
3-The schwa sound
4-The [t] pronunciation
5-Connected speech

So basically, you're not just about to learn what phonemes are, you're about to learn how they deal and co-exist with each other.

Now let us move on to the English consonants and vowels and of course, the greatest nightmare of most English teachers, the IPA symbols.  Just to make it a little more interesting, I have created a list of the most confusing consonants and vowels as I thought this could be more useful than just staring at a plain list of IPA with random words.  Being the thoughtful human being I am, I have also attached small pictures to the words containing the IPA to serve as a visual aid for the students who then could….well visualize the sound!