The Speech Sounds that Make English Hard to Learn
Uncommon English Speech Sounds that Make the Language Unique
Learning how English compares to other languages can actually help us learn other languages. And it can make us appreciate the wide diversity among the languages of the world. Using WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures online, as well as this interactive chart of consonants and vowels, let’s explore some of the unusual and not-so-unusual sounds of English.
WALS is a large database about the properties of languages. Published and maintained by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, it compares the important grammatical properties of languages and allows users to explore those properties in interactive maps. Properties examined include sentence word order, the presence or absence of particular words, how words are put together, and the language’s sound.
What is a Phoneme
Here we’ll be looking at language sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are distinct units of sound that distinguish one word from another. In English, the words ‘bat’ and ‘pat’ mean different things and are only differentiated by /b/ and /p/, indicating that these sounds are separate phonemes. The system of speech sounds is called phonology.
A language with very different phonemes than our native language can be challenging to learn. The US State Department describes Mandarin and Cantonese as exceptionally difficult for native English speakers to learn, whereas Spanish and Norwegian are easier for native English speakers. One difficulty that English speakers learning Mandarin face is the many phonological differences between the two languages.
The sounds of our native language can affect how we learn the sounds of other languages. Let’s look at some of the unusual aspects of English phonology as compared to the rest of the world.
English Vowel Sounds
Vowels: English has a large number of vowels compared to other languages, ‘large’ defined by WALS as more than 7 vowels. An ‘average’ number of vowels is 5 or 6. Although we only have five written vowels (a e i o u), English has 14-21 different vowel sounds, depending on the dialect.
Although English has a lot of vowel sounds, most of the vowels themselves aren’t particularly unusual. It doesn’t have any front rounded vowels, which are fairly uncommon in the world’s languages. Front vowels are said with the tongue near the front of the mouth, and rounded vowels have rounding of the lips when pronounced.
Front Rounded Vowels in German and French
Front rounded vowels are found in German and French, which both have the vowels /y/, /ø/, and /œ/. To hear what these vowels sound like, click the corresponding symbols in this chart. Because English doesn’t have them, their presence in German and French, which many English speakers learn as second languages, can present a challenge.
English Consonant Sounds
Consonants: English has an average-sized consonant inventory or about 22 consonants. The Rotokas language of Papua New Guinea has only six consonants, which is the smallest number of any language.
English has two consonants that are unusual among languages. These are the ‘th’ sounds, as in ‘thunder’ or ‘think’. Of the world’s languages, only 8% have ‘th’ sounds. Historically, ‘th’ sounds often come from ’t’ or ‘d’ sounds. This happened independently in English, Spanish, and Tashelhiyt (Berber; Morocco).
Another slightly unusual sound found in English is /ŋ/, often written as ‘ng’, and found in words like ‘wing’ or ‘singing.’ This sound is called ‘engma.’ About half of languages have this phoneme. Many languages allow this ‘ng’ sound at the beginning of a word, but you’ll never find it there in English.
WALS lists more phonemic features, like tone, vowel nasalization, and different types of consonants, that can be explored.
Comparing English Sounds to Other Languages
Comparing the sounds of English to other languages can help us understand and appreciate some of the oddities of our language, like its large number of vowels or uncommon ‘th’ sounds. In doing so we can also learn more about what sounds are common or unusual in languages spoken around the world.
Comparing the sounds of many languages tells us more about what’s possible in language and helps determine which sounds make a language unique. We tend to think that our native language is normal and everyone else’s is weird, but by comparing linguistic features we can see that all languages have a little weirdness in them.