Published 23rd September 2020
If you’ve ever tried to speak a foreign language you would probably have realized that apart from learning the vocabulary and the grammar, just being able to pronounce the words can be a challenge in itself. Foreign words feel different in our mouths because we probably have not had much practice making the sounds of that language or certain sounds don’t exist in our language. However, whatever language we are learning we can be sure that other people are having similar, if not the same, problems – especially if we speak the same first language.
That’s right: it’s possible to predict a learner’s pronunciation problems with the language they are learning based on their first language. In turn, this means we can predict language-specific pronunciation problems for English language learners.
How is this helpful?
Well, as a teacher we need to prepare for our lessons. Part of our preparation is anticipating problems so that we can prepare activities which can help our learners deal with these particular problems. For example, if we know our students are going to struggle with the pronunciation of the regular –ed ending with certain verbs (asked, played) then we can make sure we know the rules of pronunciation ourselves, as well as how to pronounce the sounds, and we need to be able to give examples to our students. So when the problematic pronunciation item comes up in the lesson, we won’t be surprised or have to think on our feet because we will have everything we need already at our fingertips.
So let’s look at a few languages that your learners may speak as a first language and a few of the most common pronunciation problems they may have in your classroom.
Common pronunciation problems for Chinese learners of English
Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) is a tonal language. This means that a word can be pronounced with a number of different tones and each tone will convey a different meaning of the word. English by contrast is not a tonal language and only uses intonation on a sentence level. Chinese speakers may have initial difficulty understanding the differences in intonation between the two languages.
Consonant clusters don’t exist in Chinese. As a result, Chinese speakers may add in another syllable in a consonant cluster in an English word or they may omit one of the sounds altogether. For example, smoke could be samoke, and words could be wors. This is the same for words which end in a consonant sound. For example, card could be car and change could be chain.
The sounds /r/ and /v/ don’t exist in Chinese and so naturally Chinese learners have difficulty pronouncing them or even identifying the difference between them. For example, rice becomes lice and very becomes wewy.
Read more: 5 Problems for Chinese Speakers of English
Common pronunciation problems for Thai learners of English
Thai speakers have similar pronunciation problems as Chinese speakers.
What’s more, Thai speakers have problems with the /ʧ/ sound when it is at the beginning of a word. They usually replace the /ʧ/ with /ʃ/. For example, church would become shurch.
There is also a problem with /ð/ and /ɵ/. These sounds are often replaced by /z/ or /d/, or /s/ or /t/ respectively. For example, the becomes de and thing becomes ting.
Read more: Teaching English in Thailand
Common pronunciation problems for Korean learners of English
Korean is a phonetic language, which means there is only one way to pronounce a sound. English, in contrast, has many different ways to pronounce the same letter(s).
Korean speakers struggle to hear the difference between some short and long vowel sounds, such as ship and sheep, as well as the difference between /e/ and /ɶ/, as in egg and apple. As a result they may confuse these sounds in their language production.
There are some consonant sounds in English which Korean does not have. Because of this Korean speakers will use another sound in its place. For example, rice becomes lice, this becomes zis, and ship becomes sip.
Common pronunciation problems for Arabic learners of English
Though Arabic differs slightly depending on where it is spoken, there are a few pronunciation problems we can identify for Arabic learners of English.
There are no silent letters in Arabic so Arabic speakers will pronounce silent letters, such as the s in island or the k in knife.
There is no /p/ or /v/ sound in Arabic. Instead, Arabic speakers will replace those sounds with /b/ and /f/ respectively. For example, pepper can be bebber, and very can be fery.
Consonant clusters also cause problems for Arabic speakers, with the result that they will insert a vowel sound both before and in the cluster. For example, stress would be esteress. As you can imagine, this can cause huge pronunciation and comprehensibility issues.
Arabic speakers may further struggle with word and sentence stress and intonation. They are used to a more restricted range of tones when speaking and so may sound monotonous when speaking English.
Common pronunciation problems for Spanish learners of English
Though Spanish speakers are generally very communicative even if their English level is quite low, their accent and pronunciation issues can cause breakdowns in communication.
Firstly, Spanish doesn’t differentiate between short and long sounds. This can cause problems with ship and sheep, and bit and beat, among other words.
They can also find it difficult to differentiate similar vowel sounds, making words like cat and cut, and boat and bought problematic.
Confusion also arises between /b/ and /v/, /ʤ/ and /ʧ/, and /ʤ/ and /y/. This is evident in words like berry and very, jeep and cheap, and jot and yacht.
A very notable difficulty is words which start with s. In Spanish, words do not start with s followed by a consonant but rather with es, which is why Spanish speakers will pronounce words like Spain as eSpain.
We could talk all day about the different pronunciation problems of our learners who speak different languages. As TEFL teachers we can find ourselves teaching English to learners of many different languages. If you are not familiar with that particular language, do some research and find out what the common pronunciation problems are. This will help you prepare for your lessons with these learners which will, essentially, help your learners be able to communicate in English better.