Help! How to pronounce tricky words in English

Speak English Learner

What you see isn’t always what you get in English.

Some languages are phonetic (i.e. their written form is close to their spoken form), like Spanish, Turkish or Korean. Other languages, like French or Swedish are less phonetic and English is the king of non-phonetic languages.

So what’s the answer to mastering some of the pronunciation challenges? Well, without getting too complicated, English can broadly be broken down into around 42 sounds, or, to use the technical term, phonemes. When learning to read, children learn these sounds so they can correctly pronounce the words on the page. These include the different combinations of vowels which mean that ‘comb’, ‘bomb’ and ‘tomb’ are all pronounced differently.

So, with few clues of how to pronounce the word in its spelling, how does a non-native speaker get to grips with what many people believe is the trickiest aspect of the language?

  1. Accept that there are certain sounds that simply don’t exist in your own native language. You’ll have to make a completely different shape with your mouth in order to recreate these new sounds, which will feel strange. Persevere, as there’s no way around it.
  2. Try using the Speech Duet system in veebsy, watch the video and practice making the same shape using the special mirror mouth shape provided. Making the correct shape with your mouth is an essential step to modelling the correct pronunciation.
  3. Carry on practising until you begin to get it right, using spare moments in your day to improve. People will notice the improvement and respond positively.
  4. Take every opportunity to listen carefully to native speakers: did she say sleep or slip? Pool or pull? Shine or shin? The more you actively listen to individual words, the more you’ll learn.
  5. We all have particular sound combinations and words that we struggle with. Make a mental note of the words that you find particularly difficult then try using the Speech Duet system where you can mirror the mouth shape shown in the video. Concentrate on improving the words that you have particular problems with.
  6. English is a ‘stress-based’ language. The meaning of a word or sentence can be completely changed by where the stress, or emphasis, is placed. For example, Object (He tripped up over a strange object in the road) or object (She objected to having to work late) – where the meaning of the word changes according to stress placement. Pronouncing words with the correct stress will help make your language sound more natural and clearer. Listen out for where the stress is placed on words and sentences and record yourself saying them. The smart tech in the veebsy app will correct your mistakes. Once again, the secret to improvement is practice, practice, practice!

And to finish, a traditional pronunciation poem which explains just how tricky English can be!

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through.
Well done! And now you wish perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead, is said like bed, not bead –
for goodness’ sake don’t call it ‘deed’!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, or broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s doze and rose and lose –
Just look them up – and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart –
Come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!
I learned to speak it when I was five!
And yet to write it, the more I sigh,
I’ll not learn how ’til the day I die.