ESL: Pronouncing English Words as they’re Spelled Causes Problems

You Need More than Reading and Writing

Most traditional English as a Second Language programs focus on reading and writing-not on speaking.  This usually results in being able to communicate better through writing.  This is a problem.  It is not your fault.  It is not the fault of the instructors.  It is not even important to place blame.  It is important to solve the problem.  Have you ever tried to write down every thing you were going to say instead of speaking to someone?  This is very time-consuming.  Simply, put, you are not going to stop talking and start writing everything you say.

Strategies to Increase Communication Effectiveness

Do you believe that you may be better able to communicate in writing than in speaking?  Think about the answer to this question: In an email, does anyone ever write back to you, “What do you mean?”  On the other hand, do people ever ask you this question:  “What did you say?”  Do they ever respond “I didn’t understand you”?  Do they ask you to repeat what you’ve said?  Do they ask you “What”?  Do they lean toward you?  Do they shake their heads back and forth? Do they furrow their eyebrows?  Do they stop asking you questions and making comments?

If you answered “no” to the first question and “yes” to the remaining questions, keep reading.  Your proficiency in spelling and writing English is separate from your pronunciation of English. Your customers, clients, patients, or students spend the majority of their time listening to you speak.  They don’t spend nearly as much time reading what you write. Accent modification equips you with how spelled words are actually spoken.

For instance, I was talking with a physician from India.  We happened to be conversing on the phone.  Across many conversations, she had told me her name was Mrs. Poorthy.  I had entered her name as “Mrs. Poorthy” into my contacts file.  Recently, I needed to enter this name into my Skype account.  She spelled her name for me.  She spelled it “P-U-R-T-H-Y”.  In America, we pronounce that name as “Perthy,” not “Poorthy.”

One Spelling can have Multiple Pronunciations

This is one example of how a very IMPORTANT message such as telling someone your name can be MISINTERPRETED.  It did not matter that I had repeated this physician’s name over and over; asking her if it was pronounced “Poorthy.”  She said, “Yes.”  Because of the spelling rules in English, people would spell this name as “Poorthy.”  Unless people asked for the SPECIFIC SPELLING of the name, most people would generally spell it incorrectly.   In many cases, when words or names are spelled with the letter “u” we actually pronounce the “u” as if it were an “e”.  For example, here are some common pronunciations of words containing the letter combination “ur”.

Spelling and Pronunciation Simplified

  1. The first column is the spelling of the word.
  2.  The second column is how many non-native speakers pronounce the word.
  3. The third column is how native English speakers pronounce the word.

Spelling           Non-native Pronunciation       Native English Pronunciation

Urgent             “OOR-jent”                                  “ER-jent”

Urban              “OOR-ban”                                  “ER-bin” (notice how the native English speaker pronounces the second syllable as “bin” instead of “ban”-this is called neutralization).

Blurt                “BLOORT”                                   “BLERT”

Burn                “BOORN”                                      “BERN”

Burgundy        “BOOR-gan-dee”                        “BER-gin-dee”

Chuch              “CHOORCH”                               “CHERCH”

Curb                “COORB”                                       “CERB”

Fur                   “FOOR”                                         “FER”

Hurt                 “HOORT”                                     “HERT”

Murmur           “MOOR-moor”                           “MER-mer”

Surround         “SOOR-round”                           “SER-round”

Turn                 “TOORN”                                     “TERN”

Spelling/Pronunciation Summary

When non-native English speakers pronounce and decipher words as they are literally spelled, it can cause problems. The English language has many sounds, sound combinations, and spellings that were derived from other languages and are produced differently when sequenced in specific manners in words.  In accent modification, you will learn the connection between how words are spelled and how they are pronounced.  There can be one pronunciation for different spellings.  For example, “ph” and “f” are spelled differently but are pronounced as “f”.  Likewise, you can pronounce one letter differently depending upon the word in which it’s embedded.  For example, the “o” in “other” is said differently than the “o” in “open”.

Accent Tips

If your writing is better than your spoken English, you don’t have to STOP TALKING and START WRITING.  Start writing AND keep talking.  Keep working with your accent reduction specialist on your Challenge Sounds (click here to learn how to find your Challenge Sounds).  If you don’t yet work with an accent specialist, find one.  They can teach you how spelling and speech correspond. Also start spelling out words in your speech.  If you have Challenge Sounds that you are still learning to master, spell them out to your communication partner.


If you communicate on the phone and spelling out your words and repeating yourself is too time-consuming, try emailing.  Only resort to this if there is too much communication breakdown.  What you lose in email communication is personal connection.  Weigh out the benefits and risks of emailing.  You may decide to do both.  By talking on the phone, your communication partners gains the benefits of hearing your voice.  When they hear your voice, they can hear the rise and fall of your voice.  They can hear the pauses in your voice.  They can tell when you sigh.  They can tell how excited you are to talk to them.  They know what your emotions might be.

Repairing Communication

In summary, combine accent modification, emailing, and talking on the phone.  You’ll have enough communication tools to use for different situations.  As you use the tools, you’ll become more comfortable and adept with them.  As you are more at ease and skilled with them, you’ll notice that your clients, patients, customers, friends, acquaintances, colleagues are focusing on WHAT you’re saying, and not HOW you’re saying it.

For more ways to improve your communication, read “When Traditional Communication Repair Strategies aren’t Enough: Part 2“.

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