Did you know there are nearly 3 times as many vowel sounds in English as there are in Italian?
Or that English has short and long sounds, like in “sit” and “seat”, which are hard for Italians to hear the difference between?
(To read a longer version of this article, click here)
Or that English has diphthongs, like in “ear”, “hair”, and “home” that don’t exist in Italian? But that in the words “fruit”, “could” and “receipt” there are NO diphthong sounds?
Or that until recently it was possible to reach adulthood in Italy without EVER hearing English spoken by a native speaker, either on TV, at the cinema or at school? (Because EVERYTHING is dubbed in Italy …)
If you are an Italian speaker of English you may have problems understanding native English speakers – because English just doesn’t sound AT ALL like it should.
Also, if you pronounce English the way it’s spelled, you make it very difficult for people to understand what you’re saying.
So here is a 4-point checklist for pronouncing English more accurately, and for helping you understand spoken English.
The easiest way to correct your pronunciation assumptions is to listen to English while reading it at the same time, either from subtitles in films and TV shows, or with audiobooks, (some tips below). As you listen and read, watch out for the 4 pronunciation traps below:
Pronunciation trap 1: vowel and consonant clusters in English words
Are you sure you are pronouncing the words “early”, “mountain” and “favourite” correctly? You may be trying to pronounce all the vowel sounds, like you would in Italian.
“Early” is pronounced /’ɜ:li/, “mountain” is /’maun-tin/, “favourite” is /’fei-vrət/. In each case the vowel sound is very different from what you expect from the spelling.
Are you pronouncing the “i” in “fruit”, “suit”, “juice”? Please don’t: /fru:t/, /su:t/ and /ʤu:s/
What about the words “success”, pronounced /sək-‘ses/, “access”, pronounced /’æk-ses/ “ignore”, pronounced /ig-‘nɔ:/, “scissors”, pronounced /’si-zəz/, and “exclude”, pronounced /iks-‘klu:d/? English pronunciation of consonants doesn’t follow the same rules as Italian.
How about ‘ancient’, pronounced /’ein-ʃənt/, which has both vowel AND consonant clusters?
Pronunciation trap 2: silent letters
Take the word “Wednesday”. This word, like many others in English, has letters that you don’t pronounce. It’s pronounced /’wenz-dei/. “Comfortable” is pronounced /kʌmf-tə-bl/. “Vegetable” is pronounced /’vedȝ– tə-bl/.
You don’t pronounce the /l/ in the words “half”, “calm”, “talk”, “walk”, “salmon”, “could”, “would”, “should”.
There is no /b/ in “climb”, or any /p/ in “cupboard” and “receipt”.
Pronunciation trap 3: intrusive vowel sounds
Can you say “equipment”, /i’kwipmənt/, without inserting a vowel sound between the P and the M, and possibly after the T, making it “equip-a-ment-a”? How about “Appartment”? Does /ə’pa:tmənt/, becomes “apart-a-ment-a”.
It’s difficult for native speakers of English to pronounce all of the consonants in these words as well, but we don’t introduce vowel sounds: native speakers will often not pronounce the consonant before the M, so it will sound like “equi-ment” and “appah-ment”.
This is one of those little things that has an enormous impact on other people’s perception of how well you speak English. If you can remember to eliminate these intrusive vowel sounds, your English will sound twice as good.
Pronunciation trap 4: The disappearing R in standard British English
The R is usually pronounced in some regional British accents, and in many American accents, so it’s fine if you want to pronounce all the R’s in English.
However, in standard British English pronunciation we mostly don’t pronounce the R when it appears after a long vowel sound or diphthong, or at the ends of words. “Warmer” is /’wɔ:mə /, “girl” is /gɜ:l/, “early” is /’ɜ:li/, “more” is /mɔ:/, “or” is /ɔ:/.
You don’t have to sound like a mother-tongue English speaker to speak good English and make yourself understood, but you might have to work with native speakers, and understand the strange, unpredictable noises they make.
And, finally, here are some online resources for listening to, and reading English at the same time.
www.ted.com – Home to hundreds of talks on a multitude of topics. Most of the talks come with subtitles and interactive tapescripts. There is an app so you can watch and listen on your phone or tablet. Start with this one:
BBC 6 minute English – home to hundreds of 6 minute programmes about a multitude of topics, broadcast once a week, downloadable from the website, there is also an app. Presented by native English-speaking presenters, who speak clearly, and relatively slowly. There is always a glossary of words from the programme.
www.ororo.tv – a website where you can watch movies and TV series with very good quality subtitles.
In my next post we will be looking at the importance of the stress in English words and sentences. If you liked this post, follow my blog to receive updates.
Read the first post in this series: “10 Fun Facts about Phonemes”
One thought on “How to understand the sounds English speakers make – the mysterious case of the disappearing “R””
As an American in England, the disappearing British R drives me insane. The convenience store called the Spar? They call it the Spa. A neighbor named Vera? People call her Via. I swear, I sometimes need an English-to-English translator.