English has been called one of the most difficult languages to learn, and one of the most common mistakes among new learners involves pronunciation. Mispronunciation can result from a poor grasp of phonics, unusual spellings, misunderstanding of words and phrases in context, or confusing letter sounds or combinations for non-native speakers.
Poor Grasp of Phonics
Some commonly mispronounced words stem from a misunderstanding of how letters and combinations of letters are pronounced. One example is the word "ask" which is often mispronounced as "ax" because of a reversal of the "s" and "k" sounds in the word. A similar error occurs with "escape," which some mispronounce as "escape." Two commonly mispronounced words are "February" and "library" which often become "Feb-you-ary" and "liberry" because of a failure to pronounce the "r" after the "b" in each word. Words like "jewelry" and "miniature" are often mispronounced because of dropped syllables. "Jewelry" has three syllables but is often mispronounced as "jewlry." "Miniature" is commonly mistaken as "miniture."
Some words are mispronounced due to their unusual spellings. One commonly mispronounced word is "often." The "t" is silent, but people sometimes pronounce it in speech. Other problematic words are "hyperbole" and "epitome," which go against the standard English rule of the final "e" being silent in a word. In these two words, the final "e" is pronounced. A very unusual spelling is the word "colonel" which is pronounced "kernel."
Misunderstanding of Words and Phrases
Other pronunciation problems occur when words or phrases are simply misunderstood in context. One example is the phrase "for all intents and purposes." This is often misspoken as "for all intensive purposes." Some mispronunciations stem from the use of non-words. "Nother" is one such example. It happens most often when people say "That's a whole nother story," when what they mean to say is "other." Another example is the use of the non-word "irregardless," when "regardless" is the true word. Confusion exists between the words "liable" and "libel," causing mispronunciation problems. "Liable" is pronounced as three syllables, with the "a" pronounced as "uh"; it means "responsible for" or "likely to." "Libel" is a legal term for the maligning of someone's character through falsehoods.
Confusing Letter Sounds and Combinations
Non-native speakers may struggle with pronouncing certain letter sounds and letter combinations in English. One example is the "th" sound. This can be a voiced sound as in "this" or a voiceless sound as in "thick." It is a blend of sounds and not pronounced as a "t." A common problem for speakers of Asian languages is the confusion of the sounds "l" and "r," as there is no distinction between these two sounds in many Asian dialects. Therefore, "lollipop" becomes "rorripop" and "riddle" becomes "liddle." Another confusing set of letters are the w and v sounds: Speakers of Germanic languages may have trouble distinguishing between these two sounds; thus "supervisor" becomes "superwisor" and "water" becomes "vahter."
Diane Kampf has more than 20 years of teaching experience ranging from middle school to college freshmen. She holds a Master of Arts degree in creative writing and English literature and a New York State Secondary Teacher Certificate. She has written educational materials for Learning Express, LLC, Kaplan and Pearson.