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So, How Many English Phonemes Are There?

2 Apr

Open a book on English phonics based on the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) and you will learn there are 40 phonemes (sounds) in the English language produced from either a solitary letter or combination of the 26 letters in the alphabet.  However, there is some debating this number of phonemes, 40, and the discussion can be quite “phonemenal.”

English phonology is the study of the sounds that make up the English language.   Very important stuff to ELL’s and ESL teachers concentrating on helping eager students improve their speaking and pronunciation.

Masha Bell mentioned there being 44 phonemes in an article written two years ago (March, 2011) by Masha Bell for The English Spelling Society.

And in a discussion prompted by the suggestion of strictly 40 phonemes, a participant wrote,

“One hears numbers ranging from 36 to 46 for the number of phonemes in English. In teaching or learning English, one can disregard the exact number and simply teach the potential phonemes that participate in the greatest number of minimal pairs or sets first, and then work down from there.”Mxmanic

I hope you’re not reading this post to once and for all find the definitive answer – how many phenomes are there, anyway?!  Because, I am not giving an answer.

Personally, I believe an answer of how many phonemes there are may vary depending on which Nation’s English in reference.   Australian English varies in pronunciation from Canadian, and then there’s Britain to consider.   I’m sure there’s a phoneme count difference based on culture.

Despite there not being a general consensus across the globe on phonemes, I agree with “Mxmanic” when he suggested forget about the exact number and teach the ELL’s what they need to know!

Great advice, anyway you pronounce it.

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