Why is the English alphabet tricky to read, write and pronounce?

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Of course, this joke is only funny if you know how to correctly read and pronounce the words you’re reading in English.

This reflects a valued skill for ESL speakers – the ability to read outloud fluently in English. In this post, we’ll explore how pronunciation is actually a separate skill from reading and writing.

Reading and writing ….

From a developmental perspective, reading and writing are skills that in general, we learn once we’re well into talking in sentences as young children. Specifically, when we learn to read and write, we access the agreed written code of a particular language. It is a skill that is separate from being able to speak verbally.

The English language is famously tricky when it comes to pronunciation, reading and writing. Why?

First, when we’re reading, written vowels and consonants do not match the sounds we say consistently in English. In other words, there is no 1:1 correspondence between written letters and the sounds we say.

For example:

  • The three c’s in the phrase ‘Pacific Ocean’ are all pronounced differently (‘s’, ‘k’ and ‘sh’ respectively). This lack of consistency is why ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’ are pronounced differently from ‘bomb’.
  • Conversely, when writing, there are sounds we say, like [f], that can be written using different consonant(s) – in this example, ‘f’, ‘ph’ and ‘gh’.

Another source of potential confusion is that the names of letters in the alphabet are different from how we actually say those letters. For example:

  • ‘F’ is called ‘eff’
  • ‘W’ is called ‘double yoo’
  • The letter ‘X’ is pronounced as ‘eks’ apart from when it is pronounced as ‘z’ in ‘xyolophone’. How random is that?!

Last, but not least, syllable structure in English is notoriously complex, for example, in the word ‘jump‘.

My point is that alphabet is the written code for the sounds we say with our mouths when we talk.

These sounds are known as phonemes*.

Pronunciation …

The alphabet is used to represent phonemes on paper – and the rules for reading and writing this code are complicated in English as we’ve seen! Phonemes and how our mouths, tongues and voices produce them are summarised on the International Phonetic Alphabet chart.

So if you want to change your pronunciation or introduce a new pattern, you need to work on how to say phonemes.

Teaching this requires a working knowledge of various subjects including phonology, phonetics, motor programming, perceptual acoustics (how our ears hear and process speech), clinical linguists and psychology.**

This is why Artikul8®’s e-courses focus on consonant phonemes in English that we know ESL speakers don’t use in their home language as a starting point.

For example, the phoneme ‘R’ / ɹ / is not used in Japanese, Cantonese or Mandarin.

It is also why we focus on highly structured listening activities and pronunciation practice through the use of audio and video clips.

This gives our clients the opportunity to:-

  • master listening out for and saying consonant phonemes that don’t exist in their home language, but are used in English.
  • hear and imitate English vowels.
  • hear and imitate intonation, rhythm and stress patterns in English.
  • repeat activities as often as they wish.

Artikul8®’s aim is not to produce clients with no accent in English – accent is a natural part of speech.

However, we do aim to give our clients the confidence, skills and strategies to improve their pronunciation – if they want to!

Ultimately, changing or introducing new pronunciation skills does not require advanced reading and writing skills. It does, however, require highly structured listening and articulation practice.

This means the highly rated skill of being able to fluently read outloud in English requires two things – the ability to pronounce English phonemes AND good literacy skills.

Go to Artikul8®!

* Phoneme. Roach, P. (2011) defines this as “…the fundamental unit of phonology, which has been defined and used in many different ways. Virtually all theories of phonology hold that spoken language can be broken down into a string of sounds units (phonemes), and that each language as a small, relatively fixed set of these phonemes.”

** Topics to be covered / included in future posts.

***(Note: this joke is from just-shower-thoughts)

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