What Are the Five Areas of Phonology That Make the English Language Difficult to Learn?

Updated February 6, 2020
What Are the Five Areas of Phonology That Make the English Language Difficult to Learn?
    What Are the Five Areas of Phonology That Make the English Language Difficult to Learn?

English is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn. While there are many rules in the English language about how words are pronounced, there are also quite a few exceptions and areas where particular rules do not apply. Understanding these tricky areas will help you be more sensitive to the plight of foreign speakers who are trying to speak English.

Five Difficult Areas of Phonology

English is a difficult language to pronounce. Different individuals might find various parts of the phonology of English complicated-if not near impossible-to grasp.

The areas that are considered to be the most complex or confusing are:

  • Stress on words
  • Vowel and consonant sounds
  • Combined sounds
  • Physical attributes
  • Translation between languages

Stress on Words

In English a different stress is placed on words that are spelled exactly the same, depending upon the meaning that the speaker wishes to create. For example, with the word "record," there is a different stress based on whether we wish to refer to the noun of a piece of music media or to the verb for the actual act of registering or putting in writing a piece of information or saving a piece of music.

Therefore, English language learners cannot simply base the pronunciation of a word on what they see. They also need to learn to look for contextual clues around that word, in order to determine the correct way to pronounce it.

Vowel and Consonant Sounds

English language learners need to distinguish between vowels and consonants. After learning these most basic letter sounds, they also have to learn that these letters do not always make the same sound. For example:

  • The vowel "a" makes a very different sound in the word "bake" than it does in the word "apple."
  • Consonants can change a bit as well. A "t" in the word "tackle" is very different in sound from a "t" in the word "the."

The pronunciation of vowel and consonant sounds vary with the word in which they are used.


Combined Sounds

Sometimes when consonants come together, the pronunciation gets confusing. A non-native speaker would see "t" and "h" and want to pronounce those sounds separately. However, they come together to create a blended sound. Another example of this is when the letters "c" and "k" come together in words as a back, rack, pack, tackle, and so forth.

The person learning English would see these two letters as distinct, yet when people speak, he or she hears them as blended together into one sound, which understandably can cause at least a bit of confusion.

Physical Attributes

The way in which people speak is, of course, related to physical properties of the mouth region. For example, there are some words which absolutely require speakers to put both of their lips together in order to produce the sound. The letters "b" and "p" are two such examples. While it seems natural to a native speaker, those who do not know how to say these sounds have to learn these processes which are entirely commonplace to the English speaker.


Translation Between Languages

Often when you try to learn another language you look for a sound or word comparable in English upon which you can base your study off the word in the new language. However, this is not always possible when trying to learn English. For example, the sounds of "th" and "v" do not have any comparable measure in some languages. Therefore, you cannot teach these learners by saying "The sound is like this in your native language." You are not able to give them a basis for comparison.

Practice and Repetition

Worksheets are one of the most helpful tools for a person learning to speak English. A worksheet can provide graphic images of words and actions which can help the student understand the meaning of the word and help them pronounce the word as they spell it out on the worksheet. YourDictionary provides information on topics and charts for ESL students to become more familiar with the English language.