How to Learn Phonetic Sounds

by Laura Payne
Phonetic sounds are represented by symbols that are different from a regular alphabet.

Phonetic sounds are represented by symbols that are different from a regular alphabet.

Phonetic sounds are the sounds that humans use to produce speech. The individual sounds are called phonemes, which are strung together to form words. Different languages have different inventories of phonemes that they use to produce words and speech. In linguistics, a list of all of the phonemes of every language is found in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). This alphabet contrasts with alphabets of individual languages because each symbol represents one sound. Learning sounds based on the IPA, as opposed to traditional spelling systems, allows speakers quick access to words that have unusual pronunciations as well as an enhanced ability to learn additional languages.

Print a copy of the "IPA Phonetic Chart" to keep with you so that you can refer to it as you encounter different phonetic sounds in your daily life. Use the one available at esl-lounge on the internet. Go to "The Phonetic Chart: The Sounds of English" online at Stuff Media. Click on each phonetic symbol to hear an audio version of its sound in an example word.

Read each word aloud from the "IPA Phonetic Chart" and view the IPA symbol used for the underlined sound in the word. For example, the chart lists the word "yes" with the "y" underlined and the corresponding phonetic symbol for the sound is /j/; the phonetic sound with the symbol /j/ is the sound that is at the beginning of the word "yes."

Make flash cards by writing each IPA symbol on one side of an index card and a word with an underlined example of the sound on the other side. Use the flashcards to practice identifying the sounds and their example words by looking only at the IPA symbol side of the cards. Then practice visualizing the correct IPA symbol by looking only at the example word and underlined sound side of the cards. Finally, mix the cards up and continue practicing from both sides.

Practice verbalizing the phonetic sounds by listening to them recorded and repeating the sounds. Use the "Sounds of the International Phonetic Alphabet" published by the Department of Speech Hearing and Phonetic Sciences at University College London for The International Phonetic Association.


  • When using the IPA to transcribe a word based on its sounds or to write an individual sound, always use backslashes around the words or sounds. In linguistics, backslashes are used to differentiate phoneme symbols from letters of the alphabet. For example, "seed" would be transcribed as /sid/.

Items you will need

  • Internet access
  • IPA phonetic chart
  • Index cards

About the Author

Laura Payne has been freelance writing for several online publications in her free time since 2006. She holds a Master of Arts in linguistics from Wayne State University and a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Oakland University. Payne teaches linguistics classes at both universities on an adjunct basis.

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