It doesn’t have to be all Greek to you!

When we are watching a movie in a language other than our own, it might take us some time to identify what is being spoken. For someone who hasn’t travelled to the north or Europe, the distinctions between Norwegian and Swedish can be blurry; Turkish and Greek could be discerned by the richness of the movie settings rather than by their linguistic properties and mistaking Japanese for Korean is a common occurrence among viewers who don’t follow anime, doramas and other audiovisual manifestations from these countries.

However, even if a person doesn’t speak English, it is very unlikely they fail to recognize it or think it is German or French. Spoken English is such a widespread communication tool that we are all bound to come into contact with it sooner or later.

The English language has a set of technical traits that doesn’t necessarily make it unique, but it does render it quite distinguishable. The language learner can choose whether to delve into the theoretical, historical and academic aspects of these traits or not and still be a successful language user, which will not be the case if one chooses to overlook their importance and forgo their usage.

Phonetics is an aid that many learners avoid because its symbols look as though they should be chanted by the followers of a cult while preparing sacrifice as opposed to being an instrument of independent learning of not only English, but any language. Nevertheless, the tide is changing and a friendlier view on devices such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has appeared by prioritizing its practicality over erudite preaching.

In this entry, five sounds will be addressed using the IPA symbols to help you target the pronunciation of unfamiliar vocabulary and exercises will be recommended to master their usage.


1. /ʃ/

   The first thing to understand about phonetic symbols is that they stand for sounds as opposed to letters. Since the phonetic alphabet is a tool that can be used for practically any language, it would defeat its purpose if one symbol corresponded to one only letter or to one specific combination of letters in one specific language.

Look how fluent this symbol is. It almost looks like a slide for you to trickle down. That is exactly what this symbol represents. This symbol can be equated to the peevish “Shh!” We sometimes use in anger to request silence. In this postalveolar case, the back of the tongue comes very close to the palate but it doesn’t stop the flow of air at any point. It is a sound made of air only, no voice. That is to say, if you place your fingers on your neck near the throat and pronounce it, you won’t feel any vibration; your vocal chords will not come into play. In other words, if you pronounce this sound in an isolated form, nobody will recognize your melodious voice.


2. /tʃ/

Now, this symbol is a combination of a stop and the previous sound. First you stop the flow of air completely and then release it down the slide (think of the “Achoo!” onomatopoeia for a sneeze). If you find this sound in the middle of a word, the pronunciation of it will break in two, e.g. Pitcher, itching. A very good way to practice the difference between these two sounds is precisely to use them in combination. Go ahead and pronounce this sentence aloud three times at a good speed:

Choose your shoes and share your chair


   The difference in pronunciation between “Choose” and “Shoes” is found in the first sound only. The same thing applies for “Share” and “Chair”.


3. /ŋ/

   This is a completely nasal sound. Words that end in the letters “ng” in English never make that “g” sound. Instead, it is absorbed by the “n” and, when you pronounce it, you can feel your nose vibrating a little. This is extremely useful to remember when you use verbs in the progressive form, that is the “ing” ending of activities in progress (a.k.a. gerund).  Try this:

Amazing evening! Sting sang everything, including a song featuring Tim Armstrong!

Th silent 

4. /θ/

This sound and the following are known as dental. This means they are produced by placing the tip of your tongue between upper and lower teeth. Think of how snakes use their tongue to find information in the air and mimic the movement. This usually represents the combination of letters “th” and, much like the first sound presented in this entry, it is made of air and not of voice. If you place your fingers on your neck over the throat, you’ll find that there is not any vibration from your vocal chords. There is no voice, only air.

Th voiced

5. /ð/

As said above, this is the twin of the previous sound (dental position, tip of the tongue between your teeth) but this one does convey sound, there is vibration of your vocal chords.

To practice these two sounds now that you know the symbols that represent them, which are to be found in any half-decent dictionary both in print and online, separate the following words into those that are silent and those that are voiced.  Which ones make your vocal chords vibrate and which are only air going through your teeth:

Thou – Though – Thought – Through – Throughout – Throw – Thaw – Thug – Thine – Thin


   Have fun and write back! Leave a comment, ask a question or just write something random in English. Everything is welcome.

Do you already have a schedule for your English classes with Federico? If not, what are you waiting for?


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