Learning to pronounce individual English words


English as a language includes some one million words, and many of them are pronounced in a way strikingly different from the spelling of the word. There are historical reasons for this, of course: when the English spelling system became standardised it reflected the pronunciation of a certain geographical region in England. English spellings have changed slowly, whilst phonological changes have been much faster. For example, the Great Vowel Shift has occurred, and many newly borrowed words (and older loanwords, as well), retain a pronunciation that is alien to English (e.g. ballet, garage).

The fact that the pronunciation of English words tends to be so irregular gives rise to serious problems for many learners of English. Even very common words (e.g. colonel, bury, yacht) used in everyday speech by native speakers are often irregular when it comes to the orthoepy: you simply cannot guess the pronunciation from the spelling, you must have heard the word pronounced to be able to pronounce it properly. The question is: where do non-native speakers of English get to hear enough English to pick up on proper pronunciations? In many countries much more emphasis is laid on writing than on pronunciation within the domain of EFL-teaching which can be quite problematic.

In addition to everyday words people need to pronounce proper and geographical names (e.g. River Thames, Macleod) and less common words (e.g. baba ganoush, bijouterie) in order to communicate efficiently.

I leave it up to you to think of how learners of English could achieve a near-perfect pronunciation of the core vocabulary of English.

Best wishes.

The first English lessons I was given (as a teenager in Switzerland) were exclusively dedicated to pronunciation. We first had to learn the international phonetic alphabet symbols, which we then had to transcribe from dictation.* We also took dictations to practice word and sentence stress and intonation, using dashes and slashes only. Only after acquiring a good knowledge of the English sounds and inflections, did we start studying grammar and working with the coursebook (Oxford Progressive English Course by A.S. Hornby).

Those first classes were absolutely fascinating to me, as has been the whole of my English learning experience. Still, thanks to the modern technologies, students can now have a much better exposure to the sounds of a language. Learning material and resources are immensely more plentiful, varied and fun, too.

Sometimes I (almost!) regret not having to start learning English in this day and age (though the learning process never ends) – but then again, I have this site as a compensation for it!

Some proper names, especially surnames, can be tricky for natives, too!

I certainly didn’t expect to find good old ‘baba ghannouj’ in your post :lol: – or in an English dictionary, as it turns out! Surely those two examples of uncommon words you gave have to be pronounced the same in all languages, i.e. the Arabic and French way respectively, unless they have been adapted into the language?

  • Whole texts had to be transcribed in phonetic symbols.

Thanks, Conchita, for your reply!

You were lucky to receive such good pronunciation classes: in many countries much less emphasis is laid on pronunciation.

Yes, some foreign and proper names are surely tricky for natives, too. But then again many people assume that a pronunciation is correct simply because it’s produced by the speech organs of a native…