Skip main navigation

Sounds are not concrete things!

In this article we look at the difference between phones and phonemes and understand why language learners need to focus on perception.
© Language Fuel

Let’s discover an important principle

Where do you think ‘blue’ finishes and ‘purple’ starts?

A gradient from purple to blue, left to right.

Feedback:

There is possibly no ‘right’ answer where one colour stops and the other begins. The actual colours (hues) are infinite, but our brain has only two categories to work with: ‘blue’ and ‘purple’.

In the same way, the range of sounds our mouths can make (these are called ‘phones’) is relatively endless, but the number of ‘categories’ in our brain (these are called ‘phonemes’) is finite. English has approximately 40 phonemes (dialects differ), Lithuanian has 59 (or arguably more), and Japanese has only 22 phonemes.

Definitions

Phones – The (nearly) infinite number of language sounds.
Phonemes – The fixed number of sounds recognised in a specific language.

Let’s do an experiment together

man with hand in front of his mouth

  1. Hold your hand in front of your mouth, and say the word ‘top’ a few times.
  2. Now keep your hand there, and say the word ‘stop’.
  3. Do you feel any difference in the amount of air on your hand?

Typically, speakers in the US or NZ or UK (what we have in the past called ‘Native’ speakers of English) would have a ‘puff’ of air for ‘top’ but not for ‘stop’. But they mostly are not aware of the difference. An aspirated /t/ (with puff) and a non-aspirated /t/ (without puff) are different phones, but in English, they belong to the same category of phoneme.

Fun fact!

This pattern is repeated with other consonant sounds in English. You could try to say ‘can’ and ‘scan’ to experience the difference with the /k/ phoneme. You could also try ‘pie’ and ‘spy’ to experience the difference with the /p/ phoneme. These three consonants /p/, /t/ and /k/ are called ‘stops’ and they behave in a similar way.

Principle:

The sounds of a language [phonemes] are not concrete things. They are actually groups of sounds [phones].

The challenge in learning another language is that your brain needs to re-learn how to categorise speech sounds (phones), and that is a challenging task.

Example

beautiful temple building in Thailand

In the Thai language, aspirated stops and non-aspirated stops are not categorised together. So even though English speakers can physically produce the two different sounds (and do so regularly without even thinking about it), they frequently have trouble hearing the difference between them, because their brain has been trained by the English sound system to ignore this difference. Furthermore, when speaking Thai, they will constantly say ‘interrupt’ [kʰat] rather than ‘bite’ [kat] because their default is to always aspirate a stop consonant at the beginning of a word.

You’ve probably got learners of English who make regular mistakes with English sounds in the same way. They don’t know they are making the wrong sound, and they can’t hear the difference when you model the correct sound for them. The issue is one of perception.

© Language Fuel
This article is from the free online

How to Teach English Pronunciation

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education