Frequently Asked Questions

First, check your spelling.

If you are unsure how a word is spelled, put in the first few letters. The search engine for the database cannot find a word if it is incorrectly spelled, but can provide you with a list of possible options with only the first two or three letters of the word. If the word is not in the database, don’t despair – contact me at and I will add it to our database and notify you. I encourage you to do this, so that I can build the database around the user’s needs.

  • An English speaker knows that the letters ‘-ough’ are pronounced in several different ways, for no discernible reason. ‘Cough’, ‘bough’ and ‘bought’ and ‘through’ are a few examples. This phonetic pronunciation is completely independent of accent – whether you speak the Queen’s English, or with an American accent, or with a South African accent you say the word according to accepted phonetic pronunciation. The same applies to foreign languages.
  • It is possible to speak a foreign language fluently and phonetically correctly without ever developing a fully authentic accent. Also accents vary from place to place – Spanish is spoken in Spain, and over most of South America, but it sounds very different due to regional differences in accent. There are variations in accent across all European countries, as you find in the regional and social variations of the English accent in the UK.
  • Unless you are familiar with the language, I’m don’t advise trying out the accent, but I do urge you to get the phonetic pronunciation right, because mistakes here can mean that you are not understood, either because your pronunciation sounds like gibberish, or because the word you think you are pronouncing means something else altogether. There is nothing pretentious about correct pronunciation: you are either right, or your pronunciation is within acceptable limits, or you are wrong altogether. If a foreigner says ‘lahn/goo/ahzh’ when he means ‘language’, it’s hardly pretentious for him to correct his pronunciation to something English speakers can actually understand.
  • The UK English ‘r’, the Scottish ‘r’, and the American ‘r’ have a different sound, but this doesn’t affect comprehension – so look at the phonetic spelling in entries, listen to the audio, and then aim for getting the word substantially correct in your accent.
Absolutely not. If you want to learn a foreign language online you need to go to one of the many sites specializing in this.
  • A few basic phrases in each language such as ‘good morning’, ‘please’ and ‘thank-you’ are included in the database for interest’s sake, and because they are commonly used, but this is as far as it goes.
  • is for the English speaker who has not studied a foreign language, but would like to be able to pronounce words from that language confidently and correctly.
In English we have many words which are not spelled the way they sound.

When you first learn to read and write you learn things like ‘a is for apple’, ‘e is for elephant’ and so on – the idea being that the letter sounds like it does in the word associated with it. You soon discover that although it is generally true that ‘e’ sounds like the ‘e’ in ‘elephant’, there are innumerable exceptions to the rule. This is because English is not a phonetic language, which makes it difficult to know how to pronounce words. Phonetic spelling is writing a word as it sounds – so ‘cough’ could be phonetically spelled ‘koff’.

Phonetic spelling is not an exact science, especially when it comes to foreign languages.

Often the suggestions given are the closest approximate sounds, but although you may not be able to get a word exactly right, it will prevent you from making mistakes like pronouncing ‘cough’ like ‘cow’ because you know how ‘bough’ is pronounced and have made the reasonable, if incorrect deduction that ‘- ough is always pronounced the same way in English.

An English speaker can say foreign words correctly to a certain extent.

Getting it 100% correct isn’t always possible, especially where a foreign language has sounds which we do not have in English, for instance the ‘r’ in French. If you don’t know how to make this sound, and it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you are better off rounding it off to the English sound you are comfortable with.

English speakers trying to get these sounds right often come off sounding comical rather than sophisticated, which is only fine if the former is what you are going for.

Be cautious and round-off, or be prepared to put in a lot of practice to get a sound right.
  • The original words, along with the phonetically spelled versions are colour-coded so you can see exactly which parts of a letter, or a cluster of letters is involved in each sound in the word. All letters which sound as the same as they do in English, or are ’rounded-off’ are always written in black.

    Here is an example for the French ‘au revoir’: au revoir oh rə/vwahr

  • Even in phonetic languages like Italian the link between the letters in a word, and the sound they make it not always self-evident.

    Take a look at the Italian word ‘bacio‘, for example: bacio BAH/tchoh

Most English speakers with a little experience will guess that the ‘i’ affects the pronunciation of the ‘c’. Think of a word like ‘city’. You say the ‘c’ like an ‘s’, not like the ‘c’ in ‘cat, and this modification of ‘c’ by ‘e’ and ‘i’ occurs in French, Spanish and Italian as well as in English.

What is less obvious is that the ‘ci’ in Italian together form one sound. They sound like the English ‘tch’ in ‘catch‘. Just as you do not pronounce the ‘h’ separately from the ‘c’ in English, you do not pronounce the ‘i’ separately from the ‘c in Italian’. The ‘i’ is there to modify the ‘c’ and that is its only function here. It is much easier to understand this if the letters and the sounds they make are coded into the same colour.

Capitals indicate where the stress in a word lies.

If you look at the English name ‘Norman’, you do not say ‘nor/MAN‘, you say ‘NOR/man‘. Stress makes a huge difference in how a word sounds, so pay attention to this aspect of Italian and Spanish pronunciation or you will not be understood.

You will notice a dearth of capitals in the French phonetic spelling.

That is because French is not a stressed language, and the stress tends to fall equally on each syllable. You often see well-intentioned attempts at phonetic spelling indicating stress in a French word. This is completely wrong. Spanish and Italian are stressed languages, and the capitals in the phonetic spellings are there to guide you.

Phonetic spelling is there to simplify your understanding of how a word sounds, and which letters make up which sounds.

As far as possible, I have used letters, or clusters of letters which are readily understandable to English speakers in terms of the sounds they make. There are a few sounds which cannot be explained like this, and so simplified commonly accepted International Phonetic Alphabet symbols are used in these cases. I don’t use this alphabet for all phonetic explanations, because unless you are familiar with it, it is hard to understand.

The symbols you will come across are:

ə – this is known as a ‘schwa’ or neutral vowel, and is much used in English, German and French. The red letters in the following words are examples of neutral vowels:

  • Norman
  • China
  • syringe
  • the

There is no other simple way of indicating this sound. With the aid of the sound files, you will have no problem identifying this sound after reading through a couple of entries.

ø – the o slash represents a sound which you only find in English when a vowel is followed by an ‘-r’. This is the ‘err’ sound in:

  • refer
  • stir
  • fur

This sound is often found in French words – without the ‘r’. There is no way of representing it without explanation for an English speaker without resorting to the use of a symbol. After you have read through a couple of entries, you will easily recognize the sound the symbol stands for.
~ – the tilde indicates that a sound is nasalized. Say the ‘n’ sound in ‘sing’ aloud. That is what ‘n’ sounds like. French has many nasalized vowels – which means that the ‘m’ or ‘n’ has this sound. You will very soon associate this symbol in the phonetic spellings with this sound.

That’s it. Those are the only 3 symbols I use, and they make things much easier for English speakers to understand.
If there is one thing that puts the average English speaker off learning a foreign language, it is the thought of having to learn grammar.

Unfortunately there are some things which only make sense when you explain them in terms of grammar. In French, ‘white’ is ‘blanc’ AND ‘blanche’. ‘White’ is an adjective, or ‘describing word’, and it describes a noun – for example ‘car’. If you want to say ‘my white car’ in French, you have to know that the word for car ‘voiture’ is a feminine noun, and therefore the adjective that describes it must agree : ‘ma voiture blanche’. It is up to you to what degree you want to use the site. The grammar may be very useful to you, or you can just as easily ignore this aspect completely.

If you have any questions or comments please share them!!!

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