Like all languages, spoken English is made up of phonemes (or ‘units of sound’). It is important to distinguish between phonemes and the letters of the Roman alphabet that are used to spell English words.
The difference between phonemes and letters
To illustrate the difference between phonemes and letters, let’s compare the phoneme that is the consonant sound at the beginning of the word ‘cat’ to the phoneme that is the beginning consonant of the word ‘cycle’. Both are spelled with the letter ‘c’ but they are pronounced differently. These two sounds are sometimes described as a ‘hard c’ and ‘soft c’, however there are other ways of representing them, such as by the phonetic symbols /k/ and /s/.
Three common mistakes
Use of phonetic symbols may be useful to more advanced English learners, but those still struggling with the basics of English pronunciation may benefit from some more basic tricks. There are several pronunciation errors which are commonly made by new English learners, three of the most common of which are:
- the sounds we use to represent the letters ‘th’ (the, think)
- the sound we use to represent the letter ‘l’ (lost)
- the most common sound in English, the schwa.
1. Pronunciation of ‘th’
The pronunciation of ‘th’, which can be voiced (as in then) or unvoiced (as in thin), presents problems for speakers of Mandarin, Korean and many European languages. Interestingly it is also one of the most commonly mispronounced phonemes for native English-speaking children.
Typically an ESL speaker will pronounce one or both of the ‘th’ phonemes as /d/ or /t/, or sometimes as an /s/. English speaking children often pronounce it as /f/. The simple solution to proper pronunciation of this phoneme is to poke the tongue far out between the teeth. Although this is not the typical position of the tongue for this phoneme (it actually only protrudes a tiny bit), exaggerating this position will help ESL speakers and native-speaking children to correct this error.
2. Confusion between /l/ and /r/
The confusion between /l/ and /r/ is often stereotyped as Japanese. Although Japanese speakers often do have this problem when learning English, this error is also found in Korean and some other Asian language speakers. The solution for this problem also lies with the position of the tongue. Speakers can practise making the /l/ sound with their tongue again between their teeth, before moving it to the proper folded position behind the teeth. They will find they are unable to make the /r/ sound with their tongue in either of these positions.
3. The schwa
Finally, the schwa is a confusing phoneme for ESL speakers because it can be spelled by any vowel or pair of vowels. Phonetically represented by an inverted lower-case letter ‘e’ (Ə), the schwa is basically a lazily or half-pronounced unspecific vowel sound. It is the sound that speakers of British English make at the end of words such as brother and taller.
English pronunciation is full of schwas. Take the word pronunciation: while an ESL speaker might pronounce it ‘pro-noun-see-ay-shun’, native English speakers will likely pronounce it ‘pr Ə-n Ən-see-ay-sh Ən’, i.e, with three schwas.
Overcome errors and gain confidence
Improved pronunciation is the goal of most learners of English. Overcoming frequent errors will help them gain the confidence to continue the life-long task of mastering the English language. The three tips above are simple solutions to help put ESL speakers on the right path.
See also: Pronunciation of ‘th’