Unfortunately, when learning the English language – you can’t rely on spelling alone to tell you how to pronounce something correctly. There are lots of words that are spelled similarly but sound different when spoken. Since English words originate from lots of different languages, the English language has grown to incorporate a variety of pronunciation rules that can be quite confusing, even to a native speaker!
If you are learning English as a second language, there is no doubt that its extremely challenging to pick up the 20 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds that make up the language. Like all aspects of learning a language, if you want to get to grips with the many variations and inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation, your best bet is to practise, practise, practise!
Why are so many English words difficult to pronounce?
Even for native English speakers, there are many words in the English language that don’t sound how we would imagine when we first read them on paper. Often, people have a hard time trying to dictate these words when they see them. There are many reasons for these discrepancies, some issues can be put down to the occurrence of:
- Loan words
Although English is one of the most spoken languages in the world, many of the words are taken from other languages. Up to 80% of English vocabulary comes from another language including Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Scandinavian, Sanskrit, Arabic, Russian, Hebrew, Persian and many more.
For example, the word ‘anonymous’ is taken from Greek, ‘loot’ comes from Hindi, ‘safari’ is taken from Arabic, and ‘karaoke’ from Japanese. Since so many words are taken directly or adapted from other languages, English spelling and pronunciation can lack a sense of consistency.
Orthography refers to the conventional method of spelling in a language e.g. in most languages, if you see a word with the letter 'a' you automatically assume it is pronounced like ‘ay’. English uses opaque or deep orthography. Opaque orthography refers to the type of spelling where words are not always pronounced the way they are written. Instead, the rules of pronunciation change dependent on the word. Transparent orthography is where words are pronounced in the way they are spelled.
- Confusion with our native language
If you know more than one language, it is natural to get confused when you start to learn another. People automatically read English words and draw connections to the other languages they know, assuming the words will be pronounced the same.
Many native Spanish and Russian speakers tend to emphasize the r sound. For example, a Spanish language speaker may pronounce the word 'car' as KARR, while English speaking people may pronounce it more like “CAH” or “CAW”. Furthermore, a Scottish person may accentuate the R like a Spanish person does, yet the effect will be totally different.
There are some sounds that prove difficult for non-native English speakers e.g. TH, Z, and KH offer pronunciation difficulties to learners of the English language. When we learn a language, we are using a lot of muscle memory, so we naturally try to incorporate what we know about other language pronunciation into learning a new language. For this reason, over time you will be able to learn new patterns.
How can I improve my pronunciation?
Learning a new language takes a lot of confidence and we know it can feel embarrassing when you mispronounce a word – especially in front of native speakers. However, some words are extremely difficult to pronounce and there is no reason to feel embarrassed. Give yourself some credit for the effort you’re putting in to learn something new, but take the time to learn some of the more difficult words.
It is important to remember that even native English speakers struggle with pronunciation and some words are so commonly mispronounced that the ‘correct’ pronunciation might begin to sound strange. Since the English language is always growing, there are many things that change based on region, culture and time period. Additionally, some people adhere strictly to grammar rules and some are less formal. Although you want to be as accurate as possible, the most important thing when speaking a new language is to make sure you communicate clearly and people can understand you.
Top 10 hardest English words to pronounce:
Common mispronunciation: Threw
Correct pronunciation: Thuh-ruh [ˈθʌrə]
Definition: Thorough means to complete something and do a good job. Although it looks similar to ‘through’ which is pronounced like ‘threw’, it is important to notice the words have different spellings, different pronunciations and different meanings.
- Worcestershire sauce
Common mispronunciation: Wor-cest-er-shi-er
Correct pronunciation: Woo-ster-sher [ˈwʊstəʃə]
Definition: Worcestershire is a place as well as a type of sauce. When talking about the sauce, just say ‘woo-ster-sher’ sauce. Don't pronounce the 'shire', drop the '-shire', you only do this if you are referring to Worcestershire County in England.
Common mispronunciation: Because of their natural accent, Germans or Americans (and also some British people) may naturally pronounce as ‘skworl’
Correct pronunciation: ‘SKWIR-rel’ [ˈskwɪrəl]
Definition: These are small rodents with large fluffy tails that are very common in British wildlife.
Common mispronunciation: This word is generally hard to spell and pronounce, so there are many different ways someone could say this incorrectly!
Correct pronunciation: kuh-loh-kwee-uh-liz-uhm [kəˈləʊkwɪəlɪzm]
Definition: This means a word, phrase, or expression that is conversational rather than formal, e.g. you would use ‘colloquial’ language when talking to a friend but more formal language when writing an essay.
Common mispronunciation: mis-CHEE-vee-uhs (note the extra syllable)
Correct pronunciation: MISS-chuh-vuhs [ˈmɪsʧɪvəs]
Definition: This means to be naughty, annoying or troublemaking. Make sure not to add an extra ‘eeh’ when pronouncing this word.
Common mispronunciation: on-oh-mah-to-poh-eeh-ah
Correct pronunciation: on-oh-mah-to-pay-a [ˌɒnəʊmətəʊˈpi(ː)ə]
Definition: This is a term used in literary analysis that means a word has a sound associated with what is named e.g. sizzle or clap.
Common mispronunciation: This is one of the longest words in the English dictionary and there are many ways it can be mispronounced.
Correct pronunciation: anti-dis-establish-ment-ayr-eeh-ah-nism [ˈæntiˌdɪsɪsˈtæblɪʃməntərɪənɪzm]
Definition: For most people, it's the longest word they know. With so many syllables, this is a tongue twister to get to grips with. Antidisestablishmentarianism means being opposed to the withdrawal of state support from an established church.
Common mispronunciation: ‘Sith’
Correct pronunciation: ‘Six-th’ [sɪksθ]
Definition: Numbers are among the first things students of second languages learn to write and pronounce, so you will very likely know this word. Adding a ‘th’ after an ‘x’ can be tricky for some people new to English because the sound doesn’t come naturally and can trip you up.
Common mispronunciation: naw-zee-us
Correct pronunciation: naw-shus [ˈnɔːziəs]
Definition: Nausea is a sick feeling that can often come from illness, a bad smell or motion sickness.
Common mispronunciation: wed-nes-day
Correct pronunciation: wed-ens-day [ˈwɛnzdeɪ]
Definition: The spelling of this day of the week doesn’t really make sense given how its pronounced, but it’s another word non-native English speakers simply need to learn and get used to pronouncing.
As we have outlined, there is no easy one-size-fits all rule you can learn to make sure you get the pronunciation of these words correct. Additionally, there are many other words in the English language that will easily trip you up if you’re not careful! This shouldn’t be a reason to become demotivated.
Instead, try and learn these 10 difficult-to-pronounce words to begin with. Then, why not try and find your own set of words that might trip up English learners when they are first getting started? As with everything, practice makes perfect and with enough effort – you will become a natural at pronouncing these difficult words correctly in no time!