10 fun facts about phonemes for Italian speakers of English

Phonemic-ChartDo you want to reduce the impact of your Italian accent when you speak in English?

(To read a longer version of this article, click here)

This is the first in a series of posts which aim to a) help you understand the mechanics of pronunciation, and b) give you some quick win strategies for reducing your accent when you speak in English.

In the same way you need to learn grammar to have a common language in which to discuss correct English usage, there is also a grammar of pronunciation to talk about producing the sounds of English.

This grammar of pronunciation can be divided into three main aspects that you need to focus on:

  1. Individual sounds: the individual sounds in a language, phonemes
  2. Connected sounds: e.g. where the stress (or accent) falls in words, the relationship (or lack of) between English spelling and sound, etc.
  3. Connected speech: how we pronounce words when we put them together in sentences

Here are 10 fun facts about phonemes:

Click here to see and hear the British Council’s interactive phonemic chart.

1) There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in British English. There are 31 sounds in the Italian language.

2) The sounds of a language are represented by symbols, like the normal alphabet. Some of the symbols in the British English phonemic chart are the same as the normal alphabet, like /r/, /s/, /k/, and some are different, like /ɔ:/, /əʊ/ and /θ/. The American English phonemic alphabet is very different from the British English one.

3) In British English there are 20 vowel sounds. In Italian there are 7 vowel sounds.

4) In British English there are 24 consonant sounds. In Italian there are also 24 consonant sounds, but they are often not the same consonant sounds.

5) There are sounds in the English language that don’t exist in Italian, such as /θ/ in “thin”, /ŋ/ in “doing”, /ɔ:/  in “more” and /ɜ:/ in “work”.

6) There are sounds in the Italian language that don’t exist in English, such as /ʎ/  in “aglio”, /ɲ/ in “lasagne”, /ts/ in“forza” and /dz/ in“zero”. If a sound doesn’t exist in your own language it can be hard to hear it.

7) We use about 72 different muscles when we speak. Each phonemic sound requires different muscles. If a sound doesn’t exist in your language, it can feel strange when you try to make that sound. This is because you use different muscle combinations.

8) We make different vowel sounds by varying the shape of our mouth. We make different consonant sounds with our tongue, teeth, lips, palate, nose and vocal chords.

9) Consonants can be voiced or voiceless. The only difference between the sounds /d/, as in “down”, and /t/ as in “town” is that our vocal chords vibrate when we make the sound /d/, and don’t when we make the sound /t/. It’s the same difference between the sounds /v/ and /f/, and /z/ and /s/.

Why is voiced or voiceless important? Because, for example,  in the Italian words “smalto”, “slitta” and “snaturato” you use the voiced /z/. In the English words “snail”, “slow” and “snap” we use the voiceless /s/. Try saying the Italian words and then the English words.

10) There are three types of vowel sounds in English: short, long and diphthongs.

There are  long vowel sounds in the words “car”, “seat”, “word”, “more”, (they have a /:/ after them)


There are short vowel sounds in the words “cat”, “sit”, “men”

Diphthongs are a combination of two vowel sounds: /ɔɪ/ as in “boy”, /eə/ as in “wear”, /ɪə/ as in “near” and /əʊ/ as in “home”.


Quick exercise: use an online dictionary to check your pronunciation

Go to  collinsdictionary.com and look up the definitions of the following words:

success, scissors, iron, comfortable, rarely, suit, thorough

success dictionary.jpgWhen you look up a word, at the top of the page you’ll see a phonemic transcription and a loudspeaker icon. Click the loudspeaker icon to hear the correct pronunciation of the word. The tiny ‘ symbol means you stress (or accent) the syllable after the symbol, so in “success” the stress falls on the second syllable.

Were you surprised by the pronunciation of any of the words? Was this helpful?

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the four pronunciation traps for individual sounds.

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