Why is English so difficult to pronounce?

As everybody who has studied English as a foreign language knows – English is a relatively easy language to learn, up to a point. It is easy and quick for most learners to reach intermediate level, as the basic grammatical structures are straight forward, and the vocabulary is simple and often has traces in students’ own languages. This is one reason why English has become so popular as an international ‘lingua franca’ – to speak it to a level in which two people can communicate is quite easy.

But then when students aim for a higher level, things get more difficult. Advanced grammar is quite tricky, with numerous conditional and modal constructions to deal with, but this is not the hardest part at all. The real difficulties in mastering English to a proficient level are firstly all the phrasal verbs and strange sayings that natives use (I recommend Steven Collins’ excellent series of books on this topic) and secondly of course, pronunciation.

So why is English pronunciation so difficult? Why do students who speak a high level of grammatical English, make so many mistakes when they actually say their perfectly constructed sentences? On today’s blog, we will look at 5 key difficulties in English pronunciation:

1. Written vs Spoken English

It would be a lot simpler to pronounce English if the written form resembled the spoken form more closely. Amongst the most confusing bits are silent letters – r, l, b, h, k, n, p, s, t & w are all silent some of the time. Then there are letters that can be pronounced in lots of different ways – ‘s’ can be pronounced as /z/, ‘t’ can be pronounced in at least 5 ways, and an ‘n’ can become /m/ or /ŋ/. And that’s just consonants – English contains 19 vowel sounds, but it only has 5 vowels to spell them with, so who could possibly guess that ‘good’, ‘food’ and ‘blood’ all contain different vowel sounds (/ʊ/, /u:/ and /ʌ/)?

2. Sounds

English has 19 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds. Its vowel sounds cover the entire range of mouth positions – front, centre, back, open, close, spread, relaxed and rounded. Some vowels are long, others short, but all vowels change length depending on the level of stress on them. Many students speak languages with fewer vowels – a lot of modern languages (Spanish, Japanese, Arabic to name a few) have no more than 5 vowel sounds, for most learners, the 19 vowel sounds present an important area of study.

Consonant sounds are also problematic – nearly everyone needs to learn the ‘th’ sounds /θ/ & /ð/, the approximant ‘r’ sound often requires attention, and other sounds such as /h/, /w/ and /ŋ/ cause a lot of errors. All students need to pay attention to accurate consonant production: voicing and placement need to be mastered.

3. Joining

Aside from the sounds of English, it is important to join everything together correctly. English has various ways of joining words: assimilation (2 sounds change each other), elision (one sound disappears), vowel + vowel joining (we add a /r/, /j/ or /w/ between the sounds) and consonant + vowel joining (a consonant joins the next syllable). Sometimes these are rather bizarre – in the sentence ‘law and order’ only one /r/ would be pronounced – between ‘law_r_and’ – even though it is spelt with a ‘w’.

4. Weak/Strong Structure

English is made of strong and weak sounds. The most common sound in English is the schwa sound /ə/ – which should be pronounced roughly one in every three vowel sounds. The problem is, the schwa is impossible to see on the written page. In order to hear it – listen and read the passage below, which has the sound written in phonetics:

I’d like tə go shopping fər ә pair әf shoes, bәt thə shops ә closed becəse thәs ə weathәr әlert. əparrәntly lots әf snow is coming in frәm thə Highlənds so thә govәrnmәnt hәv әdvised peopәl tә stay ət home

5. Intonation & Stress

The English are famous for saying one thing and meaning another – using intonation to show meaning. These subtleties can be lost on a learner of English. English uses a wide pitch range and four patterns – fall, fall-rise, rise & rise-fall. The rules of English stress are simple to learn, but impossible to see on the written page. If a learner of English is misunderstood, it is more often due to misplaced stress than incorrect pronunciation – for this reason stress is perhaps the most important aspect of clear speech.

Some Good News

Although English is undeniably a very confusing and perhaps complicated language to pronounce well, there is some good news – it can be learnt. Pronunciation is like any other skill – it involves learning new movements and rules and practising them until they become second nature. Through studying the 4 key aspects of speech – sounds, structure, intonation & spelling rules, a student can take their English level to an entirely new level and with regular practice can alter their accent.