Why is the pronunciation of English not easy peasy lemon squeezy?
The colonial conquests of the British Empire contributed to the spread of English in the world. The English have reached all continents, and so, for hundreds of years, the English language has been developing in various forms in many parts of the world. And that is only one of the reasons why English pronunciation is not such a simple matter. There are at least 6 varieties of English, each with slightly different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. British English should be considered the mother variety. The others are:
- American English
- Canadian English
- Australian English
- South asian English
- African English.
No wonder that it is hard to find a uniform, coherent pronunciation of English, since individual varieties often developed independently, influenced by local culture, emancipation movements, or the distance from the center of the Empire.
Regardless of the multitude of varieties, when you are writing an official letter or speaking to someone in a formal situation, try to navigate within one particular variety. To make sure you don’t mix American English with British, it is worth reaching for a dictionary.
Local variations with their own pronunciation, however, do not end there. In Great Britain alone, there are also several dozen regional accents and dialects. Their pronunciation differs significantly from what foreigners usually learn in schools. Only around 5 percent of British people use the standard accent as a model.
But don’t worry! To communicate in English, you don’t need to learn all the dialects and varieties. Regardless of the differences, it’s still the same language. However, if you are planning a trip, or a longer stay, say, in Wales or Scotland, it is worth familiarizing yourself with the local pronunciation and practicing some of the more difficult English words.
Another challenge with the pronunciation of English words is the fact that in English, unlike in Spanish or Polish, words are not read as they are written. So, at the beginning of your adventure with the language, once you already learn the pronunciation of the English alphabet, it is worth departing, at least for the time of learning, from the patterns and rules known from your mother tongue.
5 proven ways to practice your English pronunciation
Learning English pronunciation is a challenge, but one that has already been completed by many, using proven methods. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, it’s worth looking at some effective ways to improve your skills.
Listening is essential when working on the pronunciation of English words. In the age of the Internet, there is a lot of material available that allows you to interact with the natural language. The first things that come to mind are tv series, movies and music. Thanks to the boom on streaming platforms, most people can improve their English pronunciation with their favourite movie characters and musical idols. However, it is worth not only listening, but also practicing your English with the help of a technique called shadowing. It comprises listening to short parts, single phrases, sentences, and repeating them paying attention to intonation and stress.
However, if you want to master English pronunciation for business meetings and presentations, listening alone may not be enough. In such situations, we recommend practicing English with the help of a teacher (live or in the form of recordings). You will find such materials in Say It Better – English pronunciation courses.
Of course, listening alone is not enough. You also have to break the language barrier and start speaking. Practicing English pronunciation is important because the speech apparatus of non-English speaking people is not used to pronouncing certain sounds. That is why frequent training is so important – to accustom the mouth to articulate all the sounds necessary to master the pronunciation of English vocabulary.
On your way to your goal, you will need recordings of your efforts. Read aloud in English and record your exercises. Listen to them afterwards and note down sounds or words that are difficult for you. Once you know what the most challenging English words are, put yourself into the exercises to master them.
When learning the pronunciation of English, always have a dictionary at hand. When the pronunciation of a word is a mystery to you, you will find its phonetic transcription there. A good dictionary (both in paper and electronic form) should include the phonetic transcription for each English word it contains.
Get to know the phonetic transcription
If you want to make friends with a dictionary, it is worth learning the rules for reading the symbols used in phonetic transcription. It is a way of recording the pronunciation of a given language according to rules and patterns comprehensible for people who do not know its spelling system. The phonetic transcription of English and other languages is usually made with the help of symbols from the international phonetic alphabet.
When learning English pronunciation, beware of false friends!
What are so-called “false friends”? These are words that may sound alike. They are pronounced similarly to words known to you in your mother tongue, but have a completely different meaning. Below are some examples of false friends to watch out for, because English reads them similarly to Polish, German or Portuguese, but that doesn’t mean they have the same meaning.
- Cartoon (cartoon) – karton (cardboard)
- Carnation (carnation) – karnacja (complexion)
- Condition – kondycja (endurance)
- Concurrence (convergence) – Konkurrenz (competition)
- Ankle (ankle) – Enkel (grandson)
- Café (café) – Kaffee (coffee)
- Happen (happen) – Happen (snack)
- Compromise (compromise) – copromisso (meeting)
- Costume (costume) – costume (custom)
- Realize (realize) – realizar (complete)
10 difficult words in English
When learning English, be careful not only of false friends. Reddit users have collected 10 words whose pronunciation in English is a challenge for the tongue. Below we list them all, together with English phonetic notation and meaning.
- Rural (ˈro͝orəl),
- Otorhinolaryngologist (ˌɑtoˌɹajnoˌlæɹɪŋˈɡɑlədʒɪst),
- Colonel (ˈkərnl),
- Penguin (ˈpɛŋɡwɪn),
- Sixth (sɪk (s) θ),
- Isthmus (ˈisməs),
- Anemone (əˈnemənē),
- Squirrel (ˈskwər (ə) l),
- Choir (ˈkwī (ə) r),
- Worcestershire (ˈwʊs.tə (ɹ) .ʃə (ɹ) – an English county, and also the name of a popular sauce.
How did you get the pronunciation of these English tongue-twisters?
OUGH – or the intricacies of English pronunciation
English can surprise even advanced users. So it is not worth wringing your hands if, after years of learning pronunciation, you still cannot pose as a native. As a consolation, and proof that speaking and reading English is a real challenge, we offer you a linguistic surprise in the form of the -ough ending. Did you know that in different English words it can be pronounced in almost 10 different ways?
Below we have compiled the most common endings used with the phonetic notation:
- [oʊ] dough (cake), thorough, although (though),
- [aʊ]: bough, plow, drought,
- [u] through (through), throughout,
- [ɔ] thought, fought, bought,
- [αF] cough, trough,
- [ʌF] rough, enough,
- [əP] hiccough.
How can you master the pronunciation of English words with the -ough ending? The best way is to use the words correctly as often as possible, and to get to that, you need to be familiar with them. The achievements of modern technology, which is an invaluable source of support in learning, can be helpful.
Technology in the service of correct pronunciation
In times of common access to the Internet, it is easier to gain fluency in the pronunciation of English words, even without contact with a native. If you don’t know how to articulate a word correctly, Google is here to help.
The company introduced a feature to their popular search engine that is helpful in learning correct English pronunciation. When you type in “comfortable pronunciation” in the search bar, you should see a frame with the phonetic transcription of the English word, along with a visualization of how the mouthpiece behaves during pronunciation.
Perhaps the next step will be to add functionality, thanks to which the search engine will also recognise human speech and pronunciation. This way, it will be easier to practice difficult English words.
The STT speech recognition function is already available in SuperMemo language courses. Thanks to it, when you learn the correct pronunciation, you immediately get feedback. You don’t have to wait for lessons with the teacher. All you need is access to a smartphone or other mobile device. Using SuperMemo courses with speech recognition is also a great option for people with a high language barrier. They are free to practice their English pronunciation without being judged by other people.
Mobile language courses, speech recognition technology (a trend visible, for example, in the development of voice assistants), access to a huge amount of source materials in foreign languages, all these technological amenities make learning the correct pronunciation more accessible than ever. It is worth taking advantage of the available opportunities.