Do you like to play on the slide?
But let’s look at what I asked again: “Do you like to play on the slide?”
There’s something going on with the words here—they’re experiencing a sliding of their own.
In fact, this question contains three words with English diphthongs that make it feel like your mouth is sliding: “like,” “play” and “slide.”
“A diphthong?” you ask. “How could English pronunciation possibly get more complicated than it already is?”
In this post, we’ll slide easily into the top eight English diphthongs, the best tips for mastering them and how to pronounce each one.
What’s the Definition of an English Diphthong?
To figure out what a diphthong is, we first have to return to the basics: vowels.
According to Cambridge’s English Dictionary, a vowel is a sound produced by the human mouth without being obstructed (blocked) by the teeth, tongue or lips. For example, American English is said to have 14 vowel sounds, and these are often categorized as long and short vowel sounds.
The word “diphthong” comes from the Greek word meaning “two sounds.” Based on that definition, we know that a diphthong is a sound that combines two vowel sounds.
In fact, these two vowel sounds are pronounced so closely together that they almost sound like one instead of two!
Sometimes in phonics books or ESL learning material, diphthongs are called “long vowels” like we previously mentioned.
While technically a diphthong could be any two vowel sounds pronounced together, American English only has eight major diphthongs.
Take note, however, that this number could change from one English dialect to another. For example, the English spoken in Britain may have a different number and different pronunciation of these diphthongs.
Tips for Learning English Diphthongs: Practice and Listen Online
What’s the best way to learn English diphthongs?
Why, it’s to actually hear them in isolation and as parts of words, of course!
- Watch a YouTube video. In a video by Rachel’s English, you can listen to five of the eight American English diphthongs. She breaks down the pronunciation of each diphthong in easy-to-understand terms and then gives some examples of common words that have the diphthongs in them.
- Record yourself using diphthongs. If you want to do more than just listen, you can hear and practice recording all eight diphthongs at SpeechActive. Do note, however, that the audio clips have a non-American accent.
- Take a quiz to measure your progress. You can also check out a video and short quiz on diphthongs that are companions to the “Essential of Linguistics” textbook, and practice the common spellings of American English diphthongs with Spelling City.
- Try resources designed for children. If you’re looking for English diphthong practice for kids, The Joyful Learner has you covered.
To watch more videos about English diphthongs, I recommend FluentU. FluentU is a program to learn English that uses the internet’s best real-life videos—such as movies, TV shows and music videos—to teach the language as it’s actually spoken. Each video comes with subtitles and translations, and unknown words can be turned into flashcards!
FluentU also has videos to hear diphthong sounds. I recommend “Singing About Long and Short Vowels” and “When Two Vowels Go Walking.” In these FluentU videos, the diphthongs are being explained as long vowels.
Enough waiting! Let’s look at each of the eight most common diphthongs in American English.
The letters in sideways brackets are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a writing system that allows for accurate descriptions of sounds in all languages, including English.
This diphthong can have many spellings and is commonly written as ow or ou within English words. In addition to the word “town,” other words with the /aʊ/ diphthong include “brown,” “frown,” “mouth” and “pound.” It’s also in the interjection “Ow!” used to express pain or discomfort when someone gets hurt.
Keep in mind that this diphthong is pronounced differently in other forms of English, most notably Canadian English.
This diphthong is commonly written as igh, but can also be represented by a single i or y in English words.
When it’s written as a single i, it’s normally followed by a consonant and then an e such as in the words “bite” or “crime.”
Other examples of this diphthong include “might,” “pride,” “bike,” “cry” or “why.” It was also the reason behind two diphthong words in the opening question, “like” and “slide.”
This diphthong is also pronounced slightly different in certain dialects of English.
The diphthong /eɪ/ has quite a few different spellings in English. It can be written as ay, ai, ei, ey, ea or a single a. Like our previous diphthong, when /eɪ/ is written as a single a, it’s normally followed by a consonant and then an e such as in the words “plate” or “blame.”
Other examples of this diphthong in words include “may,” “wait,” “freight,” “they,” “great” and “space.”
Did you notice that this diphthong was also in the third word of our opening question?
This diphthong’s pronunciation is very similar to the /eɪ/ diphthong, but this one occurs most commonly before the letter r. It’s commonly written as an ai, a single e or a single a that comes before an r.
For example, this diphthong appears in the words “fair,” “hair,” “mare” and “where.”
Like our previous diphthong, /ɪə/ occurs commonly before certain consonants. Firstly, it can occur before the letter r, but it can also come before the letter l. It’s commonly written as ee, ea or a single e that comes before an r or l.
Some other examples include the words “peel,” “dear,” “meal” and “atmosphere.”
The diphthong /oʊ/ is quite a versatile diphthong. It’s commonly written in a variety of ways, such as ow, oa or a single o that’s followed by a consonant and an e.
Other words with this diphthong in it include “know,” “boat” and “poke.”
After our previous diphthong, you’ll be happy to know that this one is easier to identify based on the spelling. Quite simply, it’s commonly written as oy or oi, such as in the words “boy,” “void” and “employ.”
The /ʊə/ diphthong is a little bit like a spider hiding under that slide we’ve been talking about—sometimes, it’s hard to tell if it’s even there!
That’s because this diphthong is sometimes pronounced as a single vowel sound, even in the American English dialect. That means that the sound at the end of “sure” may sound more like the English word “purr,” which has only one vowel sound.
In fact, this diphthong is more commonly associated with the British dialects of English.
It’s commonly written as u and typically comes before an r. Other examples of this diphthong are “pure,” “jury” and “curious.”
Well, that list wasn’t too frightening, was it? Armed with your new knowledge of the eight English diphthongs, you’ll be the talk of the town!
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