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Why You’re Having Trouble Pronouncing Words in American English

If you’re having trouble pronouncing words in English, you’re not alone.

When we’re learning a language, we spend so much time getting the grammar, the vocabulary and the expressions right.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much time for working on the pronunciation of sounds or the music of the language.

Besides that, it’s totally natural for your native language to influence the way you speak English.

That said, some of these differences between your native language and English can make it more challenging to clearly pronounce words.

That’s why I’m going to talk about some of the reasons you’re having trouble pronouncing words in English, and share some tips that can help you feel more confident about your pronunciation.

So let’s get started!


English Isn’t a Phonetically Consistent Language

It’s important to understand that English is not a phonetically consistent language.

That means you can’t simply look at a word and know how to pronounce it.

English has imported so many words from other languages, including Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, and more.

Think of words like:

  • philosophy,
  • labor,
  • magnificent,
  • kindergarten,
  • chocolate, and
  • sofa.

In many cases, English has kept the original spelling of these words, even if the way we pronounce them is different.

In other cases, the way we pronounce the sounds has evolved over time, but the words have kept the same spelling.

For example, people used to pronounce the <gh> sounds in the words “light,” “night,” and “right.”

The “k” in the words “know,” “knee,” and “knife” wasn’t always silent.

This leads to many possible spellings for vowel sounds, and many possible pronunciations for letters and letter combinations.

If you speak a phonetically consistent language like Arabic, German, Korean, or Spanish, you’re used to looking at a word and pretty much knowing how to say it.

Unfortunately, if you’re trying to pronounce words phonetically in English, you’ll run into ones that sound nothing like they look.

Some classic examples of words that don’t sound how you’d expect are:

  • thought,
  • throughout,
  • know,
  • conscience,
  • Wednesday,
  • island,
  • handkerchief,
  • queue,
  • buffet,
  • even language!

Once you accept that words will sound different than they look, it’ll be easier to say them clearly.

The good news is that there are guidelines and tendencies that can help you predict how to say a word, but just remember that you’ll also come across many exceptions.


English is a Stress-Timed Language

The next thing to understand is that English is a stress-timed language.

This means that one syllable or one beat of every word will be pronounced more clearly and obviously than the rest.

More specifically, the vowel sound in this syllable will be the longest, the loudest, and the highest in pitch.

Listen to how I say these words in the video:

  • free,
  • move,
  • today,
  • cloudy,
  • understand,
  • notify,
  • solution,
  • variety,
  • negotiate.

Can you hear how one syllable stands out more than the rest?

This stressed syllable is essential for clear pronunciation.

We listen for this particular syllable to identify a word.

To focus attention on this stressed syllable, we relax on the rest of the syllables so they don’t stand out as much.

Other syllables are de-emphasized or even reduced.

For example, listen to how quickly we move through the first syllable of these words:

  • today /təˈdeɪ/
  • understand /ˌʌndərˈstænd/
  • solution /səˈluʃən/
  • variety /vəˈraɪəti/
  • negotiate /nɪˈgoʊʃiˌeɪt/

The vowel sounds are reduced; they’re very relaxed and almost indistinct.

Many languages are syllable-timed, which means they’re more or less evenly pronounced.

For example, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Italian, Cantonese, and Turkish are all syllable-timed languages.

When you’re used to clearly distinguishing each and every syllable of a word, it can influence how you’re pronouncing words in English.

First of all, it’s more work for you to give equal attention to each syllable in English.

Your mouth might feel tired after a few hours of speaking.

Stress and reductions help us move through words more efficiently.

Besides that, if you stress a different syllable than expected, it can lead to some confusion about which word you said.


Examples of How Stress Affects Pronunciation of Words

Let’s look at some examples.

If you’ve ever had trouble distinguishing between the teens and the tens, it may actually have been how you stressed the number.

Consider how we stress fifty and fifteen.

Fifty (50) is stressed on the first syllable: FIFty or /ˈfɪfti/.

Fifteen (15) is stressed on the second syllable: fifTEEN or /fɪfˈtin/.

These two similar looking words have different stress: desert and dessert.

The sandy location is stressed on the first syllable: DEsert or /ˈdɛzərt/.

The vowel sound of that first syllable is clear: DEsert, /ˈdɛzərt/.

On the other hand, the delicious treat is stressed on the second syllable: desSERT or /dɪˈzɜrt/.

The first syllable is more subtle and almost disappears behind the stressed one: desSERT, /dɪˈzɜrt/.

When we have words that can be either a noun or a verb, the stressed syllable indicates the part of speech.

When you’re talking about getting a permit that allows you to do something, you’ll stress the first syllable: PERmit or /ˈpɜrˌmɪt/.

When someone gives you permission to do something, they permit it, with stress on the second syllable: perMIT or /pərˈmɪt/.

When you make note of something for the future, you create a record with stress on the first syllable: REcord or /ˈrɛkərd/.

When you capture something in writing, video, or audio format, you record it, with stress on the second syllable: reCORD or /rɪˈkɔrd/.

Even though the difference may sound subtle, getting the stress right helps people follow what you mean.

If you’ve ever been asked to repeat a word, it may have actually had to do with how you stressed the word, not necessarily your pronunciation of the sounds of the word.

For even more guidance, check out this video on how to find your flow when speaking English.


Stress Patterns Vary Between Languages

If you speak a stress-timed language, you’re familiar with how stress works.

But you might be used to following different guidelines for which syllable should be stressed.

You may have more consistent rules in your language.

For example, the first syllable of every word may be stressed, or the second to last syllable may be emphasized instead.

Words that look similar in your language and English may be stressed on a different syllable than you expect.

For example, many Romance languages have words that end in -ion. It might be spelled like -ión or -ão, but the ending is the same.

In English, “communication” is stressed on the second to last syllable (communiCAtion or /kəˌmjunɪˈkeɪʃən/), whereas in French, Spanish and Portuguese, the similar looking word is emphasized on the last syllable.

If you’re pronouncing “communication” as communicaTION, it makes the word a little challenging to decipher.

Similarly, if you’re pronouncing university as universiTY, it will take extra time for people to process the word.

That’s even if your pronunciation of the individual sounds is precise and accurate.

Because you’re so used to saying these common words one way, it can take some time to retrain your mouth to stress them the American English way.

I encourage you to start an ongoing list of words that look and sound similar in your native language and English.

Figure out how they should be stressed in English and practice stressing them on the right syllable.

(The strategy I share in this video should help.)

You’re retraining your brain to switch over to the English pronunciation of the word when you’re operating in English.


Remember to Lengthen Stressed Syllables

I find that a lot of people struggle to lengthen stressed syllables.

It probably feels more comfortable to use your pitch and volume instead, as these are also used for emphasis in many languages besides English.

However, lingering on stressed vowels is essential for that contrast that makes your pronunciation extra clear.

American English is all about contrast.

You want to hooooold that stressed vowel sound.

You can do less work on less important syllables, even relaxing your mouth.

As an added bonus, your mouth will probably feel less tired after pronouncing English words!

Let’s look at how you can hold the stress syllable in these examples:

  • free: FREE or /fri/
  • move: MOVE or /muv/
  • today: toDAY or /təˈdeɪ/
  • cloudy: CLOUDy or /ˈklaʊdi/
  • understand: underSTAND or /ˌʌndərˈstænd/
  • notify: NOtify or /ˈnoʊtəˌfaɪ/
  • solution: soLUtion or /səˈluʃən/
  • variety: vaRIety or /vəˈraɪəti/
  • negotiate: neGOtiate or /nɪˈgoʊʃiˌeɪt/

Get Comfortable with Sounds That Are Different in English

It’s totally normal to find some sounds tricky to say in English, especially if you don’t have them in your native language.

The voiceless “th” /θ/ and voiced “th” /ð/ sounds come to mind.

Or maybe your language substitutes the /aʊ/ or /w/ sound for /l/, or you’re used to rolling or trilling your /r/s, or you pronounce the /v/ as /b/, or you say /j/ instead of /dʒ/.

You want to identify which sounds are often substituted from your native language, and try to get them closer to how they’re pronounced in English.

You may have to practice darting your tongue between your teeth when saying words like “think” (/θɪŋk/) or “there” (/ðɛr).

When you come to the end of the word “civil” (/ˈsɪvəl/), make sure to complete the word by creating that /l/ sound.

You might need to get comfortable with the weird way we form the American “r” (/ɹ/).

Try baring your teeth like an angry animal or a pirate when you come across the /ɹ/ sound.

This is especially helpful when you have consonant clusters at the beginning of words, such as “great” (/greɪt/), “drive” (/draɪv/), “try” (/traɪ/), “street” (/strit/).

Make sure to distinguish between the /v/ sound with your front teeth touching your bottom lip, and the /b/ sound with both lips touching.

There should be a clear difference between how you say “very” (/ˈvɛri/) and how you say “berry” (/ˈbɛri/).

Notice if you pronounce “year” (/jɪr/) with a /dʒ/ sound instead of the /j/, or if you pronounce “joke” (/dʒoʊk/) with a /j/ sound instead of the /dʒ/.

Depending on your language, you may be tempted to add an /i/ sound before /s/, or to add a quick sound between consonants, or to add a bonus sound at the end of a word in order to transition between words.

For example, you may be tempted to say “speak” as “espeak,” “laptop” as “lapitopi,” or “watch” as “watchee.”

These are totally logical substitutions and changes that come from how sounds are produced in your native language.

If you find that someone doesn’t understand certain words you say, consider whether they have anything in common.

If you catch yourself making these changes, you can try to repeat the word without the extra sound.

Even better, you can clarify what you mean by describing the word.

Ultimately, the goal is to help people understand you and your ideas, not to get sounds perfect or precisely right 100% of the time.


Pay Attention to Beginnings and Endings of Words

I encourage you to pay special attention to sounds at the beginning of words, especially if they’re ones that are tricky for you.

Because we hear the sounds at the beginning of the words first, it’s important to say them as clearly as possible.

They help people catch the word you’re using.

The end of the word also matters, since the ending can signal whether the word is plural, in the past tense, or simply let us know if the word is complete.

If you speak a language where you have a tendency to drop, fade off or clip the ending of a word, become more aware of whether you’re also doing this in English.

Be sure to finish the -ed ending for the verbs, look and plan: looked (/lʊkt/) and planned (/plænd/).

If you’re saying plurals, keep the -s/-es ending, such as when you’re saying “maps” (/mæps/) or “ideas” (/aɪˈdiəz/).

If you have trouble with certain consonant clusters at the end of words, slow down and give them a little more time.

For example, make sure your mouth ends up in the /t/ position at the end of words like “product” (/ˈprɑdəkt/) and “journalist” (/ˈdʒɜrnəlɪst/).

It’s especially important to finish a word when you come to the end of an idea or sentence.

This is when the word stands out the most!


Notice Similarities and Differences Between Languages

As you can tell, many of these tips encourage you to become more aware of the similarities and differences between how you say sounds and stress syllables in your native language and English.

Ultimately, the goal is to find the differences that are most likely to lead to misunderstandings and work on those.

Listen for patterns and see if you can make any adjustments that will help you feel more confident about how you sound.

Remember, you don’t have to pronounce sounds perfectly in English to be understood.

You’re simply doing your part to help people follow what you’re saying so that your ideas are what they’re focusing on.


Focus on Words You Use All the Time

Focus your attention on the words you’re most likely to use in your everyday life, at work, at school, in social situations, and so on.

I often tell people to make a list of words they use all the time and figure out how to stress them correctly.

If you work in a certain field where you say the same words over and over and over, you may be rushing through them and not really lingering on the stressed syllable.

Consider how often you say words like prescription, appointment, technical, assistance, representative, installation, industrial, and optimize.

Over time, your mouth has probably found some shortcuts to say the words more quickly, especially if they’re similar in your native language.

But if you find that people aren’t able to understand important terms you use in your field, it may be that you simply need to say them more slowly and deliberately.

Remember, you may be extremely familiar with the topic you’re discussing, but it may be completely new to the other person.

If you make an effort to make sure your pronunciation of these words is extra clear, then they’ll appreciate it!

If you want to figure out how to clearly say new, unfamiliar, and tricky words, check out this video.

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