There is only one reason why it is so difficult to learn English: it is an irregular language, in which it is necessary to learn each word individually, and the pronunciation rules that we learn for one word do not apply to the rest. But this difficulty is not exclusive to students of English as a second language, it is also a challenge for native speakers. Children spend many hours studying each word in a particular way, fighting against the irregularities of their own language. If English is so difficult for English speakers, what are we left with for English learners?
What does it mean that English is an irregular language?
You’ll probably want to open Google Translate in a different window while reading this article! Let’s start with ‘pint’ , a more than important word to order in a bar or restaurant. If we listen to Google Translate for the proper pronunciation of ‘tint’ , ‘mint’ , and ‘flint’ all these words are pronounced with an “i”. But if we hear ‘pint’ , it is pronounced[paint] . The most likely explanation is that in French, ‘pinte’ was the old unit of measurement of capacity for liquids, but ‘in’ in French implies a nasalization of the vowel that makes it closer to an ‘a’ than a ‘ i». English, due to the influence of French in the years of the Norman invasion in the 11th century , adopted innumerable words from this language. But not only did it adopt words, but also, thanks to its incredible flexibility, it also adopted sounds and new vowels. Consequently, ‘pint’ is pronounced differently from the rest of the words with a similar spelling, as it has been incorporated from another language.
Something similar happens with the name ‘Sean’, which is pronounced[shon] almost like ‘John’. Here the explanation is the origin of the name, which comes from the Gaelic ‘Seán’. Less obvious is the pronunciation of the (unusual) English name ‘Patton’ which is pronounced[patton] because it has a double “t” but because it has an “a”, many English people mistakenly pronounce it ‘pay-ton’[peiton] (because [ ei , bi, ci, di…]).
The words ‘slaughter’ and ‘laughter’ only differ in the initial ‘s’, but they are pronounced completely differently. In this case, what happens is that the first comes from the German ‘schlachten’ , and in its incorporation into English it underwent a transformation in pronunciation.
When it comes to irregular sounds, the letter combination with the greatest variety of sounds is probably ‘ough’ . We can pronounce the phrase ‘Take your dough through the borough of Slough, hiccoughing and coughing thoughtfully’ without ever repeating the same sound twice for the different ‘oughs’ we encounter. Basically the opposite of the German ‘Rhabarberbarbara’ . Another case of a consonant not behaving as one would expect is ‘ lamb ‘, where the final ‘b’ is silent.
And here, dear Spanish speakers, a little challenge: without consulting Google Translate first, how would you pronounce the English word ‘segue’ ? Let’s start by defining it correctly: ‘segue’ is used in music or film to describe a seamless transition from one piece of music to another. For example, “allow one song to segue into the next” . Well, its correct pronunciation is[seguei] , and the reason is that it comes directly from the Italian, ‘che segue’[ke segue] , “that follows”, from the Italian verb ‘seguire’ .
Finally, I invite you to pronounce ‘ floor ‘ and ‘ door ‘ first. Then ‘ loop ‘, ‘ hoop ‘ and ‘ scoop ‘. And lastly, ‘ blood ‘ and ‘ flood ‘. The same spelling, even the same position in the word, has 3 completely different vowel sounds. Perhaps the largest gathering of irregular words in the smallest possible space is that which exists in the poem ‘The Chaos’, by the Dutch linguist Gerard Nolst Trenité, written at the beginning of the 20th century. The poem contains 800 irregularities that baffle not only students of English as a second language, but also English speakers, especially of school age, during which the challenge to learn word for word is titanic. Why is it so difficult to learn English? Here, the most graphic answer possible:
How to overcome difficulties when learning English?
It has become clear that learning to pronounce word for word is a significant handicap of the language, but then why is it the lingua franca ?
Despite its difficulty, English has one of the largest vocabularies in existence. Thanks to its flexibility, it adopted words from Latin, Italian, German, French, Spanish and even Arabic . The Oxford English Dictionary compiles more than 600,000 words throughout the history of the language. A lot of different cultures find familiar words when studying English as a second language. Perhaps that is why it is the most studied language in the world: the British Council estimates that 1 in 4 people in the world study English.
Furthermore, phrasal verbs allow the construction of simple sentences with highly specific meanings. Here, the language shows a weakness and a virtue: the weakness is that phrasal verbs must be learned by heart since their meaning cannot be inferred from the words that make them up. and virtue is the ability to generate more synonyms, and more specific terms to define a specific action or situation.
The difficulty in inferring the meaning from the words that compose them is evident in the following passage:
between putting something down (suppression) and putting it back (replacement, restoration), putting it over (conveying its significance), and putting it on—you can put on a manner, or a garment, or a light, or value, or weight, or a play. To put something out means to extinguish (a fire) or dislocate (a shoulder joint); to put someone out means to irritate or inconvenience, but also to eliminate your opponent from a tournament or render a patient unconscious. Someone who ‘puts out’ is relaxing his or her virtue. You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up while it’s burning down, forms are filled out by being filled in, and an alarm that’s gone off is still going on. And this is just the beginning.
Since English grammar allows us to express ourselves with a high degree of precision, it is possible to say that it is our ally. It is necessary to study it carefully, but this is true for any language in the world. If English plays in our favor to express ourselves, then there is only one obstacle left to overcome: making ourselves understood when speaking, and understanding other people who speak to us.
How to improve English pronunciation?
Improving our English pronunciation has two sides: on the one hand, it allows us to be clearer when speaking, but on the other hand, it offers us the possibility of better understanding other people, especially native speakers of the language.
There are several dimensions to delve into on the way to improve our pronunciation, but there are 2 fundamental factors: stress and vowels . Stress is the way English speakers speak and understand each other: correctly stressing the main words in a sentence changes the meaning of what we want to say. On the other hand, relaxing the stress on other words allows you to speak more fluently and clearly.
But let ‘s focus on the vowels . English has between 15 to 20 vowel sounds. The amount varies if we refer to American English (where we can generally find 15 or 16 sounds) or British English (where the language can reach the 20 mentioned vowels, depending on the source we consult). Clearly, this means much more than the 5 vowels that a native of Spanish, Italian or Russian knows.
Students often focus on consonants, often unaware that they are consistently confusing vowel sounds. Many people think that ‘ sit ‘ and ‘ seat ‘ are pronounced the same, as are ‘ pool ‘ and ‘ pull ‘, or ‘ pen ‘ and ‘ pan ‘, ‘ port ‘ and ‘ pot ‘, ‘ duck ‘ and ‘ dark ‘. The key, in many of these differences, is the length of the vowel. In others, the position of the lips and tongue.
The position of the mouth
The position of the mouth when pronouncing a vowel plays a key role in the final sound that will come out of our lips. Small changes in our mouth may generate a great variety of sounds, that most English speakers can recognize.
In order to explain the movement of the tongue, we may refer to its vertical position: high, middle or low. Then, we can talk about the “extension”, or how close it gets to the lips: front, center or back position. For example:
- /æ/ as in ‘cat’ it is a low front vowel. The most active part of the tongue is located in the lower and front region of the mouth.
- /ʌ/ as in ‘cut’ it is a mid and central vowel. The tongue rests in the middle of the mouth in a neutral position.
- /uw/ as in ‘boot’ it is a high back vowel. The tongue occupies a space very far back in the mouth, from where it physically rises towards the bottom of the palate.
The following image is known as the “vocalic triangle”, despite having an irregular parallelogram shape. This graph is divided into 9 regions, which represent the space that the tongue occupies when speaking.
The vowels that appear closest to each other in the diagram above tend to cause the most confusion among learners of English as a second language who follow these traditional methods. For example, many students may confuse sheep (/iy/) with ship (/ɪ/) but it is difficult to confuse sheep with shop (/ɑ/)
Position of the lips
The position of the lips is essential for pronunciation. If, when exhaling air in a neutral way, we form a circle with our lips, we will produce a completely different sound from the one that arises if we open our lips from side to side.
For a complete reference on how to place the lips in the pronunciation of each vowel according to the traditional system, see page 5 of the following link .
Tense vowels and relaxed vowels
Vowels that occur more at the ends of the palate (either high or low) tend to be more tense, while vowels that are closer to the Schwa sound, which simply requires air to pass through the throat and resonate in the vocal cords, they are more relaxed.
Simple vowels, transition vowels and diphthongs
Simple vowels are those that make a single sound (as in bad ), while transitional vowels are those that flow from one vowel sound to another (as in day ).
How to improve my English pronunciation?
The traditional method of teaching is the repetition of each word individually. As all English teachers have told us at some point in our learning: “ repeat with me ”. But if each word has a unique pronunciation, learning word by word implies very long learning times.
The next alternative offered by traditional courses or teachers is to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet. But this alternative has 2 disadvantages: the first is that each dictionary adopts different forms (there is not a single way to represent sounds), complicating learning and sometimes rendering our knowledge useless, depending on the method to which each dictionary adheres or website; the second is that the student is forced to learn an entirely new alphabet, doubling the learning time.
That is why I have created an online English course with a revolutionary method, with characters that are familiar and intuitive, and that shorten the learning time significantly. My commitment is that after 24 hours of online English course, your pronunciation can improve drastically, and in the future it will be easier for you to learn new words. To measure your progress, we are going to read a sentence at the beginning of the course and at the end of it, so that you can hear yourself the progress made!
The online English course is called PhonicSense, because of how intuitive it is from a phonetic point of view after applying the knowledge gained! To access the course, you can click here .
Good luck on this learning journey, and I hope we meet on the course! In addition to the lessons, you will have access to a community of students with the same concerns and challenges as you, in order to improve the language day by day even after you have finished the course!