What is S4?

S4 stands for Simplified Standard Sound Symbols. They are a simplified sub-set of the academic International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbol set, optimized for teaching the pronunciation of English.

The sounds used in mainstream American and British have long been identified by linguists. For instance, the sounds of British English can be found on the University College London website here. Purely American variants can easily be added to this list.

In S4, a clear distinction is made between long and short vowels, as well as between clear and dark consonants. As concerns long and short vowels, for teaching purposes it is practical to consider the short vowel sounds to be "stopped" versions of the long ones. For instance, it is easy to think of the difference between "ship" and "sheep" as being that the former contains a short-i and the latter contains a long-i. As concerns clear and dark consonants, the word "little" can be considered to begin with a clear-l and end with a dark-l. Thus, S4 offers a logical symmetry that facilitates memorization.

S4 text is always written in blue to make it immediately recognizable as such.

Full details about S4 can be found in this iBook. All the sounds used in standard American and British English are covered, using Simplified Standard Sound Symbols (S4) to present them. Four audio clip examples are given for each sound. This version is for EFL teachers. French, Spanish and Chinese speaker's versions are also available.

Some of the main features of S4 are given below.

 The long and short of it

One difference between the S4 and IPA phonetic symbol sets is the way long and short vowels are shown. In IPA phonetic script fang marks (like this ː) are used to indicate long vowels. As  in the Japanese JSL system, in S4 long vowels are symbolized by double characters:

And the short versions are simply:

With the short vowels, the airflow is cut off in the throat to end them (a glottal stop).

Students find all this logical and easy.

The dark side

When I attended the UCL Summer Course in 2003, I had difficulty in accepting the way syllabic consonants were represented using a schwa (ə). I have lived most of my life in France and I am particularly sensitive to the way the French try to pronounce my name in the "English" way (Symeunn). In English, it seems to me, that in this instance, the vowel sound between the "m" and the "n" is extremely short, virtually non-existent. The same applies to words like "twinkle", "candle" and "little". This appears to me to correspond to the dark-l (aka. a syllabic-l), and not to / əl / To my ear, the latter sounds like a whiny child's way of speaking. I would not say that there is a schwa-sound before the final L in little.
Sometimes, elsewhere, syllabic consonants are represented by a short vertical line underneath (like this ). I prefer to move the mark to above and left of the character in the form of an apostrophe, the meaning of which readily suggests itself to the uninitiated.
Once you accept the idea of using a syllabic l, a whole range of other syllabic consonants appear:
    •    a dark-n as in "written" rit‛n

    •    a dark-m as in "rhythm" rið‛m

    •    a dark-l as in "little" (very hard for non-native speakers to pronounce) lit‛l

    •    a dark-w as in "little" pronounced with a cockney accent li·‛w

    •    and, best of all, a dark-r, as in "bird" pronounced rhotically: b‛rd



"Isn't it" is actually  pronounced "isn tit" and  "it's not" is pronounced "it snot". I must admit that I thought this was unbearably funny when I was ten years old. This is "liaison" in action. Liaison (also known as "linking", and "sandhi" but only Sanskrit speakers know how to pronounce that) is the name for what happens when, in speech, a word merges with an adjoining one.
 For instance, "stop it" is pronounced "sto pit".

This occurs very often, and in S4, to avoid breaking up words and ensure that they can be recognized as units, the break between the words as written in conventional spelling is sometimes replaced by a hyphen. In point of fact, the breaks between the words in conventional spelling do not normally correspond to actual breaks while speaking, in S4 text they are just for show. Thus, "stop it" is written stop-it (and not sto pit). And "the importance of education" can be written ðiiy-i‛mpoot‛ns-əv-edʒəkeiʃ‛n (the word breaks are preserved but the pronunciation spills over, also, there is an intrusive "ye" sound between breaking up the vowels between the first two words).

Liaison is systematically used in French, but many English speakers are quite unaware that they are using it, and even believe that it is wrong. Very few of those whose native language is Chinese ever get to understand it at all. Teachers of English as a foreign language need to be very clear about liaison.


Every EFL teacher needs to consciously know the sounds of standard American and British speech
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