Why is English so hard to pronounce? English Phonology

English so hard to pronounce

At Confidence Learning Services, we readily admit that English is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. While there are many rules in the English language about how words are pronounced, there are also quite a few exceptions and areas where particular rules do not apply. Understanding these tricky areas will help you to be more successful in communicating in English. For native speakers, understanding these areas will help you to be more sensitive to the plight of those who speak English as a second langauge.

Five Aspects that make English so hard to pronounce

English is a difficult language to pronounce. Depending on your language background, you will likely find various parts of the “phonology” or sounds of English complicated or extremely difficult to master.

Areas that are considered to be the most complex or confusing include:

  • Stress on words
  • Vowel and consonant sounds
  • Combined sounds
  • Physical attributes
  • Translation between languages

Stress on Words

In English, words that are spelled identically are stressed differently depending on their meaning. For example, with the word “record,” there is a different stress based on whether we wish to refer to the noun of a piece of music media or to the verb for the actual act of registering or putting in writing a piece of information or saving a piece of music.

This might seem overwhelming at first, although understanding that nouns tend to be stressed on the first syllable, and verbs tend to be stressed on the last syllable does help with the learning process.

Therefore, English language learners cannot simply base the pronunciation of a word on what they see. They also need to learn to look for contextual clues around that word, in order to determine the correct way to pronounce it.

Vowel and Consonant Sounds

English language learners need to distinguish between vowels and consonants, a fairly easy task. However, students must then begin studying the different English vowel sounds. Although there are about 12 vowel sounds and various diphthongs, there are only 5 “written” vowels, meaning the spelling of words is rarely phonetic, and one written vowel can represent several different sounds. For example:

  • The vowel “a” makes a very different sound in the words “bake”, “small” and “apple.”
  • Consonants can change a bit as well. A “t” in the word “tackle” is very different in sound from a “t” in the word “water” and “s” in “docks” sounds different from “s” in “dogs.”

The pronunciation of vowel and consonant sounds vary with the word in which they are used.

Combined “Digraph” Sounds

Sometimes when consonants come together, the pronunciation gets confusing. A non-native speaker would see “t” and “h” and want to pronounce those sounds separately. However, they come together to create a blended digraph sound. Another example of this is when the letters “c” and “k” come together in words as a back, rack, pack, tackle, and so forth.

The person learning English might initially see these two letters as distinct, when they really represent a single sound.

Physical Attributes of English sounds

The way in which people speak is, of course, related to physical properties of the mouth region. For example, there are some words which absolutely require speakers to put both of their lips together in order to produce the sound, (like “b” or “p”) while other sounds require sticking the tongue through the teeth (like “th”). While it seems natural to a native speaker, to learners many of these sounds require awkward mouth positions and tongue movements, a sort of yoga for the mouth.

Translation Between Languages

Often when you try to learn a sound in a new language, you look for a sound in your native language to compare it to. However, there is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between English and a learner’s background language. For example, the sounds of “th” and “v” do not exist in many languages. Therefore, learners cannot pronounce these sounds by comparing them to their native language. Often, they find a similar – but not identical – sound in their language, so that “th” becomes “f” and “v” becomes “w.”

Practice and Repetition

The only way that English pronunciation can improve is with practice and repetition. Changing pronunciation habits is very different from learning new vocabulary. Knowing “how” to pronounce a word is very different from actually pronouncing it clearly every time.

Learn more – sign up for your free English Pronunciation Assessment from Confidence Learning Services today, and you’ll get an in-depth evaluation of your pronunciation of every sound in the English language. Contact us at 1-865-226-9477 to sign up.

by Laura Brewer