Phonemes and Letters
The way the English language is written is very different from the way it is spoken. Take for example the word "women". How do you pronounce it? It should be pronounced as if it were written "wimin"? Not everybody knows that both the letter "o" and the letter "e" should be pronounced as an "i" in this word.
The difference between the way a word is written and spoken is the difference between letters and phonemes. In the word "women", the letters may be "o" and "e", but the phoneme is the same for them both and it is written like this /ı/. If you look up any word in a good dictionary, you will see the pronunciation in slanted brackets (/wımın/) so that you can learn how it should be said. It will also explain how the different phonemes should be pronounced, for example that /ı/ is pronounced as a short "i".
Since pronunciation and writing are so different, it makes it difficult for learners to know how to pronounce words well. Some words are written similarly and pronounced differently, whereas other words are written differently but pronounced the same. Just look up the words "though", "thought", "tough", "their", "there" and "they're" and see for yourself! Use our dictionary in the menu on the right.
Here you can study the sounds of the English language. (Courtesy of British Council)