Diphthongs and the phonetic alphabet in English

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The Phonetic Alphabet in English

There is no need to say it again! One of the most difficult aspects of learning English is pronunciation, and not only for those learning English as a second language. British English has 44 different sounds and about 1,100 different ways of writing them. For a non-native speaker that wants to learn English, it can be a real challenge pronouncing the different phonemes correctly and, above all, recognizing the correct pronunciation of a word when reading it. The same letter can be pronounced differently in different words. In addition, English words have no accent marks, but rather emphasize certain syllables in the word, which is called the stress. The best way to learn to pronounce words well and to be understood is to consult a good phonetic dictionary.

API (International Phonetic Alphabet)

To help both language students and those who simply wish to learn a foreign language, linguists have developed the API, the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is a system of universal symbols that classifies all of the sounds present in the different languages around the world. Each symbol corresponds to a phoneme. This is an ideal alphabet which breaks down linguistic barriers and can be understood by any speaker of any language. In addition, when studying English, the API is fundamental. This is because it circumvents the spelling problem, that is, the lack of correspondence between the pronunciation of a word and the way that it is written.

Learning the symbols of the API will help you speak more clearly and naturally. Memorize them, concentrating particularly on the sounds that are not present in your mother tongue. Try to learn the symbols gradually, little by little. When you look up a word in the dictionary, you can read the phonetic transcription that can generally be found in brackets after the word itself. Also, pay attention to the differences in pronunciation between British English and American English. Learn the pronunciation that corresponds to the style of English you are interested in learning.

Finally, pay attention to ‘stress. The API indicates the main accent with a /’/ in front of the syllable which is ‘stressed‘. The secondary accent is indicated by a /,/ in front of the syllable in question. Finally, a /./ indicates an interruption in a syllable. To understand how to stress English syllables correctly, start with words that you already know how to pronounce well. Look them up in the dictionary and check where the stress falls in the phonetic transcription. In this way, you can learn how to apply the same principles and tonality to new words.

Vowel Phonemes

To clarify the subject a bit, let’s look at some examples of phonetic symbols found in the IPA, beginning with the vowels.


Schwa. This is a very common phoneme in English that is found in many words. It is a reduced vowel, often found in the final syllable of a word. It can also be found in some words where the only vowel is found between two consonants. (See ABA English’s article for more information.).


father /ˈfɑːðə(r)/ , mother /ˈmʌðə(r)/ .

It is also present in unaccented closed syllables.


president /ˈprezɪdənt/, experiment /ɪkˈsperɪmənt/.

It is associated with the grapheme ‘o’ preceded by “w” and followed by “r”.


word /wɜː(r)d/, world /wɜː(r)ld/.


This phoneme is a short vowel close to ‘a’. English it is associated with the grapheme ‘o’ in front of the consonants ‘w’ o ‘c’ and after an ‘n’.


onion /ˈʌnjən/, wonderful /ˈwʌndə(r)f(ə)l/, money /ˈmʌni/, monk /mʌŋk/, month /mʌnθ/ , summer /ˈsʌmə(r)/ , up /ʌp/), to cut /kʌt/.


Long vowel.


to be /biː/ , English /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/, sea /siː/, evil /ˈiːv(ə)l/, feet /fiːt/, team /tiːm/, stream /striːm/, cream /kriːm/.


Short vowel in closed tonic syllables.


Kidney /ˈkɪdni/ , kit /kɪt/ , minute /ˈmɪnɪt/ , to hit /hɪt/, in /in/.

Diphthong Phonemes

A diphthong is a set of two vowels. In English, however, a diphthong can be found even when there is a single vowel in spelling which in the phonetic transcription becomes a diphthong. According to IPA classifications, there are eight phonemes which correspond to diphthongs. Here are some examples:


This diphthong is generally associated with the following graphemes: ‘a’ in cake , the ‘ai’ in brain , the ‘ay’ in play, the ‘ei’ in eight , the ‘ey’ in they , and the ‘ea’ in break.


Way, /wei/, to say, /to sei/, main, /mein/, lane, /lein/, face, /feis/, day, /dei/.


A diphthong found in open tonic syllables, associated with the grapheme ‘i‘ followed by ld, nd, gh, gn.


mild /maild/ , night /nait/ , fight /fait/ , right /rait/ , high /haɪ/, mind /maind/ .

When an ‘i ‘ is followed by an ‘r ‘ in an open syllable.


hire /ˈhaɪə(r)/, fire /ˈfaɪə(r)/, to require /rɪˈkwaɪə(r)/.

Other Examples

Price /praɪs/, to try /to traɪ/, mine /maɪn/ , eye /aɪ/.

With a bit of practice and dictionary use you will learn how to pronounce words in English correctly and fluently. It must be said that the best way to learn to pronounce words well is always by listening. That is why we offer our English course. In addition to 144 video classes, we have several short films that will help you improve your pronunciation in both British and American English. What are you waiting for? Watch one of our short films today!

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