John Wells was born in 1939 in the north of England.
As a boy he studied French, Latin and Ancient Greek, then as a teenager taught himself Esperanto. He later learnt German and Welsh. He discovered phonetics while studying classics at Cambridge University, and did a master's in general linguistics and phonetics at UCL. There he joined the teaching staff and eventually became Professor of Phonetics in succession to Daniel Jones and A.C. Gimson.
He is a former President of the International Phonetic Association and the current President of both the Spelling Society and the Akademio de Esperanto.
He is now retired, but writes a regular phonetic blog at www.phonetic-blog.blogspot.com.