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The Concourse

TKT Module 1: Describing language and language skills


This is not a course in transcribing sounds using the phonemic alphabet but if you want to learn how to do this, there is a course in transcription on this site.
In the TKT examination, there is a test of your ability to recognise (not write) phonemic transcriptions.


What is phonology?

Phonology is the study of the sounds of a language, in this case, English.  (It is sometimes called phonemics but we'll stay with phonology here.)
We are not concerned with the study of the sounds of all languages, that is the domain of the science of phonetics.  In this guide, we will look at some of the most important aspects of phonology and pronunciation and base it all on English.


Key concepts in this guide

By the end of this guide, you should be able to understand and use these key concepts:

  • phonemes: minimal pairs, allophones, voicing, aspiration, consonants, vowels, semi-vowels and diphthongs
  • transcription
  • syllables: poly- and mono-syllabic words
  • word and sentence stress
  • connected speech: linkage, rhythm, weak forms
  • intonation

Look out for these words like this in the text.
There will be tests at the end of the guide for you to check that you understand the ideas.


The phoneme

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language which makes a difference to meaning.

  1. Phonemes
    1. The words, cat and hat are only distinguished by the first phoneme; /k/ in the first case, /h/ in the second.  In English, these words are minimal pairs so the sounds are phonemes.  Some languages do not recognise the distinction between /h/ and /k/ in this way so in those languages the words are not minimal pairs and the sounds are not phonemes.
    2. The sounds /p/ and /b/ in English are phonemes.  We can check this by using the minimal pair test.
      We know that bat and pat are different words with different meanings so the sounds /p/ and b/ are phonemes.
      In some languages (e.g., many varieties of Arabic), changing /b/ to /p/ will have no effect on the meaning of a word so in those languages the sounds are not phonemes.
    3. In English, the words mass and mash can be distinguished by the final sound.  In mass, the sound is /s/ but in mash, the sound is represented as /ʃ/.  All the other sounds are the same so mash and mass form a minimal pair and /s/ and /ʃ/ are phonemes in English.  They are not, for example, in Greek where changing /s/ to /ʃ/ will make no difference to meaning (the Greek sound represented by the letter Σ is pronounced midway between the two English phonemes).
  2. Allophones
    In English, there are two ways to make the sound represented by the letter p.  We can make the sound as in spin and we can make it as in pin.
    In the first example, spin, no air is pushed out after the p so it is represented as /p/.
    In the second example, pin, we push out a small amount of air after the sound so it is represented as /pʰ/.
    If you hold a thin piece of paper in front of your mouth when saying the words, it will move only (or more) on the aspirated sound in pin.  Even if you exchange the sounds and use /p/ in pin and /pʰ/ in spin, you will not make a different word.  You may sound a little strange but you will not be misunderstood.
    The two ways of producing a sound which do not make a difference to meaning are called allophones.
    In other languages, adding the aspiration (breathing out) to a sound will make a difference in meaning.  In Icelandic, for example, the sound /k/ and the sound /kʰ/ are full phonemes making a difference in meaning between minimal pairs of words.
  3. Voicing
    Phonemes in English can also be distinguished by adding voice (using your vocal cords or folds).  We saw an example of this in the difference between /p/ and /b/.  Both these sounds are made by using your lips to block the air and then suddenly releasing the air.  The only difference is that when you make a /p/ sound you do not vibrate your vocal cords and when you make the /b/ sound, you do.  If you put your hand on your throat and say the words sue and zoo, you will know what is meant and feel a slight vibration on the second word (/s/ is unvoiced but /z/ is voiced).
    Sixteen of the consonant phonemes form voiced / unvoiced pairings.  Like this:
    Unvoiced Voiced For example
    /p/ /b/ pit vs. bit
    /tʃ/ /dʒ/ chin vs. gin
    /f/ /v/ fan vs. van
    /s/ /z/ sing vs. zing
    /k/ /ɡ/ cave vs. gave
    /t/ /d/ tour vs. dour
    /θ/ /ð/ mouth (noun) vs. mouth (verb)
    /ʃ/ /ʒ/ ruche vs. rouge
  4. Vowels and consonants
    1. If you produce a sound without blocking the flow of air, you will make a vowel such as the 'a' in cat (/kæt/).  The quality of the sound is affected by where your tongue is vertically and horizontally in the mouth and whether your lips are rounded or not.
      The in-service training section of this site has a guide to vowels here.
    2. When you produce a sound by completely or partially blocking the flow of air, you produce a consonant.  For example, if you block and then release air through pressing your lips together, you will produce the sound /p/.  If you block the back of your mouth by raising your tongue, you will produce /k/.
      The in-service training section of this site has a guide to consonants here.
  5. Semi-vowels
    Two letters in English can represent vowels and consonants depending on how they are pronounced.
    Semi-vowels are sounds which are produced like vowels but actually don't function like them.  An example is the /j/ sound at the beginning of the word yet (/jet/).  The y letter represents a consonant in this case but at the end of the word fly, it is a vowel and transcribed as /flaɪ̯/.
    The letter w also has this characteristic: at the beginning of was it is close to being a consonant but in the centre of cower it is a vowel sound so the transcription of was cowering is /wəz ˈkaʊər.ɪŋ/.

The ability to identify and make the phonemes of English is very important for learners.  Producing the word pill (/pɪl/) when you want to say bill (/bɪl/), sung (/sʌŋ/) when you want to say sun (/sʌn/) or cat (/kæt/) when you want to say cut (/kʌt/) will make it difficult for people to understand you.



To write down what words sound like, we use a phonemic transcription alphabet.  This is the one used on this site in the course on transcription.  Remember, this list would be different for different languages.

The first 13 sounds are called pure vowels, the next 8 are called diphthongs (combinations of vowels) and the rest (24) are called consonants.  See also the comment on semi-vowels, above.
If you would like that chart as a PDF document, click here.


Syllables, word and sentence stress

Word stress

Some words have one syllable and some have more.  The distinction is between monosyllabic and polysyllabic words.
For example:
The word fun has only one syllable and the single pure vowel, /ʌ/.  It is transcribed as /fʌn/.
The word funny has two syllables and two vowels.  It is transcribed as /ˈfʌ.ni/.  Notice that there is a small dot between the first and second syllable and a raised mark (ˈ) before the first syllable to show the stress comes there.  In this word, the first syllable is pronounced with more energy than the second one.  That is what word stress does.

think Task 1: To check you have understood this.  Count the number of syllables in each word and then identify which one carries the main stress.  Click on the table for the answer.


Look very carefully at the transcriptions and you will see some important small marks.

  1. Between each syllable, there is a .  Count the dots and add 1 to get the number of syllables.
  2. Before the main stress, there is this mark: ˈ
  3. Before a secondary stress there is this mark: ˌ
  4. At the end of one word, we have this: l̩ (a letter with a small line below it).  This means that the last syllable is very short indeed and in this case it is pronounced bl with no vowel between /b/ and /l/.

For most learners, knowing where the primary stress falls is enough to worry about but teachers and more advanced students also need to know about secondary stress to present good models and pronounce things clearly.
So, for example, the word unbelievably is transcribed as:
with the secondary stress marked on the first syllable and the primary stress marked on the third syllable.

If you would like more practice at identifying the number of syllables and the main stress in English words, there are some exercises here (new tab).
There is also a guide to word stress on this site.

Sentence stress

Just as we stress parts of words, we also stress whole words or phrases in sentences.  We also have secondary stress, just like we do with single words.
For example, say this sentence aloud and try to hear where the main stress lies.

I went to London with my brother

Probably, you put the main stress on the word brother and the secondary stress on the word London.  Both of these words carry important information.  The most important information in English usually comes at the end of a sentence so this is where the main stress often falls.  To stress a word or phrase in a sentence, you usually say it MORE LOUDLY and make it L  O  N  G  E  R.
You may also have a higher voice tone on the stressed word or words.

That is not always the case because we can choose to make any of the information more important by stressing it.  For example:
    I went to London with my brother (i.e., not to another place)
    I went to London with my brother (i.e., it was not someone else who went with my brother)
    I went to London with my brother (i.e., not someone else's brother)
and so on.

This is called special stress and we should only focus on it when our learners can already handle simple sentence stress.


Connected speech

A number of things happen when we speak in full sentences naturally.  There is a guide on this site to connected speech.

There are two areas:

  1. Contractions:
    in normal speech I have is contracted to I've and I would is contracted to I'd and so on.
  2. Weak forms:
    in normal speech function words and other unimportant words are weakened so, e.g., been (/biːn/) is weakened to /bɪn/ and for is contracted to /fə/.  If you would like a list of the common weak forms in English, there is one here.

Contractions are easy to see and hear but weak forms in English are a little more difficult.  They are caused by the fact that English speakers take longer to say some parts of the sentence than others so small and unimportant words get squeezed and made very short.
In our example above:
    I went to London with my brother
the words to, with and my will all usually be weakened:
    to changes to t' (/tə/)
    with changes to wi' (/wɪ/)
    my changes to m' (/mə/)

Other languages such as French and Japanese do not do this so the rhythm of the languages is very different.  Here's an example comparing English and French:
In English:
stress timed
with all four parts taking the same time to say so words like to and the get weakened and 'swallowed', becoming t' and 'th'.
but in French:
In which all the parts take about the same amount of time to say.



pitch, stress and tone

Intonation refers to the way the tone of our voice and the stress we put on parts of what we say communicates a message.  We can raise the pitch of what we say, increase or decrease the loudness and also vary the pitch and stress across a whole phrase.
As an example try saying She is going home to mean these:

  1. I am simply telling you she is going home. (flat intonation)
  2. Yes, you are right; that is where she is going. (falling voice at the end of the sentence)
  3. Is she going home? (rising towards the end)
  4. I thought she was coming to the cinema! (rising sharply at the end and stressing cinema)
  5. I'm not sure if she is going home but she may be (rising at the beginning and then falling)
  6. I thought you were going home and she was staying. (rising towards the end and stressing she)

You can see that we can use intonation to express our feelings about something.
There are usually six sorts of intonation to think about and they are represented in this order in the sentences above:

1 neutral arrow neutral tone showing little emotion; it may sound rude or uninterested: That's nice.
2 falling arrow falling tone showing a positive response: Yes, I'll be there.
3 rising arrow rising tone indicating slight surprise or a query: Why do you ask?
4 sharp rising arrow sharply rising tone indication astonishment that someone should ask: What a question!
5 rise fall arrow rising tone followed by falling tone indicating doubt: I may come
6 fall rise arrow falling tone followed by rising tone indicating something like: Carry on.  I'm interested to know why you ask. 

There are lots of guides on this site which you can follow to learn more about the phonology of English.  A good place to start is the initial plus pronunciation section.

self test

Self-test questions

Before you go on, make sure you can answer these questions.  If you can't, go back to the sections which give you trouble.

If you are happy with your progress, go on.


Tests and practice for TKT

If you can't do the transcription test, take the course to learn how.

Test 1 A matching task
Test 2 A vowel transcription test
Test 3 A vowel transcription test
Test 4 A mixed transcription test

Return to the Module 1 index: back
or go on to the next guide which is to functions.