Why are some English words harder to pronounce for some native speakers but not for others?

When it comes to learning English, we all have our pet hates. Some of us struggle with learning new vocabulary; some of us just can’t get the grammar rules that seem to change for every verb conjugation; and some of us really struggle with pronunciation.

“My mouth just doesn’t work that way” might not be an excuse that any teacher will accept…but what if it’s true? What if there are certain sounds which some language speakers find harder than others when they approach English?

Linguistic scholars have found that certain English words pose major problems to different language groups and they can trace this to the particular construction of those words in contrast with the speaker’s native language.

Famous examples

German squirrels

One linguistic joke, which is now widely regarded as truth, is that German native speakers struggle to say squirrel.

But why?

Well, the theory is pretty simple. The two sounds which make up squirrel are almost impossible for German-native tongues and mouths to recognise. The ‘rrel’ ending seems similar to ‘rl’ for Germans – think ‘Karl’ – however (and you may have already spotted this) ‘rl’ is the ending of one syllable for German speakers, it isn’t a syllable on its own, as it is for squirrel.

So one tendency is to try to turn the whole word into one syllable, which ends in ‘rl’.

The other struggle is the ‘squi’ sounding first syllable, particularly the ‘ui’. For native English speakers this takes on a ‘wi’ or ‘weh’ sound, but for German speakers this can easily be interpreted as a ‘vi’ or ‘veh’.

There’s no ‘the’ in Middle East…

Another popular example is the difficulty that Hebrew and Arabic speakers have with the word ‘the’.

The ‘th’ sound in the is one of our very ancient connections with English’s ancestors, the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons.  It’s called a digraph or a thorn, and, as Wikipedia explains, describes two different phonemes or sounds: ð/ (as in this) and θ/ (thing).  The slight difference between the two is whether you voice the contact between tongue and teeth (dental fricative) – you do in the former and not in the latter.

So why, for example, would a native Hebrew speaker struggle with this word? Ironically, both English and Hebrew share relatively similar verb patterns, meaning certain aspects of reading the language are easy to pick up. But why the obstacle when speaking?

The key is phonology – the science of sounds within the language.  Hebrew has five or six vowel sounds and more than 20 consonant sounds. In contrast, English has five written vowels, but 20 vocalic sounds. A written ‘a’ will have numerous different sounds depending on what letters are couched around it.

So the lack of discrimination in Hebrew between long and short vowels results in the familiar problem of correctly pronouncing English words such as ship/sheep or bit/beat.

As with many learners of English, including their Arabic-speaking neighbours, Hebrew native speakers struggle with the (/θ/ /ð/) sounds, such as in the words then, think and clothes. They may also have difficulties with the /w/ and /v/ sounds, pronouncing wine as vine, or vice versa.

Finally, Hebrew usually stresses the last or penultimate syllable in a word. However, as any student of English will know, this is not the case when it comes to the Queen’s English (or anyone else’s for that matter!). In English the syllable-stress is much more random.

Pronunciation Practice

The truth is, pronunciation in English varies from region to region in the United Kingdom. It’s a complicated language when it comes to getting the sounds right – but for this reason it can also be very satisfying and great fun.

If you’re really keen for a challenge to your pronunciation skills, have a go at getting your tongue around this pronunciation poem by Charivarius (it’s so long we don’t have room for all of it, but here’s an extract):

The Chaos
by G. Nolst Trenite a.k.a. “Charivarius” 1870 – 1946_

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse
I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye your dress you’ll tear,
So shall I! Oh, hear my prayer,
Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written).
Made has not the sound of bade,
Say said, pay-paid, laid, but plaid.
Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
But be careful how you speak,
Say break, steak, but bleak and streak.
Previous, precious, fuchsia, via,
Pipe, snipe, recipe and choir,
Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles.
Exiles, similes, reviles.
Wholly, holly, signal, signing.