A few weeks ago, I brought you 5 common grammar mistakes from Polish students. You all really liked it and shared your own errors, so this time I’m focusing on pronunciation. It’s often overlooked by teachers and learners in this country, mainly because it’s not assessed in Matura (as I was told by some students). However, it is extremely important in the real world, because it could make the difference between being understood and not!
When reviewing your own pronunciation and finding out about the top 5 errors your fellow Poles make in British English pronunciation, keep our British Council phonemic chart open.
1. To stress or not to stress?
The schwa sound /ə/ is the most important in the English language, but it has no direct equivalent in Polish. The problem is that every letter in Polish corresponds to one sound, whereas in English a letter can have multiple possible sounds. A lot of vowels are pronounced weakly, with the schwa. This can be demonstrated with the words “comfortable” and “vegetable” which are both stressed on the first syllable. The –able ending is weak, and is pronounced /əbəl / instead of /eɪbəl /.
Will you now comfortably pronunce ‚comfortable’ after reading this post?!?
2. Tree or Three?
The letters ‘th’ occur very often in English, and they represent either /ð / or /θ /. These sounds don’t exist in Polish, so the Brits with the names Agatha, Martha and Arthur become Agata, Marta and Artur when meeting a Pole. It also explains why the words length and strength are often misspelled as well as mispronounced. Because most ordinal numbers end in this sound (sixth, seventh, eighth) it’s well worth being able to say them properly.
You may be interested to hear that some regional accents in the UK also say these sounds differently to the RP accent, so you could always pretend you are from those areas!
3. To voice or not to voice?
Voicing or devoicing refers to the use or non-use of the voice in pronouncing consonants, many of which are paired, e.g. /t/ is unvoiced whereas /d/ is voiced. This is most commonly seen with the pronunciation of –ed with regular past tenses and participles. Devoicing of “played” would sound like “plate”. A further example comparing two easily-confused words: advice and advise. The former is a noun and is pronounced with /s/ at the end, while the latter is a verb and ends with a /z/ sound.
4. 13 or 30?
Numbers are usually one of the first lexical areas that are taught; most pre-school children are able to count from one to ten. They’re an extremely important part of English, but there is so much potential for confusion. Take the numbers 13 and 30, for example. There is only a /n/ between them, and this is often pronounced very softly, so you need a good ear to distinguish them. However, the problems of getting the number wrong are significant. You would be rather embarrassed to buy something for £13 and then find out later it’s actually £30!
To a lesser extent, 13 / θɜrti:n / and 14 / fɔrti:n/ are often mixed up as well, but as they’re only one apart, it’s not so risky to get them wrong! If in doubt, get your British friends to text you their birthday date so you dont miss the party.
5. Can or can’t?
It is quite common for Polish speakers of English to pronounce both the positive and negative form of this modal verb almost identically, with just a /t/ at the end of the negative. As with the thirteen/thirty problem discussed above, this final sound is barely audible, adding to the confusion. The standard RP versions are /kæn / and /kɑːnt / respectively, although “can” is often said with a schwa.
Can you or can you not now pronunce these correctly ?
So, there are five areas for you to focus on in order to improve your pronunciation (and listening) skills. Of course they aren’t the only ones where errors are made, so why not comment and let us know which words or sounds you’d like to improve or which of the above you most frequently get wrong?