The degree of difficulty associated with acquiring great English pronunciation is largely relative to your first language i.e./ where you are already coming from linguistically. Some aspects of English pronunciation are universally difficult but every learner has different problems and approaches the language with a different set of ‘baggage’. Consider, for example, that the sounds represented by English ‘f’ or ‘v’ do not exist in the Korean language and therefore words like ‘very, Friday, five and favourite’ tend to be particularly challenging. These words are relatively easy for speakers of Slavic languages because the letters ‘f’ and ‘v’ not only exist but are quite ubiquitous letters.
Here are 5 problems that tend to be particularly difficult for Polish learners.
The Infamous ‘th’
The ‘th’ is a consonant digraph that generates a new mono-phonetic sound that is very often associated with or assimilated to ‘f’ in English. So many learners pronounce three and free exactly the same. ‘Think’ becomes ‘fink’ etc. However there is a striking difference between these two sounds. As all Poles can easily tell you the bottom lip is necessary to pronounce the elongated ‘f’ sound for example in the word ‘fasola’. If you don’t believe me, take your fingers and tug down on your bottom lip pulling it down and away from your teeth. Now try to say ‘fasola’. It cannot be done. However if I ask an English speaker to do the same thing and say the word ‘thirty-three’ it is absolutely no problem. The bottom lip is unnecessary for the ‘th ‘sound as the tongue comes out slightly between the teeth to ‘replace’ the bottom lip.
Practise this lip pulling technique in front of a mirror. Don’t forget to wash your hands.
The Long i: vs I
Say these words out loud:
BEAT / BIT
SHEEP / SHIP
STEAL / STILL
HILL / HEAL
None of the words from the pairs sound alike. They are all quite different. The long /i:/ sound like Polish ‘igła’ is usually (not always) manifested in English with two letters together. ee, ea, ei, ie, e__e, oe. The sound is very easy and presents no problem for Polish learners. The problem tends to come from having to remember the other side. The short, more frontal /ɪ/ sounds very much like the Polish ‘y’ sound. The Polish word ‘styl’ sounds practically identical to the English word ‘STILL’. The name Mitch sounds the same as the Polish verb ‘myć’.
SCHWA and weakened sounds
The long words ‘comfortable’ and ‘vegetable’ tend to become a bit enigmatic for Polish learners because most languages are very logical and have letters in words for a purpose. English on the other hand behaves a bit illogically at times and seems to ignore letters while particular sounds become weakened for no apparent reason. There is a long historical linguistic explanation but that’s the topic of another blog.
Schwa / ə / is the most neutral open vowel sound in English. Imagine if you went to a dentist and had your entire mouth and tongue anaesthetized…you would only be able to produce one sound : schwa…roughly equating to written English – uh.
It is very common for unstressed words to become schwas. In the words banana, there are 3 syllables and the middle syllable is stressed therefore it keeps its long ‘a’ sound whereas the first and third a’s become schwas.
Hence: banana sounds like ‘buh naa nuh’ – /bə nɑ: nə/
Com For Tay Bul becomes COM fuh tuh buhl – /kom fə tə bəl/
The letter ‘r’ manifests itself in weird ways in language. Think about it – some languages trill it. (Spanish) Some languages make the ‘r’ sound very guttural (growling like French- RRRRien ) Some languages make it very retroflex (alveolar) pulling the tip of the tongue back to the roof of the mouth like some languages in India do. English does something very similar.
Try making the ‘w’ sound like in the word ‘where’. Say: Wa wa wa wa waaaaaaa
Now pretend you have peanut butter stuck to the top of your mouth and you want to lick it off with your tongue. Curl your tongue up and back but do NOT touch the roof of your mouth. Now while doing this try to say the same: wa wa wa waaaaaaa. What you should be producing is an approximation of the English rhotic ‘r’.
It is a notoriously difficult sound even for young English children.
Think about the sentence: ‘Mary bought a new computer.’
Imagine if someone misheard you and asked, ‚She bought a car?’
‘No. I said she bought a COMPUTER.”
Think for a moment about how you would say the sentence and in particular the word: computer. Although the entire word is in bold it is really only one syllable you are stressing. Now…what did you say?;
She bought a COM pu ter – /KOM pju: tə/
She bought a com PU ter – /kom PJU: tə/
In everyday speech it is very important to consider which syllable gets the stress. DO you say Exam or do you say eXAM. Do you say 2 plus 2 eQUALS 4 or Equals 4?
I hope these 5 points have helped to raise your awareness of English pronunciation. What about your experiences with English? Do you feel there were some issues that are also important with regards to pronunciation? Mention them below and perhaps we can write about them in future blogs.