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British English vowel sounds - the eight diphthongs

Practice materials: 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20

your tongue moves to:

your tongue moves to:

your tongue moves to:

When I used to teach, I grouped the diphthongs as they appear above and below. I did not teach them all at once. See the vowel quadrilateral on the previous page for tongue positions.

I would strongly recommend that they are taught (or self-taught!) a few at a time, backed up by plenty of practice materials for repetition &/or reading aloud (e.g. poems or songs - click HERE for song materials) so that learners can really train their speech. It is a good idea for learners to record and play back their voices, since it can be difficult to speak and listen to oneself at the same time. To see all the English sounds, refer to the English Phoneme Chart.


Why do most learners find diphthongs difficult at first?

There are eight English diphthongs altogether. To make diphthongs, your tongue, lips (and your jaw on occasions!) have to move. Sometimes the journey your tongue makes is short and very controlled; in some of the diphthongs, it has to move a long distance in your mouth, involving a lot of jaw movement too.

Learners find diphthongs difficult because producing them is a motor skill (like body building!) which has to be practised in order to obtain a good result. You cannot succeed in English pronunciation by understanding alone. The muscles you have to train to make English diphthongs are unlikely to be identical to those you use in production of vowel sounds in your first language.

Understanding is also important. Although you can train to a certain extent through repetition (parrot fashion!), you will be able to make further improvement through awareness of the manner of articulation (e.g. the absence or presence of lip rounding &/or tension, size of aperture, degree of jaw movement), the starting and finishing tongue positions, and both the direction and extent of tongue movement.


Presenting diphthongs - similarities and differences

The English language has twenty vowel sounds. To see all the English sounds, refer to the English Phoneme Chart. The first 12 of the English vowel sounds are MONOPHTHONGS. The tongue stays at ONE fixed location in the mouth to produce each MONOPHTHONG.

Sounds 13 to 20, the next eight English vowel sounds, are DIPHTHONGS. They present greater difficulty to people learning English because the tongue travels between two fixed locations. It is important to know exactly what to do with the speech organs (i.e. the position of the tongue, lip-shape & tension, size of mouth opening) in each location and the manner and direction of the movement.


Practice materials: click on diphthongs | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 |


THE FIRST THREE DIPHTHONGS have the vowel sound in "pit" or "if" as the FINISHING POSITION. To make this sound, your tongue has to be high and towards the front of your mouth and your lips kept relaxed.

13) as in day, pay, say, lay. The starting position is with tongue in mid position at front of mouth as in "egg", "bed" or "Ted". Therefore you move the tongue up to make the diphthong.

14) as in sky, buy, cry, tie. The starting position is , the same sound as in "cat". To make the diphthong you need a big jaw movement, moving the tongue from front open to and front close.

15) as in boy, toy, coy or the first syllable of soya. The starting position is , the sound in "door" or "or". Your tongue needs to be low, but you need to pull it back and make your mouth round. To make the diphthong, you relax the lip rounding and move your tongue forward and up.


THE NEXT THREE DIPHTHONGS have the neutral "shwa" vowel sound , which occurs in grunting noises and the weak forms of "the" and "a", as the FINISHING POSITION. To make the neutral vowel sound keep your tongue fixed in the centre of your mouth, lips fairly relaxed and just grunt!

16) as in beer (the drink), pier, hear. The starting position is as in "if" or "pit" with tongue front and high and lips relaxed.

17) as in bear (the animal), pair and hair. The starting position is as in "egg" or "bed" with tongue in mid position at front of mouth. To make the diphthong, using a small controlled movement, pull your tongue slighty back from mid front to the mid central position in your mouth.

18) as in "tour", "poor" (talking posh!) or the first syllable of "tourist". The starting position is with tongue pulled back but small mouth aperture as in "hook", "book" or "look".

To make the diphthong, this time the small controlled tongue movement goes from the back postion to the mid central position, losing the lip rounding and relaxing your mouth from the tight starting position.


THE LAST TWO DIPHTHONGS have the back vowel (tongue pulled back but small tight mouth aperture as in "hook", "book" or "look") as the FINISHING POSITION.

19) as in "oh", "no", "so" or "phone". The starting position is the neutral vowel sound, also known as "shwa" , which sounds like a grunt, as in the weak form of "the" or "a". To start in this way, the tongue should be fixed in mid central position in your mouth with lips relaxed. To make the diphthong, it is a short controlled movement in the opposite direction of 5) above: from the centre to the back moving your relaxed lips into a tighter small round aperture. Your cheeks should move in a bit!

20) as in all the words of "How now brown cow!". The starting position is the vowel sound as in "at" "bad" or "rat" with tongue front but also low (i.e. mouth open). To make the diphthong the journey for your tongue from front low (mouth very open) to back high (small tight mouth aperture) is a very long excursion. Your jaw will move a lot too.


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