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Cristina Pennarola » 6.The basics of spoken English

The basics of spoken English

Lesson plan

  • Letters vs. sounds
  • English phonemic symbols
  • Phonetic transcription
  • Multivalued graphemes
  • Weak vs. strong forms
  • Stress-timing vs. syllable-timing
  • Accent(s)
  • Pronunciation in the language classroom

Letters vs. sounds

Unlike Italian, English sounds very different from the way it is written: the gap between the written and the oral code represents one of the main difficulties for Italian learners.

Phonetic symbols provide a useful tool for recognising and reproducing sounds; if we know the value of these symbols, we can work out the correct pronunciation of a word. If you look a word up in the dictionary, you find the phonetic transcription between slashes, and after it, the explanation:

  • Though /ðəu/ (audio) despite the fact that
  • Tough /tΛf/ (audio) difficult

English phonemic symbols

Because of the gap between the written and the oral code, and of the number of possible pronunciations associated with the same letter, it is essential to have a good grasp of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), and to check the pronunciation of words either using the phonetic transcription or the audio facility of a CD-ROM dictionary.

Go to
Try to make out and memorise the sounds of English – that is, in linguistic jargon, the phonemes – and their phonemic transcription.

Now practise the sounds and say them aloud. A very useful tool is the British Council’s interactive chart, which allows you to hear the sound by clicking on the corresponding symbol. It is free and downloadable at:

Phonetic transcription


Try to make out the text corresponding to the phonetic transcription in the image.

A little help: Even if you find it difficult, give it a try. Then, listen to the recording and check the items you may have left out.

Phonetic transcription


This is a comment on the English Language by George Mikes, a Hungarian journalist and writer who moved to England during the 2nd World War:

When I arrived in England I thought I knew English.
After I’d been here an hour I realized that I did not understand one word.
In the first week I picked up a tolerable working knowledge of the language and the next seven years convinced me gradually but thoroughly that I would never know it really well, let alone perfectly. This is sad. My only consolation being that nobody speaks English perfectly.

G. Mikes, How to Be a Brit, p. 37

The situation depicted in this text seems very much like the typical first-time impression of an Italian in an English-speaking country: no easy understanding! However, the sense of frustration one may experience when using English as a foreign language is normal, being a part of the natural process of language learning.
It is the increasing familiarity with the language that enables users to overcome difficulties and tune in to the rhythm and properties of spoken English.

Multivalued graphemes

The same letter or group of letters may be pronounced differently in different words. For example, breakfast is pronounced /brekfəst/ while break is pronounced /breik/. Another good example is the letter “a” which may be pronounced:

æ   as in cat /kæt/ (Audio)
ə as in caress /kəres/ (Audio)
ɑː   as in car /kɑː/ (Audio)
ei    as in case  /keis/ (Audio)
eə   as in care /keə/ (Audio)

In linguistic jargon a letter with more than one phonetic realization is called a multivalued grapheme.

Weak vs. strong Forms

Another characteristic of English is the relative variability of the way some words are pronounced, depending on the context and the emphasis. Some key function words with a very high frequency such as pronouns and auxiliaries have either a weak or a strong pronunciation.

A strong pronunciation is when a word is stressed and there is a distinct or strong vowel sound.

A weak pronunciation is when there is no stress on the word and the vowel sound is weakened.

and /ænd/ (strong)/ ən/ (weak) (Audio)

In spoken language weak forms are much more common, while strong forms are used for emphasis.
Compare these two realisations for the same phrase you and me:

  • /ju: ænd mi/ strong, emphatic (Audio)
  • /jə n mi/ weak, regular (Audio)

Examples of strong & weak forms

Strong and weak pronunciations.

Strong and weak pronunciations.

A stress-timed language

While Italian is a syllable-timed language, which means that each and every syllable is pronounced and roughly takes the same amount of time, English is a stress-timed language, which means that only stressed syllables are prominent and they occur at roughly equal interval of times, independently of the number of unstressed syllables in between.


That table dates back to the 19th century.
That little table/ dates back/ to the 19th century.
That little wooden table/ dates back/ to the 19th century.
That precious little wooden table/dates back/ to the 19th century.

In the examples above, the nominal group roughly takes the same amount of time whatever the number of premodifying adjectives.
That table = That little table = That little wooden table = That precious little wooden table = 1 beat or stressed unit. (Audio)


As in any language, besides the standard, there are many other varieties, which either have a geographical or social connotation. In particular, given the international or indeed global nature of the English language, we usually identify three main national varieties (British, North-American, and Australian) plus all the Commonwealth varieties of English as a Second Language (Indian, Kenian, etc.).

However, even within a national variety, there are some regional or local differences with regard to pronunciation of single items and rhythm and intonation.

Listening to songs or news broadcasts, watching films, dowloading podcasts in English will expose you to a greater variety of accents and help you become a little more confident when speaking English.


Listen to a short excerpt read by various native English speakers and try to identify their distinctive features.

Janet Parker, England (Audio)
Adrienne Harrison, Scotland (Audio)
Fergal Kavanagh, Ireland (Audio)
Margaret Rasulo, United States (Audio)

Pronunciation in the language classroom

Check the pronunciation of any new word using your dictionary or the free online Dictionary of English Pronunciation at
Pay attention to word stress and sentence stress in both listening and speaking.
As a rule, listen to a short recording in English at least once or twice a week and take notes on rhythm and pronunciation. Then read that extract aloud and possibly record your own voice for listening.
Practise the sounds you find most difficult.
Aim for clarity in your speech, which means don’t speak too fast, and pronounce sounds correctly.

I wish to thank Adrienne Harrison, Fergal Kavanagh, Janet Parker, and Margaret Rasulo for kindly providing samples of English varieties, and Eliana Terminiello for providing high quality digital recording.

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