STEPHANIE HANSON: You may have wondered what makes English so difficult for people to master. Grammar, spelling, and vocabulary all contribute to the complexities of English. But I'm going to focus on English pronunciation to give you a better understanding of why this can be a difficult language to speak. When we look at specific sounds, we can find people have problems if they have to start producing a sound they're not used to, a sound that doesn't exist in their native language. For English speakers, you might think of the French R or the Spanish R. Those don't exist in our language. So it's difficult for us to start saying correctly.
Vowels are a very common problem for non-native speakers exactly because of this reason. English has 15 vowel sounds. That's a lot of vowel sounds. Other languages have fewer. And some languages, like Spanish or Japanese, have about five vowel sounds. So someone coming from a different language into English is suddenly faced with a lot of new vowel sounds, many of which they're unfamiliar with, and many of which can be very similar to one another, for example, the "eh" and "ah" sound, as in left and laughed. If I take the sentence "I left when I saw the clown", versus "I laughed when I saw the clown", it completely changes the meaning of the sentence based on that one vowel sound.
Another common vowel difficulty is the "i" and "iy" sounds, as in "it" and "eat" or "lid" and "lead." Some languages have one or the other of these sounds. But I often find that non-native speakers confuse or replace or have difficulties with these two sounds.
Another vowel sound that's difficult for a lot of people is what we call schwa. This is the most common vowel sound in English. And it sounds like "uh." It's always a short, quick, reduced sound. And it's never stressed. It's always unstressed. So if we take a word like "Ithaca", it actually has two schwa sounds. The last two vowel sounds are both schwa. And the first vowel sound is "i", that other difficult sound that I mentioned a little earlier. So what we tend to see with non-native speakers when they're having difficulties with some of our vowels is they're replacing them, and sometimes with a fuller or stronger vowel. So they might say something more like "E-tha-ca", instead of Ithaca, making more reduction and quick, short sounds.
Another reason that people can have difficulty with English sounds is when two sounds are different in English, but they're not differentiated in that person's native language. A common example of this is L And R. Of course, in English, L and R are separate sounds or separate phonemes. And they can make a difference between two words-- "lot" versus "rot." But in Korean, for example, L and R are not separate phonemes. They can be interchanged in a word, and it doesn't change the meaning of the word. So Korean speakers, as well as Japanese speakers or Chinese speakers, often have problems with the L and R distinction in English.
Another common pair of consonants that are difficult for people is L and N. So you might hear confusion between "lot" and "not" or "evil" and "even." This is particularly common for people from southern China, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Another pair of consonant sounds that are difficult are V and W. And we see this in German speakers, Turkish speakers, people who speak Chinese, Hindi, and Persian, among others. So you might hear something more like "ve vill visit the city this veekend" where they're making all V sounds and none of the W sounds, or all W sounds and none of the V sounds, or interchanging the two.
The TH sounds in English are notoriously difficult for non-native speakers. And part of this is because we stick our tongue between our teeth to make the TH sound. It's called an interdental. There aren't a lot of sounds in the world's languages that require a person to move their tongue outside of their mouth. So for many people, this is something very strange and uncomfortable to do. So you may see that a non-native speaker has some kind of substitute for the TH sound in English. They might use an S a Z combination as in "I sink zis is hard." They could use a T or D substitution as in "I tink dis is hard." Or sometimes F or a V sound to substitute-- "I fink vis is hard."
Another difficult thing about English consonants are the consonant clusters, when you have two or more consonants together in a word or phrase. Now different languages allow different combinations of what consonant sounds you can put together. And if a language uses a consonant combination you're not familiar with, there are a couple strategies that speakers use to try to pronounce that combination.
One strategy is to add a sound. And we see this a lot with Spanish speakers in S clusters. In English, of course, we can use S and another consonant at the beginning of a word-- words like "school" or "study." But in Spanish, it's not allowed to have an S cluster at the beginning of a word. There's always an E in front of it. So what you may find if you're talking to a native Spanish speaker in English is that he or she says things like "estudy" or "eschool." They're inserting that extra sound that they're used to in their language to make it an easier combination of sounds to say.
Another thing people might do is to delete sounds. So if we take a word like "belts" that has an L, a T, and an S all together at the end of the word, they could say "bels", "bets", "bet." They're dropping some of the sounds to make it easier for them to say.
Stress and intonation is another factor in English pronunciation that can cause difficulties for non-native speakers in speaking it. Research has shown that this can be even more important than individual sounds. The rhythm, the cadence, the melody of all language is something that we use strongly to identify the language and understand what a person is saying, more so sometimes than individual sounds. Now many languages are syllable timed, which means that every syllable is even. Each syllable has equal stress and an equal amount of time devoted to it.
English isn't like this. English is more like a stress times the language, which means that some words carry stress. And they form the peaks. They're the strong words. While other words, tending to be our grammatical little linking words, are shortened or reduced. And they fill in the space between the more stressed, peaked words. So if we take a sentence like "Cornell University is located in Ithaca, New York", My "is" and "in" are very, very short and soft. They're not stressed at all. And my other words like nouns verbs, adjectives, and adverbs tend to have more stress.
A non-native speaker who comes from a syllable timed language is going to tend to give more even distribution to that stress. So they might say something like "Cor-nell U-ni-ver-si-ty" rather than "Cornell University" because they're trying to make the syllables more even like they're used to.
Now what we typically see with a non-native speaker is a combination of all of these factors. They have some difficulties with specific sounds as well as difficulties with the general stress and rhythm patterns of English. But if you're more familiar with some of these factors, if you're aware of the more common stress, consonant, and vowel difficulties that non-native speakers face, you might find it easier to understand accented English. However, language is not the only factor. Let's turn now to some cultural factors that can also contribute to miscommunications.
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In this Cybertower Study Room, join Stephanie Hanson to learn how to improve our communication with non-native English speakers, explore listening and speaking strategies, and learn about common English difficulties and cultural factors. You'll also hear viewpoints from some international students at Cornell.
Cornell University is committed to providing high-quality education for all students, and the Center for Teaching Excellence's International Teaching Assistant Program plays a vital role in that commitment.
This video 5 of 6 in the Watch Your Language series.