The English language has two types of sounds: vowels and consonants.
Vowels are sounds that come out of the mouth without being stopped.
Consonants, on the other hand, are “cut off” by the mouth in some way.
In American English, there are 23 consonant sounds.
Here I’ll give you a closer look at each consonant sound in American English, using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) to describe each sound.
If you’re not familiar with the IPA, now’s a great time to learn—once you know how to use it, you will know exactly how to pronounce any English word just by looking it up in a dictionary (which usually include IPA readings).
This sound is an easy one. It is created by pushing air out of your lips, opening them as the air passes. It is written as the letter “p.”
This consonant sound can be heard in the words pig or lip.
This sound is similar to the /p/ sound. It is also created by pushing air out of the lips, opening them as the air passes. This time, however, the vocal cords are moving, and sound is coming from them.
It is written as the letter “b.” This consonant sound can be heard in the words bit or tub.
Having trouble telling this sound apart from the previous one? If you put your hand lightly on your throat as you make this sound, you should feel your throat vibrating for /b/ but no vibration for /p/. Another way you can tell the two sounds apart is by holding a piece of paper in front of your mouth as you make each sound. The /p/ sound causes a puff of air, and the paper should move. The paper should remain still for /b/, as there should be no air leaving your lips.
/t/ is an interesting sound in English. It is created by pushing air out of the mouth, and tapping the tongue above the teeth as it passes.
It is often written as the letter “t,” but it can be written as the letter “d” when it is at the end of a verb in the past tense (as in pushed). This consonant sound can be heard in the words tiger or basset.
Like /t/, /d/ is made by pushing air out of the mouth, and tapping the tongue above the teeth as it passes. The vocal cords are used for this one, though, and they vibrate as the tapping of the tongue happens. (You can feel it by touching your throat, like with /b/.)
This sound is written as the letter “d,” “dd” or “tt” as in butter in American English. This consonant sound can also be heard in the words dad or mad.
The sound /k/ is made by tapping the back of the tongue with the roof of the mouth.
Writing this sound is a little tricky. It can be written as a “k” as in kit, a “ck” as in pack or as a “c.” It is written as a “c” only if it comes before the vowels “a,” “o” or “u” as in the word cap or cup.
Like /k/, /g/ is made by tapping the back of the tongue with the roof of the mouth. The difference, however, is that the vocal cords vibrate with /g/ and they make noise.
This sound is almost always written as a “g” as in the words good or bag.
The /f/ consonant sound in English is created by joining the top lip with the bottom teeth and pushing air out.
This sound is often written as an “f” as in the word find. Surprisingly, it can also be written as a “ph” as in the name Phil or as a “gh” as in the word cough.
The /v/ sound is very similar to the /f/ sound. You can make it by joining the top lip with the bottom teeth and pushing air out. Make sure your vocal cords vibrate so they make a sound while doing so.
This sound is almost always written as a “v” as in the words van or cover.
The /θ/ sound is called “theta” in English. It is created by putting the tongue between the teeth, just behind them, and blowing air out.
This sound is always written as a “th” as in the words thing or with.
The /ð/ sound is very similar to the /θ/ sound. It is called “eth” in English, and you can make it by putting the tongue between the teeth, blowing air out and vibrating the vocal cords.
This sound too is always written as a “th” as in the words that or weather. Because both “theta” and “eth” are written the same way, you will need to memorize which words have which sound separately.
The /s/ sound is made by putting the tip of the tongue close to the front top of the mouth (not touching it) and blowing air out. Keep your teeth slightly open too!
This sound is always written as an “s” or an “ss” as in the words sad or bass. It can also be written as a “c” when it comes before the vowels “e” and “i” as in the word cell and cinema.
Like /s/, the /z/ sound is made by putting the tip of the tongue close to the front top of the mouth (not touching it) and blowing air out. With this sound, however, the vocal cords are used.
This sound is written as a “z” or a “zz” as in the words zap or buzz. It can also be written as an “s” between vowels or at the end of a word as in laser or bushes.
The /ʃ/ sound in English is made by putting the tip of your tongue close to the top of the mouth (not touching it), a little bit further back than the /s/ position, and then blowing out.
This sound is written as a “sh” or a “ss” as in the words shade, bush or passion.
/zh/ is pronounced like /ʃ/, but with the vocal cords vibrating. Put the tip of your tongue close to the top of your mouth (not touching it), a little bit further back than the /s/ position, and then blow out with the vocal cords vibrating.
This sound is always written as an “s” as in the word leisure or a “g” as in the word regime.
Now for an easy one! /h/ is pronounced by relaxing the mouth and pushing out some air from back in the throat. No tongue positions or vocal cords needed.
This sound is always written as an “h” as in the words help and ahold.
/tʃ/ is a combination of the /t/ sound and the /ʃ/ sound. Start with a /t/ sound, tapping the tip of the tongue to right above the teeth, and then do an /ʃ/ sound, placing the tongue close to the roof of the mouth slightly further back than /s/. Pronounce it quickly, and then you have /tʃ/.
This sound is written as “ch” or in “tch” as in the words check and pitch.
/dzh/ looks tricky, but it is actually quite easy! Once you can make the /tʃ/ sound, simply add in the vocal cords and you got /dzh/.
This sound is written as “j” or in “dg” as in the words June and judge.
And into the nose we go! You will need your nasal cavity for the next three sounds.
/m/ is pronounced by closing the lips tight and making the air come out of the nose. This is why people sound funny making an /m/ sound while sick because the air has trouble passing through the nose when it is stuffed. Make sure those vocal cords are making a sound, too!
This sound is written as “m” as in mad or ma’am.
Still in the nose, /n/ is pronounced by putting the tongue slightly above the teeth, opening your lips a bit, vibrating the vocal cords and making the air come out of the nose.
This sound is written as “n” as in the words nun or sun.
For our last nasal sound, place the back of the tongue to the back of the mouth with your lips parted, force the air out of your nose and vibrate your vocal cords. It’s a difficult sound to make on its own, so try pronouncing this one as part of a word, like the examples below!
This sound is written as the “ng” letters in English as in the words wing or finger.
/l/ is a weird sound in English because it is written with an “l” or “ll” and can be pronounced two ways.
The first way is to open your mouth a bit and touch the tip of your tongue to the ridge of gum behind your teeth. This sound is called “light l” and results in the /l/ sound in the word like. “Light l” generally happens at the beginning of words.
“Dark l” is pronounced by making the “light l” sound but raising the back of the tongue slightly. We hear the “dark l” sound in the words fell and bull. “Dark l” generally happens after vowel sounds.
The /r/ sound is pretty tricky for non-English speakers. To make it, place the sides of the tongue against the sides of the back teeth. The front of the tongue is down, and the middle of the back of the tongue is lowered so the sound moves through the middle of the tongue.
This sound is written as “r” or the “wr” letters in English as in the words rock and writer.
The /w/ sound involves making an “o” shape with the lips and then raising the back of the tongue without touching the roof of the mouth. As the air flows, the vocal cords vibrate.
This sound is written as the “w” letter as in the words want or cow.
/x/ is a pretty rare sound in English, coming to the language mostly from borrowed words from other languages. It is made by lifting the back of the tongue to the back of the mouth (almost the throat) and vibrating the tongue as the air flows through.
This sound can be heard in the borrowed word loch from Scots.
How to Listen to and Practice English Consonant Sounds
The best way to master English consonant sounds is to hear them clearly and then practice them a lot.
What better place to do those things than on the internet?
Cambridge English offers some great videos of English consonants. They include close-ups of the mouth as they pronounce the sounds, so you can practice that mouth shape as well.
LawlessEnglish offers a great, in-depth tutorial of all English consonant sounds with recordings and examples.
For more targeted practice, I recommend Speechactive. With its online tools, you can listen to and record each individual consonant sound. Afterward, you can listen to your recorded sound, compare it to the example and then change your recording as your pronunciation improves.
I also recommend identifying consonant sounds. Check out The Mimic Method for a free e-course and practice exercises.
If you want to learn the pronunciation of consonants in British English, you should also check out EnglishRadar for examples and practice exercises in that dialect of English.
To see some consonant sounds being used by real native speakers, you can look for language learning programs based on authentic content, like FluentU. FluentU has a library of authentic video content with built-in subtitles to help you learn English words as they’re actually used. Vocabulary can be reviewed through quizzes, which include questions that let you speak your answers out loud and practice pronunciation.
Whether you’re an advanced learner or learning English for beginners, knowing how to pronounce the English consonants correctly will take you a long way!
Wait, I heard that: It was your perfect English pronunciation.
Keep practicing and master these English consonants in no time at all!