Student Stumper 26: Phonetic Symbols

QUESTION: Why are there different phonetic symbols for the same sounds? Which ones should I learn?

ANSWER: First of all,  I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for students to learn the IPA or any other set of phonetic symbols in order to master English pronunciation. However, I do think that familiarity with the symbols is helpful since they appear in dictionaries and other language resources. Being able to recognize phonetic symbols increases a learner’s independence when faced with a new word and its pronunciation. Knowing the symbols can also heighten a learner’s awareness of individual sounds. Seeing, for example, that “it” and “eat” require different symbols confirms that the short “i” and the long “e” are indeed two distinct sounds and not the same.

As a way of explaining the fact that different symbols exist for the same sounds, it might be simplest to draw a comparison:  just as spelling variations have evolved in different varieties of English (e.g., theater v. theatre), so too have different phonetic symbols.  One is not superior to another. In both cases, the important thing is to be consistent in one’s writing yet flexible when reading.  I’ve taken this stance before with regard to varieties in pronunciation, and I argued for consistency in production and flexibility in comprehension.

If you are able to choose which set of symbols to present to a learner or group of learners, you might consider what best suits their needs.  Linda Lane points out that /ay/ and /ai/ both refer to the long “i” in “time”, but for some students who do not clearly produce the glide ending in this dipthong, seeing the symbol /ay/ might be more effective in correcting the error. The understanding that /y/ is needed to join the first and second vowel sounds is important (Lane 191).


Lane, Linda. (2010). Tips for teaching pronunciation: a practical approach. White Plains, NY: Pearson Longman

20 Comments Add yours

  1. sultan23c says:

    IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is used to represent the sounds of language and is often useful in describing pronunciation patterns. Thank you Jennifer for useful post.

  2. Lisa Scott says:

    I agree with you, Jennifer, that the phonetic symbols are not necessary to teach pronunciation, but they can be helpful. My general rule when working with clients is that if they are already familiar with the symbols, then I use them when working with that client. If the client does not already know them, it often seems to them to be one more thing to master, so they come up with their own ways to remember the sound. I’ve had several clients who experienced good success by writing or spelling American words the way they would be spelled in their native language. I’ve particularly seen this with Spanish speakers, and it seems to help their American pronunciation of these words. Of course, it doesn’t help when they go to look words up in the dictionary!

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      An excellent point, Lisa. Students need tools, but sometimes it’s best if they can choose which ones to use rather than let us decide. If there’s a customized tool and that tool works effectively for learners, why object? I suppose the only challenges that can result from student-created phonetic symbols are (1) getting confused about spelling, as you mentioned, and (2) failing to distinguish similar sounds found in the L1 and L2. For example, the letter “r” exists in different languages, but has different pronunciations, so by only seeing “r” and not /ɚ/ a student may fail to articulate the English “r” correctly.

      By the way, do you distinguish /ʌ/ and /ə/? I decided not to in my latest YouTube series. I’m just going to present one sound and call attention to the fact that we have two symbols for stressed and unstressed positions.

  3. Nina Liakos says:

    I teach a lot of Asian students (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean), and they are usually familiar with the IPA, but other students (Latin Americans and Middle Easterners for example) need to learn it, and I don’t really find the IPA to be the best system for ESL. The IPA was created for all languages and is not perfect for any, certainly not English, anyway, where it sometimes uses awkward two- and three-symbol combinations to show some vowels. I actually like to use the macron and breve to indicate the ten long and short English vowels, as American dictionaries do, and I teach students how combining vowels and using silent e results in either long or short sounds. If they don’t know that, they are at square one for every single new word they learn; with a few simple rules, they at least have a fighting chance to guess the right pronunciation for the spelling. For the other vowels, such as ə, ɔ, and ʊ, I use the IPA symbols. I use ŋ, ʒ, θ, and ð but tend to use sh and ch for those two sounds. So my “system” is a very eclectic one. That said, I think some phonetic symbols are needed as our spelling system just doesn’t have any way to depict some of the sounds of English.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      A very good point. Your approach is somewhat similar to the one mentioned by Lisa Scott. I think the important thing is to be consistent with your use of symbols with a group of students and to choose a set of symbols (standard or customized!) that makes sense to all of you.

      One decision I made in my latest YouTube series was to use only /ə/. I’ll mention in a later video that /ʌ/ is similar but stressed. I’m going with the IPA because viewers have requested me to teach it, and it’s what I’m familiar with.

      Thanks for sharing, Nina!

      1. Nina Liakos says:

        I agree, Jennifer: it’s best to be consistent with a particular class. And the fact that the IPA unnecessarily distinguishes between stressed and unstressed /ə/ has irked me for years. Does anyone pronounces these with an iota of difference? I don’t, and I see no reason to add another symbol to an already-large list. I congratulate you on your decision to defy the IPA in your series!

      2. englishwithjennifer says:

        Whew! At least one teacher will support my decision not to include /ʌ/ in my main groupof 15 sounds. 🙂

  4. Ileana says:

    Hi, I’m studying at the teaching training college in Argentina to become an ESL teacher. We’re practically forced to learn, use and teach British English. However, I’m more familiarized with American English and I find it more useful and easier to learn for the students. Is there a phonetic chart for American English? I’ve been looking for one for a long time.
    Thank you so much! I really enjoy watching your videos, they’re very helpful.

    1. Hello! Have you visited Paul Meier’s website? He has a complete IPA chart, and he addresses different dialects.
      Thank you for visiting my blog! I appreciate your support.
      Good luck in your training! I hope you’ll find a balance between what must be taught and what your heart tells you to teach. 🙂
      – Jennifer

      1. Ileana says:

        Thank you so much! This is really useful 🙂

  5. Shamsuddeen Iliyasu says:

    I so much like Phonetic Symbols, I also, apply phonetic in my spoken English

    1. I agree that phonetic symbols can be a learning and teaching tool.

  6. Denmark says:

    Hello! I’m DM from the Philippines teaching as an English tutor to a Chinese nun. We’ve been practicing a lot in pronunciation but it seems that she still can’t produce the right pronunciation of sounds especially those that are intelligible. She’s having difficulties with /i/ and /I/, and oftentimes interchanges the /i/ sound with the diphthong /ei/. What are good ways to further stress this out without losing her motivation? Please help.

    1. Hello DM!Thank you for visiting my blog. Good modeling from you and repetition are key. You can also expose her to other models and other explanations if she has access to YouTube: PronunciationMeg, EnglishMeeting, RachelsEnglish. Sometimes one presentation will click more than another. As for practice, I’d like to invite you to attend my class on the upcoming MOOC on WizIQ. I’ll be talking about designing materials for our students in ways that allow for personalized content and that help build confidence. If you can’t attend the live session, then you can watch the recording later. Here are the links:

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