Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Challenge of English Pronunciation and Spelling

Hi everyone,

Welcome back. Now let’s begin to work seriously. For this post, I'll write about some methods that show the pronunciation of English words in written form. At the same time, I would like to talk about the wall that was built in my brain as a consequence of my first English teacher. Later, other teachers were able to demolish this hindering wall. I'll try to connect different methods with my personal experiences.

Every person who speaks English – whether a native or non-native speaker – faces a strange element of English: the many differences between spelling and pronunciation. Of course, this is an even greater problem for a non-native speaker, especially when he/she comes across an unknown word. Nowadays, the problem isn’t so serious since online dictionaries generally have audio examples. However, before the era of internet, people who learned English needed other solutions. Asking a native speaker generally wasn’t possible, so how could/can anyone learn pronunciation without the internet?

Method 1 – Writing English words using the pronunciation rules of another language

The first method is the worst that I’ve ever seen. My first teacher wrote each word in a table of the word's spelling in English and then its pronunciation with Hungarian characters. For example: 
the – dö, 
house – háusz….. 
I won't go on. This method is awkward because there are many English sounds that don’t exist in Hungarian. He substituted them with something similar instead. That’s why we said ‘sink’ instead of ‘think’. 

In addition, I clearly remember his first words: “In the English language, there is hardly any connection between spelling and pronunciation. It’s definitely hard, almost impossible to connect them. You SHOULD learn them separately plus the meaning.” Do you think this is a good way to make the language learner happy? I don’t think so. It was a class of 14 pupils or so. I thought the English language was a frighteningly impossible mission to undertake. I wasn’t good in English at all and I barely got a C.

This teacher also had other bad methods concerning the linking (and non-linking) of words, but I’ll write about that in another post.

Method 2 - IPA

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is the most frequently used system for showing  pronunciation. I won't begin to explain IPA symbols since Rachel does it better than me in the videos below. Who is Rachel? I introduced her in a previous post.

Video one: consonants 
Video two: vowels 
Video three: diphthongs  

Rachel’s videos are great. She also shows the correct (American) pronunciation of each sound.

In high school (of course I didn't know Rachel, in addition internet didn't exist), we had two teachers in a row who tried to teach pronunciation, but I don’t remember them well. I have only one memory. The first of them taught us the th sound using a mirror. I realized that the th sound is not “d” (in “the”) nor “s” (in “think”). Anyway, I wasn’t really interested in English; actually, I rather hated it. We learned English for only two years in high school. We learned the IPA symbols, but there was a problem. I don’t remember if we learned the difference in pronunciation in some word pairs such as ‘æ’ in man and ‘ɛ’ in men, or ‘ʊ’ in put and ‘u’ in soon, or ‘i’ in keep and “ı” in sit. I had no clear system of determining English sounds and I couldn’t pronounce many sounds correctly.

Some years later, I began to take lessons from a private teacher. He did great work with me in grammar and vocabulary. In addition, he worked a lot on my pronunciation. Poor guy! He had a lot of work to do with me. He lived for many years in the UK, so I learned British English from him. Its residuum can still be found in my pronunciation and vocabulary, but I am still grateful to him.
I began to realize some pronunciation patterns and found out that it wasn't true that there’s no connection between pronunciation and spelling. There are a lot of patterns and rules that can be useful to know. However, there are a lot of exceptions as well.

Method 3 – Ask a native speaker

After graduation from college, I worked as a teacher of economics in a high school. I had a colleague from the United States who taught English. I spoke with him a lot: in the teachers’ room, during parties, in pubs, everywhere. As a kid learns to speak from his parents, I learned to speak from him by trying to copy him. What I know in English is based on what I learned from him many years ago. I have tended to follow American pronunciation rules since then. Naturally, to ask a native speaker is the best method if it’s possible.

Method 4 – Webster's Dictionary (hard copy and online)

In 2013, I spent a few months in the States and so I could ask native speakers when I had problems. Additionally, I bought a Webster's Dictionary over there. Webster's Dictionary doesn’t use IPA symbols. Rather, Webster’s symbols are based on the general alphabet. I'll show you a table that compares IPA symbols with Webster’s. If someone finds a mistake, please inform me. Webster's dictionary is also available on the internet and includes audio examples. 

Method 5 - Prediction

I'll show some easy examples of prediction using some obviously known words. Let’s suppose that I know how to pronounce the word “bike”. It is /baɪk/. Now, I can predict that the word “fine” is pronounced as /faɪn/. So when I come across the word “knife”, is it pronounced as /knaɪf/? The answer is NO. I have to consider another pattern: if a word begins with “kn”, the k is silent. So “knife” is pronounced as /naɪf/. So the “i + consonant + silent e” combination is often pronounced as //. (long I sound)

And what about the word “give”? It doesn’t follow the “i + consonant + silent e” pattern that I mentioned above. It is pronounced /gɪv/. When I see a new word, I can predict its pronunciation because I’ve learned several patterns. Most of the time I’m right, but if a word is too difficult, I check an online or hard copy dictionary.


Besides the methods mentioned above, there are several other systems as well. I’d like to mention only one. Sometimes I visit  It uses both IPA and its own alphabet based system (different from Webster’s symbols). Of course, it also provides audio examples. 

To make this entry complete, I have to mention Mandy’s In her podcast, she doesn’t use IPA, Webster's symbols, nor any other symbols since speaking them is impossible. Instead, she says the name of the sounds. In addition, she doesn’t use any symbols in her transcripts.

All in all, at the beginning this issue of pronunciation seemed to be big problem, but later I got used to it. Of course, I sometimes make mistakes. However, even native speakers make mistakes. Nowadays, I think that the difference between spelling and pronunciation is NOT the greatest challenge of learning English. What is the greatest challenge? In the upcoming entries, I'll show you the issues that I consider to be the greatest challenges.

This entry is reviewed and edited by Gardeniafly again. She is not searching new students anymore. But I can recommend someone else, or you can visit Italki.

Hi Gardeniafly! Do you have any comments?

As a child growing up in America, I never learned about IPA or other such symbols for pronouncing words. Instead, American child learn what's called phonics. We had a specific program in school called “Hooked on Phonics” which taught us how to read properly. It's interesting to go back as an adult and learn how IPA works. Like Attila mentioned in his lesson with me, the dictionaries often don't teach you how to pronounce the words like a normal American would. Therefore, I think it's always important to hear the word pronounced by a native speaker when you a learning it. Of course it's also important to be able to guess at the pronunciation of the word, but it's okay to get it wrong. Even native speakers might pronounce a word incorrectly the first time they see it! It just takes a lot of study and practice until you get to the point where you can predict the patterns of words. Good luck with your studies of pronunciation, everyone!




  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. There was a misunderstanding. It was El Vaquero who posted here (I accepted his comment), later he removed it. It wasn't me!!!

  3. wow, it's a long blog , but very interesting , actually i don't know IPA phonetic . . i just listen to the word on online dictionary . .
    but learn symbols it's very hard , maybe i will try to learn it but not now . .
    anyway, thank you a lot . . :)