"Can I learn English without spending a single dollar?" 

A question on the lips of many English learners all over the world.

It's definitely possible to start your English learning journey using free dictionaries and online services.

But to master English, it's not enough to just immerse yourself fully in an Anglophone country, you also need to perfect your English accent. Perfect pronunciation only comes from studying phonetics, through language courses online or in a learning centre. But before we dive into phonetics, why not check out the many different forms of spoken English here?

Follow our guide to discover the wonderful world of English phonetics and improve your English accent!

How Will Phonetics Help My English Speaking?

Whether you are learning German, Italian, Spanish or English, mastering phonetics is a step on the path towards fluency by ensuring correct pronunciation.

Phonetics are particularly important in English - in Latin languages the same Latin letters will appear across many different European languages, but certain letters will be said differently depending on their context.

To give an example - the "a" sound in French is always pronounced the same, no matter where it falls in a word. However, in English it can be pronounced many different ways, depending on which word you're saying.

Watch out: English also has accents for each word.

Speak like a native in London
Perfect your English phonetics and pass for a Londoner! | Source: pixabay

If you haven't yet honed your English accent, you may have trouble communicating, even if you're using all the right words.

To perfect your accent and become bilingual, you'll need to get yourself a phonetic dictionary. When using a phonetic dictionary, you'll concentrate on the part of the word which is underlined - this lets you know which part of the word to emphasise.

Some key sounds to remember:

  • Long vowels (as in girl or door),   
  • Short vowels (as in fish or bus),
  • Consonants (as in thanks or yes).
  • Diphthongs (as in house or poor)

In 2016, Using English conducted a survey, and found that 29% of English learners find speaking the hardest aspect of learning the language. This came in just above above listening (26%) and writing (28%).

It is crucial to study phonetics if you want see progress in your English accent

You should also be aware of the different pronunciations present in British and American English.

Perfect Your English Speaking With The English Phonetic Alphabet

A phonetic dictionary shouldn't just sit on your shelf - you need to understand how to use it!

Linguists developed the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to help people wanting to learn modern languages.

The end goal?

Putting an end to the days of a phonetic alphabet for each different language and replacing it with a unified system that covers all languages.

Familiarising yourself with the IPA will certainly help you with your English learning, but it's also great knowledge to have for deciphering any language.

Online exercises and worksheets can help you perfect your English accent.
The important symbols for English phonetics. | Source: http://topfunny.ga

Whether you're studying English grammar, casual slang to drop into conversation, or English for international business, it may not be useful to memorise the entire phonetic alphabet. You'll need to check out sites dedicated specifically to English learning to learn the symbols most relevant to English.

The IPA is great for helping you using the correct mouth shape and tongue placement for sounds that may not be present in your native language.

For example, many ESOL learners stumble when it comes to the infamous "th" sound!

The IPA is a great tool for extending your linguistic skills and improving your accent.

English Phonetic Dictionaries

Remember wherever you are on your English learning journey, whether you're a seasoned conversationalist or just beginning, you can benefit from a thorough knowledge of English phonetic.

To support your language learning at little to no cost, or to enrich your English practice between tutorials, phonetic dictionaries are a great solution.

The dictionaries are written by native speakers who know their mother tongue inside-out.

In fact, phonetic dictionaries are commonly seen in English courses at foreign universities and across the Anglosphere.

A good phonetics dictionary will cost you around $50, but you can borrow them free of charge from your local library, or check out secondhand book sales for lower prices. 

The most popular phonetic dictionaries include:

  • Trask: A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology, by F. Ingemann,   
  • First Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, by David Crystal,
  • Phonetics and Speech Science: a Bilingual Dictionary, by J.D. McCawley.
  • Oxford Phonics Spelling Dictionary, by Debbie Hepplewhite,   
  • Oxford Basic English Dictionary, by Michael Ashby,

To improve your English, we recommend studying "British" phonetics, as this is considered the correct pronunciation across the Anglosphere. However...

The Many Phonetics of English Speaking

Did you know that more than 1.8 people across the globe speak English?

However, depending on the country, phonetics change; there will be many different phonetic transcriptions depending on the accent.

If this sounds a little confusing, check out our guide to the different phonetics you may encounter when travelling abroad...

Dictionary of American Phonetics

The English spoken in the United States is quite different from English in Britain!

In some cases, Americans have changed English words altogether - for example, instead of "lift", they'll say "elevator". And American spelling is different to English spelling in many ways.

Travel to perfect your English accent
American English or British English? | Source: pixabay

Here are a few examples of spelling differences between British and American English: 

  • "Analyse" becomes "analyze"   
  • "Theatre" becomes "theater"
  • "Licence" becomes "license"
  • "Organisation" becomes "organization" 
  • "Cheque" becomes "check"
  • "Colour" becomes "color"

These changes have a significant impact on pronunciation. When adding, removing or modifying letters, the phonetics of the words change. This can very very confusing for ESOL learners visiting the United States!

It's good to know your past, present and irregular verb forms, and add to your vocabulary regularly, but to speak like a local, youll need to polish your best American accent!

Here's a list of American phonetic dictionaries to help you:

  • American Pronunciation, by John Kenyon
  • An Outline of English phonetics with American Pronunciation, by Daniel Jones,
  • An Introduction to the Phonetics of American English, by Charles Thomas,
  • The Pronunciation of American English, by Arthur Bronstein,
  • The American Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language, by Daniel Smalley.

To perfect your American accent, it's good to familiarise yourself with all the little unique differences in the dialect. For example, the schwa sound is used more often in American English than in other varieties of English.

To sound like a local, take a look at English slang dictionaries as well...

The Phonetics of the English Commonwealth

If you're European, the phonetics used in the Commonwealth countries might not be useful knowledge for you.

However, if your dream is to travel to a Commonwealth country, specialise in the dialect and culture or complete a language exchange, you should definitely explore the different Commonwealth accents!

Many ESOL learners are familiar with American English and hear it in their everyday lives through film or TV. But you may not recognise English from the countries that were once colonised by England.

Not many learners can recognise and differentiate between Australian, Barbadian or Canadian accents...

What are the differences between the American and Canadian accents?
The American and Canadian accents are quite similar. | Source: pixabay

Luckily, with the help of phonetics dictionaries, students can polish their skills in linguistics and hone various types of English accents.

Some popular textbooks covering Commonwealth phonetics are:

  • English Phonology: Regional Accents of English,
  • English Consonant Clusters: The Commonwealth and International Library, by P. Sanderson,
  • A Study of Phonological Variables and Grammatic Items in Canadian English, by Gaelan de Wolf
  • Australian English Pronunciation and Transcription, by Felicity Cox,
  • World Englishes, by Gunnel Melchers.

No matter your level of English, these manuals have something for you. If your Oxford English is already perfect, why not try out a regional accent?

Automated Phonetic Transcriptions

There are many free resources out there for you to learn English online.

To train for TOEFL or IELTS, or to simply enrich your English vocabulary, you can turn to automatic transcription services. This will complement your grammar exercises and help you polish your accent.

The advantage to automatic transcription services?

You don't need to know how to spell every word, as multiple websites for English learners now have voice recognition capabilities for users to seek out the term faster.

Perfect your British pronunciation when learning English
Travel the world with your English language skills!  | Source: pixabay

These websites often have an extensive catalog with many English slang words on offer that you may not find in standard dictionaries.

Here are some of the more popular auto transcription sites:

  • Lingorado,
  • PhotransEdit,
  • Easypronunciation,
  • Upodn,
  • Phonemicchart,

These websites can support your English pronunciation and listening skills, and achieve your dream of surpassing the language barrier and one day travelling to an Anglophone country.

Through this software, you'll also be able to listen to the pronuciation in the form of pre-recorded vocals, which will help you rapidly memorise the IPA symbols.

By complementing phonetic dictionaries with English conversation lessons online, you'll be speaking with a clear, consistent English accent in no time at all!

Inspired? Perfect your English accent with our pronunciation guide.

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Erin is an Australian musician, writer and francophile living in France.