May 7, 2021

English Sounds that are Difficult to Pronounce

There are two factors that affect how difficult English sounds are to pronounce:

  1. The difference between how a word is spelled and how it is said –> For example: “morning” is pronounced how it is written /mɔːnɪŋ/ BUT, “business” is not /bɪznɪs/.
  2. How different the mouth position is in your first language compared to English. So Spanish learners may have difficulty with sounds such as /b/ and /v/ whereas Japanese learners may have more difficulty with /l/ and /r/

However, there are sounds which most learners of English have difficulty with. Focus on these areas and you will be on your way to clearer pronunciation.

To listen to the sounds mentioned in this post, download The Sounds of British English app: for IOS  or   for Android

  1. The ‘Shwa’ sound

The ‘schwa’ or /ə/ is the most common sound in English.

It can be represented by the letters ‘er’ when it is the unstressed syllable. e.g. “computer” is pronounced /cɒmp’ju:tə/

The sound is short and relaxed. Don’t confuse this with the long sound /ɜː/ as in “bird”  /bɜːd/

The shwa is also used in place of other vowels in unstressed syllables. e.g. “problem” /’prɒbləm/ ,  “arrest” /ə’rest/ , “opinion” /ə’pɪnjən/

If you get this sound right, your pronunciation and rhythm will sound more natural.

2. Short sounds vs long sounds

In English, the short vowel sounds are: /æ/ /e/ /ɪ/  /ɒ/  /ʌ/   /ʊ/   /ə/  – which are usually represented by the letters a, e, i, o, u, oo, and the shwa sound (see previous point)

Example words with short vowels are:  bat /bæt/,   bet/bet/,   bit /bɪt/,   got /gɒt/,   gut /gʌt/,   good /gʊd/

In English, the short vowels are relaxed so make sure your mouth is relaxed and you cut the sounds short.

The long vowel sounds are: /iː/ /ɑː/ /ɜː/ /ɔː/ /uː/ – which are often represented by the letters ee, ar, ir, or, oo

Example words with long sounds are: tree/triː/,    car /kɑː/,    bird /bɜːd/,    horn/hɔːn/,     moon/muːn/

The long vowels are less relaxed and longer. Make sure they are longer than the short vowels and the same length as the diphthongs (see next point)

Practise saying words that differ just by the vowel sound. For example: fit /fɪt/ (short) and feet /fiːt/ (long)

3. Long sounds vs diphthongs

So we know that a long sound is ONE sound held for longer than a short sound.

BUT, a diphthong is made of TWO short sounds said very quickly together:

They include:  /aɪ/ /eɪ/ /juː/ /əʊ/ /ɪə/ /eə/ /ɔɪ/ /aʊ/ – they are often represented by the letters ie, ai, u, oa, ear, air, oy, ow

Example words are:    tie /taɪ/,    rain /reɪn/,     tube /tjuːb/,    boat /bəʊt/,     fear /fɪə/,    hair/heə/,     boy /bɔɪ/,      cow /caʊ/

When you say these sounds, make sure your mouth moves from one position to another. They should be the same length as long sounds.

4. Consonant clusters

Consonant sounds are made by trapping and/or releasing air through different parts of the mouth. These include the lips, teeth, tongue and throat.

English has many words with ‘consonant clusters’ – 2 or more consonant sounds said together

e.g. /sn/ as in snake

/sp/ as in spice

/bl/ as in blue

/br/ as in breeze

/fl/ as in float

/fr/ as in free

/sps/ as in crisps

/skw/ as in squirrel

/sks/ as in tasks

Practise making the individual sounds first. Next, say them quickly together in the consonant cluster. Listen to example words with these sounds and repeat.

5. The ‘th’ sounds – voiced and unvoiced

The ‘th’ sound is a rare sound. It doesn’t exist in many languages and, in others, it is found in a different position. So where in English ‘th’ can be at the beginning, middle or end of words; in some languages, it may only appear in the middle.

There is a voiced version /ð/ as in ‘that’ /ðæt/   or    ‘the’ /ðə/   <—When you say this sound, your vocal cords vibrate

..and an unvoiced version /θ/  as in ‘think’  /θɪnk/    or   ‘teeth‘. /ti:θ/ <— When you say this sound, your mouth is in the same position but your vocal cords DON’T vibrate.

Many learners feel uncomfortable making the sound because it requires you to slightly stick out the tip of your tongue between your teeth.

If the tongue is behind the teeth the voiced sound can sound like /d/ ‘dat’ and the unvoiced sound can sound like /s/ ‘sink’

When you say this sound, make sure the tip of the tongue rests lightly between the top and bottom teeth and the air flows over it.

The good news is, most people will understand you if you pronounce this sound incorrectly, so if you don’t get it exactly right, don’t worry too much!

Of course, people with different accents will say the sounds slightly differently. However, the key to being understood is:

  1. Make sure the sounds are different from each other
  2. Be consistent in the way you pronounce each sound

To practise the sounds of English and to learn the IPA symbols that represent them, download The Sounds of British English App:

You can download:

Here for IOS

Here for Android

Or get in touch for personalised pronunciation training.