Why is English Difficult to Pronounce?

Do you remember the movie “Spanglish”? If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great movie to show the difficulty of living in America without speaking English, but also the benefits when you take the time to do so, and the relief of people understanding you when you speak! 🙂

So why is English so difficult to learn and pronounce?

As a native English speaker, before I started teaching ESL, I didn’t realize how many rules and variations there were in English. It was my mother tongue, and I just learned like every other kid in kindergarten and beyond, all and accepted them. I was always good at spelling, so the many homophones (words that sound the same) in English didn’t confuse me – in fact, I enjoyed puns and word plays because they were funny.

But there are many silent letters in English, unlike Spanish, such as the “silent e” that ends many words, and indicate a long vowel in that word, such as like or name. Other words like “knife” and “ghost” and “night” are just accepted – if you know what sounds to say, and ignore the silent letters when you speak. Most languages have their share of silent letters, so why is English so difficult to non-native speakers?

I believe it has to do with the fact that English has so many adopted words, all with their own rules and nuances, and we have to somehow add these to our vocabulary. For example, the word “ballet” is from French, so we pronounce ballet like /ballay/ not /ballett/, since the French don’t say their ending “t” sounds.”

We also use these adopted words for different purposes, maybe to sound more formal or fancy, or even be specific about which kind of thing it is (think “ask” vs “question” vs “interrogate”). So our English vocabulary is varied and able to accommodate many specialties from law and medicine (French & Latin) to cooking, dancing and fashion (French & Italian) and more.

So how do we know where each word is from?

If you look at a word, and know some other languages, you might see some similarities between that word and a word in the other language. The pronunciation of that word (like “ballet”) might be taken from that original language or may have been changed to make it easier for English speakers to pronounce – like “music” (English), not “musique” (French). These are called loanwords, and they are from many languages, including German, Spanish & Hindi. A more intensive look at these loanwords is here by country – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loanword

But if you want to know how to SAY the words correctly , you need to ask an English teacher (one versed in phonetics) how to say long & short vowels, diphthongs, blends and difficult consonant sounds. 

There are 44 sounds in English, and only 26 letters to represent them.In fact, there are 150 ways to spell these sounds!

Here is a short video I found explaining how we teach this to children – https://youtu.be/HIz9Ypd4YsY

This is very useful in showing the different combination of letters in each “phoneme” (sound) and how many variations there are, such as 5 ways to spell the consonant “s” sound (s, ss, se, c, ce), or 5 ways to spell the vowel “I” sound (i, i-e, ie, igh, y).

But there are rules we can follow to help us navigate when to use each spelling and how to say it, especially for long & short vowels … with exceptions, of course 🙂

So is it impossible to spell and speak correctly in English? Of course not! It just takes focused study and practice, and a good teacher to help you through. Learning at your own pace, using different learning styles and memorization techniques is a great way to be successful.

One good way is through my online interactive course at Laurel’s Learning Labwww.laurelslearninglab.com. The 5 Vowel Mini-Course is up and it will help you with 7 lessons focused on the American vowels and how to say themright now the course is FREE! And more to come! 🙂

Good luck in your journey toward better pronunciation of English! 🙂