THE FCE BLOG by Claudia Ceraso

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Pronunciation Starter Pack

The Sounds of English and Minimal Pairs

Pronunciation at FCE level

Communicating effectively in English involves simplicity of form and clarity of sounds. An acceptable pronunciation is certainly useful for the Speaking paper for obvious reasons. Yet, knowing how words are correctly pronounced is also a key to understanding in the Listening paper. Your effort to approximate to the native standard will result in opening up to the oral world of English. For we tend to identify those words that sound familiar -not because of their meaning but for their sound. The ear tends to recognise a word when it sounds just as we pronounce it. So if you improve your sounds, you will naturally listen to a lot more.

How much should you know?

Here is how the Cambridge FCE handbook puts it:

"First language accents are acceptable, provided communication is not impeded.”

This means that although you are not expected to sound native-like, your sentences must be easily understood. This is achieved by learning the “production of individual sounds, the appropriate linking of words, and the use of stress and intonation to convey the intended meaning.” If your sounds hinder communication, you lose marks.

How important are my sounds for the people who listen to me?

People outside a classroom will rarely discuss how you really sound. This article probably breaks sad news for us, but makes a point:

It isn’t simply a question of correct sounds: good sounds are a pleasure to listen to and they certainly invite native speakers to talk more to you.

Learning to Pronounce: Are phonemic symbols important?

Yes, they are. The IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) provides a precise notation for sounds. Good advanced learner’s dictionaries show the pronunciation with IPA symbols at the beginning of their entries.

You probably take notes in class about how words are pronounced. You may do so in standard letters but remember that will only evoke the way you pronounce those letters in your language. Better consult a dictionary.

How do I start learning symbols and sounds?

Are you ready for some practice?

This practice is divided into two steps:

a) Check the pronunciation of individual English sounds: An introduction to vowels, consonants and diphthongs.

This link is from English File 1- a course book for beginners- very helpful if you are not familiarised with the complete English sound system yet. By clicking on the symbols, you’ll listen to the model as many times as you need.

b) Practise the sounds in word context: Minimal Pairs are pairs of words that are distinguished orally by just one sound, e.g. cat/cut; sit/seat; think/sink. This exercise will help you make sure you are saying exactly what you mean.

The sounds exemplify British English pronunciation:

If you are curious to know how the same type of exercise sounds in American English go to

Tip: Choose a few pairs of sounds to study at a time. When you are confident with them, go on to another pair. To get rid of a strong foreign accent, start by practising those sounds that do not exist in your mother tongue.

Related Post: Sounds and Spelling



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