Why Is English Pronunciation So Hard?

It’s true that we have a lot of sounds, words, and phrases in English that are difficult to pronounce, especially if your native language is very different. But is that what really makes English pronunciation so hard?

Think about it: You’ve probably practiced a lot of English words and phrases on their own, but when you’re putting them together, have you ever gotten tongue-tied, or just tired, when you’re trying to speak?

Here’s the thing: It’s not just about being able to pronounce a few difficult English words and sounds. It’s about training and strengthening your jaw muscles over time until, eventually, you can put those sounds together to speak English with more ease and fluency.

And that can be really hard!

That gets even more difficult when you feel embarrassed or frustrated by your pronunciation, or when you feel others misunderstand you.

That’s why, today, we’re going to take a look at the features of English that make pronunciation so hard. We’re going to take a close look at:

  • Difficult English sounds and why they’re so difficult

  • Why word stress can be confusing

  • Why there are so many words that don’t “follow the rules” of English pronunciation

So, if you’re ready to dive deeper into the tricky aspects of English pronunciation, let’s get started!

Why English Pronunciation is So Hard

Why are some English words so difficult to pronounce?

In general, you’ll find that English consonants and vowels are difficult to pronounce because of all the work that we’re asking your brain and jaw muscles to do at the same time! 

This is why training and practice are so important: You’re not just training your brain, you’re training your actual mouth muscles, too. And you’re training them to work together so well that you don’t have to think about pronunciation all the time.

So, let’s start by breaking English pronunciation down into its more difficult sounds so that you can see, at a fundamental level, what makes each sound so tricky.

Ending words with consonants

Depending on your native language, it can be hard to master ending consonant sounds because many languages don’t end words with consonants.

This only gets more difficult when you look at the different ways we pronounce the ending “s.”

When we make things plural, as in “cats and dogs” or when we put second person verbs in the simple present, like “He works” and “She plays,” we can use a few different sounds:

  • An unvoiced s, as in “cats” - / s /

  • A voiced s or z sound, as in “dogs” - / z /

  • A combination of the short i and z sound, as in “places” - / ɪz /

We encounter the same issue with -ed endings. Here, the pronunciation of -ed depends on the ending sound of the word. -Ed can sound like:

  • A combination of the short i and the d sound - / ɪd /

  • A t sound

  • A d sound

But s and -ed  aren’t the only consonants we end words with, of course.

Because so many languages don’t end words with consonants, English learners often make mistakes when they try to pronounce ending sounds. For example, they might:

  • Drop the consonant sound completely.

  • Try to add a vowel sound at the end.

  • Pronounce the consonant incorrectly or more like another consonant.

If this is a challenge for you, start by practicing with ending sounds and seeing where your issues are. 

Now that you know what some common mistakes are, you can focus on your mistakes. Start by isolating words and sounds, then try to create sentences that have a lot of consonant sounds. Or, try these tongue twisters :

  • Six Czech cricket critics.

  • A happy hippo hopped and hiccupped.

  • She sees cheese.

  • GameStop stock shares shocker.

Repeat these phrases a few times before you have to start speaking, or practice saying them in the shower or when you’re driving in the car! This will help you strengthen the mouth muscles you need to make these sounds as well as create muscle memory that makes pronunciation easier in the future.

L and r sounds

You’ve probably noticed from experience that the r sound, especially in North American English pronunciation, is one of the most challenging sounds to master.

This might be because you pronounce r in a completely different way in your native language. Or it might be because your native language doesn’t even have an r sound.

So, what makes the English r hard? When we make the r sound, we’re asking the tongue to do quite a bit of work. The middle and front of the tongue curl up and touch the roof of the mouth, and the sides of the tongue touch the sides of the mouth. You might feel the temptation to drop the jaw, but you don’t really need to.

It gets trickier when you combine r with another consonant like d or t. Your brain might get confused about which sound to focus on.

And, when it comes to the l sound, many English learners often confuse the l and r sound because they both involve a curling of the tongue.

When you practice these sounds, start slow and small. Again, start by isolating the sounds and repeating them in simple words or short phrases. 

Nasal sounds with m, n, and ng 

Nasal sounds are tricky because of the work that it takes to make them. And, in English, we have three of them:

  • M as in mom - / m /

  • N as in nice - / n / 

  • Ng as in English - / ŋ /

And for many learners, nasal sounds can be confusing when they come at the ends of words. For example, if you speak a language in which you sometimes end words on an n, but never an m, you might often say “son-tine” instead of “some-time.”

Then, when it comes to words with two different nasal sounds, you might accidentally want to say “mam” instead of “man” simply because you’re focusing so hard on that one nasal sound.

What makes them so tricky? Well, nasal sounds are similar, but slightly different, especially the n and ng sound. 

We make the m and n sounds by:

  • holding our lips together (for m) 

  • or putting our tongue on the bridge of our mouth behind our teeth (for n) 

Then, we block the air from coming out of our mouths, and we vibrate our vocal cords. You should be able to feel the vibration in your nose.

But, we don’t make the ng sound by adding a g to the end sound.

To create the ng sound, we relax and lower the jaw, lift the back of the tongue to roof the mouth, then move the back of the tongue and part of the throat quickly to create the hard g sound. At the same time, we vibrate our vocal cords. That’s a lot of work for one sound!

And then, of course, we add this sound to other difficult consonant and vowel sounds.

But, thankfully, we have a lot of ng words in English, including the word “English,” so you have plenty of opportunities to practice with words like:

  • Thing

  • Finger

  • English

  • Language

  • Anger

Keep this in mind: In North American pronunciation, we don’t focus so much on the vowel sound that comes before the ng sound. We seem to like that nasal sound. So, in order to sound more natural, focus your attention on making ng sound in a word such as English rather than the vowel sound that comes before it.

Th sounds

There are a few reasons why this sound can be so hard to pronounce in English.

And we actually have two th sounds:

  • An unvoiced th, as in thick - / θ /

  • A voiced th, as in this - / ð /

They’re both difficult to pronounce for English learners because many learners don’t have this sound in their native language. So, they might these mistakes:

  • Replace the th with a d or t, and say “mudder” instead of “mother”

  • Replace the th with an s or z sound and say “zis” instead of “this”

  • Replace the th with an f sound and say “firsty” instead of “thirsty.”

If you make mistakes with these two sounds, don’t be discouraged. Even the most advanced speakers have a hard time with these two. And, even if they can get the th sound, they might sometimes make the mistake of replacing the voiced sound with the unvoiced sound.

Fortunately, just like the ng sound, English speakers seem to love the th sound and have created so many words with it! 

In order to practice and improve with this sound, find a short article or story, and underline or highlight all the words with the th sound. Then, practice reading it out loud. Highlighting the text will allow you to focus your attention on the th sound so that you make sure you say it correctly every time.

Diphthongs

If you’ve never heard of diphthongs before, they’re the sounds that you get when you put two vowels together. And some of them are fairly easy, such as:

  • The ee in feet - / iː /

  • The oo in shoot - / uː /

But there are more difficult diphthongs like:

  • The ay sound in high - / aɪ /

  • The ow sound in show - / oʊ /

  • The ou sound in found - / aʊ /

  • The ai sound in wait - / eɪ /

  • The oi sound in toy - / oɪ /

What makes them hard? In English, diphthongs require a lot of mouth movement of the tongue and lips, which makes them challenging if you speak a language that doesn’t require a lot of movement to produce vowel sounds.

If diphthongs are hard for you, it’s probably because you need to practice strengthening your tongue and lip muscles. And a fun way to do that is to sing songs! 

We love vowel sounds and diphthongs in English songs because they’re easy for holding a long note. That’s why you’ll find a lot more opportunities to practice diphthongs in a song. 

So, you should definitely download our free song worksheets if you’re looking for English songs to sing, complete with links to videos, lyrics, and vocabulary practice!

The uh in under and the uh in foot

These are probably two of the most difficult vowel sounds to make in English. 

You’ll find the uh or the schwa (/ ə /) sound in words like:

  • The

  • About

  • Under

And you’ll find the other uh sound (/ ʊ /) in words like

  • Put

  • Foot

  • Should

What makes them hard?

Depending on your native language, you might be tempted to replace the schwa sound with a pure, long vowel sound like ah or eh.

And you might want to replace the ʊ sound with a pure u sound.  And, while that may not change the meaning of the word, it wouldn’t be quite right, either.

So, how can you practice with this sound? This is a good opportunity to practice with minimal pairs, which are words that have only one different sound:

  • Mud and mood

  • Fool and full

  • Luck and look

  • Done and dune

You might also like: Your Ultimate Guide to Pronunciation Rules in English

Why word stress can be confusing

Another aspect of English pronunciation that makes it so hard is syllable stress. 

As an English learner, have you ever used the correct word, but you stressed the wrong syllable, and someone pointed it out? 

It seems like something that shouldn’t make a difference, but it sometimes does.

Single syllable words, like “cat” and “dog” are of course, simple. We don’t need to worry about which syllable to stress because there’s only one.

But what about words like:

  • Present

  • Effect

  • Adult

Thankfully, there are a few general tendencies and patterns you can follow. Of course, it’s better not to think of them as rules because there are a lot of exceptions:

When it comes to two-syllable nouns and adjectives, we usually put the stress on the first syllable:

  • EX - port

  • CON - tract

  • OB - ject

  • PRES - ent

But, when it comes to two-syllable verbs, we usually put the stress on the second syllable. So, when you have a word that can be both a noun and a verb, the stress changes:

  • pre - SENT

  • ex - PORT

  • obj - ECT

  • con - TRACT

Ok, but what if a word has more than two syllables?

If the word ends in -ic or -tion we put the accent on the second to last syllable

  • ge - o - GRAPH - ic

  • al - co - HOL - ic

  • ter - RIF - ic

  • rel - ax - A - tion

  • sit - u - A - tion

  • ab - bre - vi - A - tion

If the word ends in -cy, -ty, -phy, -gy, or -al, we put the stress on the third to last syllable:

  • dem - O - cra - cy

  • pho - TO - gra - phy

  • ge - O - lo - gy

  • le - GAL - i - ty

  • CRI - ti - cal

  • po - LI - ti - cal

With compound nouns, which is a word created by two words put together, we put the stress on the first part of the word:

  • RAIN - bow

  • FIRE - man

  • FLASH - light

With compound adjectives and verbs, however, you’ll put the stress on the second part of the word:

  • quick - WIT - ted

  • good - NAT - ured

  • with - STAND

  • over - FLOW

As I said, there are so many exceptions to this rule, and it’s also true that U.S. and U.K. English speakers don’t exactly agree on which syllable they should stress. That’s why, sometimes, you’ll hear:

  • AD - ver - tise - ment (U.S.) versus ad - VERT - ise - ment

  • caf - FIENE (U.S.) versus CAF - fiene (U.K.)

  • ad - ULT (U.S.) versus AD - ult (U.K.)

So, if you’re confused sometimes, it’s okay! It turns out that native speakers are, too.

You should also check out: How to Improve Your English Pronunciation in 7 Easy Steps

Why are there so many words that don’t “follow the rules” of English pronunciation?

If you’ve ever shaken your head when you read all the different English words that seem to “break the rules” of pronunciation, you’re not alone.

Native speakers are equally frustrated, and we often joke about how it doesn’t seem to make sense.

But there is in fact a “logic” behind why we have so many strange pronunciation rules. 

Firstly, English is a language that has been heavily influenced over many centuries by other languages and by the rules of languages such as German, Latin, French.

Secondly, English linguists believe that something strange happened to the language during the centuries of Middle English: The Great Vowel Shift

Essentially, linguists believe that over the course of three centuries, from around the 15th to 18th century, the pronunciation of long vowels of English changed so that they were pronounced using a lower part of the tongue and mouth to a higher part.

Basically, the vowels shifted upwards. This meant that the long vowels in the words like sweet, which use to rhyme with fate, shifted so that it now rhymes with feet.

This also meant that words like good, blood, and food actually used to rhyme at one point before they changed as well. So, what happened? 

Before the printing press, English texts were handwritten according to the way scribes pronounced them and spelled them. And, when the Great Vowel Shift began, the spellings of some words had begun to change according to their new pronunciation.

But, when the printing press came along, the printers were not aware of all the new spellings and pronunciation shifts that had begun to take place. So, they began printing more texts according to the pre-shift spellings of words.

And, because more people were able to read, and because book production was increasing, they didn’t want to take the time or effort to change all the spellings to reflect their new pronunciation.

So, in the end, linguists and historians believe that it was probably the shift in English pronunciation, the inconsistent changes in spelling, and the increase of literacy and spelling awareness that have probably given us difficult words like:

  • Women (pronounced WIMM - in) and woman (pronouned WʊM - ən)

  • Heart (pronounced Hɒrt ), heard (pronunced Hərd) and beard (pronounced Beerd)

This, combined with influences from other languages, is also probably the reason we have so many words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently:

  • Read (Reed) and read (red)

  • Lead (Leed) and lead (led)

And why we have so many words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same:

  • Vain, vein, and vane

  • Meet and meat

  • Flower and flour

  • One and won

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Well, if it’s so difficult, how can I improve my pronunciation?

Record yourself speaking for a few minutes every week

When you’re feeling a bit shy about your speaking, recording yourself is a great way to practice. And you don’t have to show it to anyone if you don’t want to! But, after you record yourself, you can listen to the recording a couple of times so that you get a sense of the sounds, words, or phrases that are the hardest for you.

Read out loud

This is a great thing to do if you don’t have a lot of extra time and if you like reading in English, but hate speaking. Grab that book, article, poetry, or whatever it is you’re reading at the moment, and start reading it out loud!

In the beginning, you can commit to reading a couple of paragraphs out loud. It can be tiring for your facial muscles and your lungs when you first start. But, as you build up stamina, build on your habit by reading more and more of the content out loud.

If you’re worried that others will hear you, try whispering or talking really quietly! It’s not quite the same, but it’s still good practice.

Use the ELSA pronunciation app to focus on the sounds that are hardest for you

We really like the ELSA pronunciation app because of the way it focuses on each individual learner’s needs. 

Basically, ELSA is designed so that, if you take the free pronunciation test and assess your level, you’ll only spend time working on the sounds, words, and phrases that are hardest for you. It’s also created for learners who don’t have a lot of extra free time to practice.

We’re so sure that ELSA will add value to our readers’ lives that we’ve decided to partner with them so that you can get access to an 80% discount on a lifetime membership to ELSA Pro .

This means you’ll have lifetime access to video tutorials, the ELSA dictionary as well as a huge, and growing, collection of over 1,600 lessons on topics like business, travel, and well-being.

We recommend that you download the app, take the pronunciation test, and commit to spending ten minutes every day on your speaking.

And ELSA tracks your pronunciation progress and improvement so you don’t have to guess if you’re getting better. You’ll actually have the numbers and data to show you how you’re improving and motivate you to keep going!


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About the writer

Marta is an online ESL teacher who works with students from around the world. As a writer, language nerd, and content contributor for In English With Love, her mission is to empower English learners with knowledge and positivity.


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