The Daunting Qualities of English Pronunciation

Pronouncing English correctly is quite a feat when you’re not a native speaker of English. Not only are there so many different varieties of English with specific word use and pronunciations, but just to figure out how to say any word can be a source of worry and frustration for many learners of English. Here are a few guidelines on how to tackle some of the difficulties.

First of all, what makes English pronuciation so hard is English spelling. The spelling of the word very often does not indicate how to say the word. Consider the following:

meat               see                 police             receive           recipe

meat               meander        head               ear

The first line are all pronounced like ‘meat’ but are all spelled differently, whereas the second line are all spelled the same, but pronounced differently. You can imagine the difficulties this could cause. Unfortunately, when it comes to spelling, there isn’t much you can do except for trial and error. That spelling can be daunting has also been realized by plenty of native speakers. Author Mark Twain has been credited for seeking simplification of English spelling, and Lord Cromer’s poem called ‘Our Queer Language’ pretty much sums up the ridiculousness of English spelling conventions:

Unlike French, English often (and frustratingly for foreign speakers) does not show a logical
relationship between sound (pronunciation) and meaning, as the following poem demonstrates:

When the English tongue we speak,
Why is “break” not rhymed with “freak”?
Will you tell me why it’s true
We say “sew” but likewise “few”;
And the maker of a verse
Cannot cap his “horse” with “worse”?
“Beard” sounds not the same as “heard”;
“Cord” is different from “word”;
Cow is “cow,” but low is “low”;
“Shoe” is never rhymed with “foe.”
Think of “hose” and “dose” and “lose”;
“Doll” and “roll” and “home” and “some.”
And since “pay” is rhymed with “say,”
Why not “paid” with “said,” I pray?
We have “blood” and “food” and “good”;
“Mould” is not pronounced as “could.”
Wherefore “done” but “gone” and “lone”?
Is there any reason known?
And, in short, it seems to me,
Sounds and letters disagree.

Another problem area are English stress patterns. English is what is called a stress-timed language, as opposed to French, which is a syllable-timed language. What stress-timed means is that English words and sentences flow according to where the sentence or word is stressed, whereas in French it depends on the number of syllables a word or sentence contains. English word and sentence stress usually falls on the first part of that word or sentence. There are exceptions however. Most exceptions stem from other languages, such as Greek or Latin, and words of this origin can take a different stress. Though, a general rule of thumb seems to be: 1, 2, or 3 syllables = first syllable stress, 4 or more syllables = second syllable stress.

Stress is especially difficult as it sometimes determines whether the word is a noun or a verb. Compare:

advice – advise

You will find that ‘advice’ (the noun) is stressed on ad, whereas ‘advise’ (the verb) is stressed on ‘ise’.

There are many language specific problems to English pronunciation however. Depending on your language background certain sounds and aspects of English will pose more problems then others. I am only aware of specific problems for Dutch speakers, so I will fill you in on those. You’ll have to forgive my lack of knowledge of other language specific problems. Here are the most common problem areas for Dutch speakers***:

1.)   –th-

Try saying these words: think, that, bath, breathe, Matthew, heather, months, sixth

For think and that your ‘th’ should sound different. The one in think is voiceless. The one in that is voiced.

2.)   Silent letters

Try saying these words: dumb, bomb, debt, doubt, heir, honest, castle, Harwich, psychology, receipt

You do not say the b’s, h’s, t in castle, w in Harwich, p in psychology and p in receipt.

3.)   –æ-

Try saying these words: bet, bed, bat, bad, Ben, ban

For Dutch people the words bet, bed, bat and bad all sound the same wheres in English you should have 4 different pronunciations: /bet/, /bed/, /bæt/, bæd/.

4.)   Weak vs strong consonants

Try saying these words: lab, lap, had, hat, advice, advise, lose, loose, raise, race, leaf, leave, coat, goat.

Here the difference is again between voiced and voiceless sounds. b-p, d-t, ais-aiz, etc.

5.)   Vowels

Try saying these words: country, county, Derby, lump, sum, lunch, month, need, feet, much, money.

Especially the vowel like in the word: /cup/ and its usage in other words.

6.)   Miscellaneous

Try saying these words: drambuie, Leicester, Worchester, Southwark, Salisbury, Thames

And there are always words which are difficult no matter what!

/drembjui/, /leste/, /wooste/, /suthuk/, /selsbri/, /themz/

So what can you do to improve your pronunciation? Here are some tips:

1.)   Learn to distinguish the most important sounds.

2.)   Find out how to say these sounds in all positions of the word: at the beginning (initial), in the middle (medial), and at the end (final). Pronunciation of a sound usually varies according to context.

3.)   Find out which mistakes are distracting or amusing for native speakers of English and try to perfect these sounds.

4.)   When trying to improve your pronunciation, you should aim for a pronunciation which can be understood without any difficulty and which doesn’t irritate or distract English listeners. In other words: aim for a pronunciation which is acceptable to English speakers.

5.)   Apart from individual sounds it is important to pay attention to context, stress patterns and intonation.

Hope this helps!

***I have simplified the pronunciation symbols. If you would like me to go into hardcore phonetics then be my guest and ask about it in the comments.

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