What are common pronunciation mistakes English speakers make in other languages?
February 22, 2012 5:45 AM   Subscribe

I just found a list of common pronunciation mistakes English learners make depending on their first language background. What are typical pronunciation mistakes English speakers make when learning other languages?

Another one would be this page about English pronunciation errors for Korean speakers. I need the opposite - errors English speakers make when learning Korean.

For example, we probably pronounce the Japanese 'r' like an English 'r', while instead it should be more like the middle of 'buddy'.

Anything that can be illustrated with a little bit of fun - like "allergic to peas" vs. "allergic to bees" from the Korean link - is best.
posted by soma lkzx to Writing & Language (44 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
We can't say the rr in Spanish for *shit*. Also, some countries pronounce the ll (as in como se llama) differently; it's not hard to pronounce it right, but if you didn't know about it, some Ecuadorians might laugh at you.

In Hebrew, some people seem to have a problem with the letter chai, most commonly known as the first letter in Chanukah; its pronunciation is most commonly described as "as if you're hawking up a loogie" and maybe some of us don't want to commit. In Hebrew School, a teacher told us gentiles were unable to do it right, but I think that teacher was messing with us.
posted by troywestfield at 5:51 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

*puts on his foreign-accented speech expert hat*

To go along with your list you found and answer the reverse of your question, here's the book Learner English.

To the point, here's English-accented Dutch, which I'm all too familiar with:
In Dutch, English speakers have a problem with /x/ (the ch in "schaap") and /ɣ/ (the word-initial consonant in "geit"), " instead using /k/ and /g/. For /ʋ/, we'd substitute /w/ or /v/. Dutch /o:/ will likely be replaced with the English diphthong that goes in "boat", whatever that is for them. And, the last off the top of my head is that Dutch has the tricky diphthong /œy/ which I'd pronounce /aʊ/, as in "loud". Oh, and in general, English speakers are poor at making length distinctions in languages where it's contrastive: "schap"(shelf) versus "schaap"(sheep).
posted by knile at 6:02 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In Spanish, the b and the v are sometimes pronounced the same, sometimes pronounced opposite (you see a b and say it as v, and vice versa), and sometimes pronounced more or less as it would in English, and the difference is kinda subtle. I'm not sure if there is a rule for this, I always have to get my Spanish speaking friends to pronounce the word for me to know which way to say it. And yes, the rolling of the R's, it's almost as rrh sound. The Russian language kind of rolls the R's, though not as much as as in Spanish, and as a kid I had to go to a speech therapist because I couldn't roll my R's, I would make an L sound instead. I wonder if that happens with kids growing up speaking Spanish too?
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 6:12 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In French, English speakers cannot pronounce the letter u (e.g. in tu) but pronounce it the same as oo e.g. pronouncing tu as to, too, two. They also struggle with -ouille as in grenouille and in differentiating between en(t)/an(t), as in différent, parlant, and on, as in on, con, etc.

The u problem also occurs in German with the German ü.
posted by TheRaven at 6:13 AM on February 22, 2012

We can't say the rr in Spanish for *shit*.

English speakers also have a hard time with the Russian 'r', which is always rolled. Unlike in English, where both the soft 'r' and the hard 'r' are recognized as the same letter (i.e. regardless of how I say the 'r' "rat" you know I'm saying "rat"), there's no soft 'r' in Russian. So if you don't roll it, the word may be incomprehensible.
posted by griphus at 6:13 AM on February 22, 2012

I was just reading a discussion of this topic in Horvats Japanese Beyond Words. (A really fantastic book.) Some of the distinctions and pronunciations of Japanese that English speakers find difficult:

• The lack of emphasized syllables (e.g., mistakenly turning ka-ra-te into ka-RA-tee).
• Non-plosive consonants (e.g., trying to pronounce t without a puff of air while not turning it into d).
• Multiple pronunciations of n ranging from n to ng-like (without the g) to m (e.g., distinguishing kin'en, no smoking, from kinen, anniversary).
• So-called long and short vowels that change meaning by small changes in length (with the classic example being komon, advisor, vs. koomon, anus).
• The sound ts-, so that "Tsuki desu." ("The moon is out.") could be mispronounced as "Suki desu." ("I love you.").
• The Japanese r, which contains a tongue flick that English speakers instead use for l (which doesn't exist in Japanese).
• Doubled consonants such as issho, together (vs. isho, costume) that require a glottal stop (e.g., seal lover) to avoid misunderstandings.
• The Japanese f, more like a hu with lips slightly parted.
posted by Mapes at 6:15 AM on February 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

English speakers have a hard time with r's, no matter what the language, I think. (and vice versa).
posted by empath at 6:16 AM on February 22, 2012

Oh, and there's also the Russian letter Ы, which English speakers have a lot of trouble with, but I do not have enough of a grasp on linguistics to explain what exactly is going on.
posted by griphus at 6:18 AM on February 22, 2012

This varies widely according to language...Do you just want examples from every language?

English speakers have problems with tonal languages; often not being able to differenciate tones in Chinese, for example (but there are other tonal languages).

THere's about a hundred other examples in Chinese alone, of mispronunciations English speakers make...and lots of examples for each and every language there is...
posted by bearette at 6:18 AM on February 22, 2012

Another thing I have a problem with as a native English speaker is doubled consonants (in lots of languages). I think one of the classic errors is anni(years)/ani(assholes) in Italian, but I first had trouble with it pronouncing Arabic names like Bassam. And changes in vowel length are really hard for me to even hear, much less reproduce.
posted by mskyle at 6:26 AM on February 22, 2012

Sometimes native speakers of English have a tough time when there are two versions of a sound in another language where English has only one.

For example, there are two distinct sounds in Polish that both sound like the English-language "sh" to the average speaker of English. Here is a conversation about such things.
posted by pracowity at 6:31 AM on February 22, 2012

To continue the Russian theme, even very proficient speakers of Russian (i.e., 3+ and higher on the ILR scale) have trouble distinguishing the palatalized ("soft") consonants of Russian (and many other Slavic languages).

Back ground: English speakers are familiar with the idea of dividing consonants into voiced and voiceless ones. Speakers of Russian think of the set of consonants as having another dimension: "hard" vs. "soft." An example would be n vs. ñ. In Russian, almost every consonant has an "ñ-version." You could call them the "Enya consonants." The ñ-quality is communicated by adding a "soft sign" ь to the letter.

The trouble starts because it is difficult to English speakers to tell apart soft consonants from hard consonants, as well as isolated soft consonants from those that are followed by y (y as in "yo"). There are many minimal pairs (e.g., лёд vs. льёт, вер vs. верь, мел vs. мель) that Russian-speakers can distinguish by ear and Russian-learners distinguish through context.

It's also a reliable marker of foreignness.
posted by Nomyte at 6:39 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

never.was.and.never.will.be.: The Russian language kind of rolls the R's, though not as much as as in Spanish, and as a kid I had to go to a speech therapist because I couldn't roll my R's, I would make an L sound instead. I wonder if that happens with kids growing up speaking Spanish too?

Yes, it does. I remember a kid in school (age 7?) who pronounced his R's as L's. Also, one of my relatives (age 12?) couldn't roll her R's very well until an actress who was staying with us for a few months taught her some enunciation drills.
posted by bentley at 6:44 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

In addition to specific difficulties in pronouncing sounds, there is the overall manner of speaking. English has a very flat tonal quality and native English speakers have a difficult time with the "sing-song" character of, for example, Scandinavian languages, Dutch, etc.

After 15 years, my Swedish is grammatically perfect, my vocabulary pretty good, and my way of speaking (word choice, sentence structure) is as clean as any native Swede, I can manage the "sj", "sk", å, ä, ö and other odd utterances, but the lack of musical quality in my language is still what gives me away. Pity because this is what sounds most charming to my ears.
posted by three blind mice at 6:48 AM on February 22, 2012

In my experience a lot of people seem to have trouble with the German -ch. For example, ich often becomes either overly softened into "ish" or overly hardened into "ick." See this YouTube video, for example.
posted by jedicus at 6:51 AM on February 22, 2012

I'm a native English speaker who is fluent in Spanish (I am not of Spanish descent, though), so this is slightly outside the question, but my problem with languages is now that I tend to want to pronunciate (is that a word) anything in a foreign language as though it is in Spanish. I have to be really conscious of my thinking when I approach new vocab because of it but it's so... odd, at least to me.
posted by sm1tten at 6:53 AM on February 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Echoing three blind mice, specifically to say that the Swedish sound/word for 'seven' is one that English speakers never seem to quite get.
posted by kuanes at 6:54 AM on February 22, 2012

jedicus: Doesn't the German -ch vary some depending on dialect? I know I learned it as the fricative but I've heard native speakers say "ich" as "ish." But I'm not an expert on German or its dialects so I can't say what dialect I was hearing.
posted by stopgap at 7:03 AM on February 22, 2012

Doesn't the German -ch vary some depending on dialect?

It does, but I'm referring to the "standard" High German pronunciation taught in the US. The first and second year German students in question were definitely not trying to emulate colloquial speech or a different dialect.
posted by jedicus at 7:07 AM on February 22, 2012

In Italian, a lot English speakers have trouble with C and G before I or E, where the I or E is only there to soften the preceding letter — usually before another vowel. In that case, the I or E is not pronounced. (To my ear. There may be some slight diphthong-ization of the following vowel going on.) For example: Giovanni is pronounced like Jo-van-ni, not Jee-oh-van-ni.
posted by stopgap at 7:18 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Icelanders often switch up v's and w's. There is no w-sound in Icelandic. You'll hear phrases like "wery vell." It usually only happens if the v and the w are close to each other, this rarely happens in isolation. You wouldn't hear something like "ve vent vhale-vhatcing on a vindy day."
posted by Kattullus at 7:21 AM on February 22, 2012

Following up to my previous comment. I was thinking about it and realized that only the letter I is used to soften the preceding C or G without itself being pronounced. In fact, the Wikipedia article says as much. My bad. I suppose the non-word Geovanni would be pronounced as four syllables (but with a different first vowel sound).
posted by stopgap at 7:29 AM on February 22, 2012

In Icelandic I think it is pretty common for English speakers to pronounce u and ú the same, as well as o and ó. The distinction is easy in isolation, but in the middle of words we tend to be lazy with our vowels. And ö is black magic. We also usually hit ð too hard, and there is the ever-present difficulty with the rolled r.
posted by Nothing at 7:39 AM on February 22, 2012

Omigosh. Looking at some of these particulars -- I speech read English. I found it difficult to learn to speech read Spanish, but was able to do it passably. Weirdly, I was able to learn to pronounce it better than I could hear it. I wound up using a lot of my old speech therapy, imitate the tutor techniques. Rolling rrs are beyond me, all I can manage is a flip. I don't remember any words that would be confused by that mispeech. But I would certainly come across as having a speech disability! I have a cleft palate/tied tongue repair. I suspect it is more to do with that than my hearing. My college Spanish teacher kindly let that slide after I was completely stumped in my first semester with her :)

Some of these other languages would be just "impossible". There are some differences of pronunciation that do not seem like they would be very visible in the cheek, lip, throat regions.
How similar are tonal languages to music? Would someone be able to explain it to me by saying, for example "it's like moving half step up"?

Sorry for the derail but it was really striking me as another aspect where an English speaker might be stumped in a foreign language.
posted by Librarygeek at 7:49 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an American learning German with a bunch of people from other countries, I've noticed that I can identify other Americans pretty accurately by their A's. English definitely has both a long A and short A, so it's not that Americans have trouble pronouncing the long German A properly (unlike the ö and the ü). It's just that Americans seem to...forget or something. So if you walk into a room, or a bar, and there are a bunch of folks there practicing their German on one another and one of them keeps flattening A's that shouldn't be flattened (i.e. using the A from "Dad" instead of "Father"), you can pretty much count on them being American.
posted by colfax at 7:52 AM on February 22, 2012

English speakers are used to speaking with a lot of diphthongs, even when they're not written in. So much so that we often don't realize we're doing it. Most other languages don't have diphthongs unless they are written in. For example: "bene" in Italian should be something like "beh-neh" but most English speakers would convert the final syllable to a diphthong and say "bey-nay" (the final sound starting with "eh" but ending with an "i" sound. An Italian would never pronounce it that way unless the word were spelled "benei." This is one of the easiest ways to tell when it's an English speaker talking in Italian, French, Spanish, German, etc.
posted by slkinsey at 8:07 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

This native English speaker has trouble with i. I know, in German, Japanese, and many (all?) other languages, that i should be pronounced eee but instead I habitually pronounce it like a short English i (as in hit).
posted by Rash at 8:15 AM on February 22, 2012

My wife tries to teach me to pronounce Ы:

"no, Ы"
"that's way off, it's Ы"
"Ы Ы, like someones punching you in the gut"

I still get it wrong every time.
posted by demiurge at 8:20 AM on February 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

I struggled a lot with the Spanish 'j' (as in 'ojo'). I have a Northern English accent and we don't have that kind of sound. (I struggle with rolled R as well as I have a speech impediment, but Scots would probably find it dead easy.

I also find the 'ch' in Welsh tricky.
posted by mippy at 8:40 AM on February 22, 2012

Also: during my first year phonetics courses, I struggled to use the phonetic alphabet because the one we used was based on Received Pronunciation, which is very different to my own accent. So I wonder how much of a difference accent makes with things like this? Liverpudlians, for example, speak in a more melodic way than people from London typically do, so I wonder whether that makes learning 'sing-songy' languages easier?
posted by mippy at 8:42 AM on February 22, 2012

Ы, like someones punching you in the gut

I'm not a Russian speaker and can't vouch for the accuracy, but I did find it: Ы
posted by crapmatic at 9:01 AM on February 22, 2012

Yeah, that's it. It's sort of like a burp but without the burp.
posted by griphus at 9:05 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

My (French) kindergaren students have spent have spent the past week making incessant fun of me for being unable to roll my Rs the French way. Just can't do it, and neither can a lot of people I know.
posted by Tamanna at 10:10 AM on February 22, 2012

The ng/ngy consonant in Vietnamese is extremely difficult for English speakers to replicate properly. We always add the "g" sound at the end, when native speakers isolate a kind of nj sound. I believe it is properly called the velar nasal and it exists in a variety of other languages, but is extremely common in Vietnamese.
posted by Lame_username at 10:13 AM on February 22, 2012

The toughest sound in German is definitely ü. Ch is in so many other languages, and there are so many ways that Germans pronounce it, that it's hard to really say that one isn't doing it correctly... but ü is just contorting.

There are sounds in Arabic that don't exist in English and that are really hard to master. One is the guttural thing that you do at the beginning of the name Erfan among countless other words.

All inflected languages, like Chinese languages and Vietnamese, are tough to sound out.

Dutch is fucking impossible. And it sounds just disgusting.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:15 AM on February 22, 2012

I can roll my rs in French, but there's a vowel combination that English speakers just. cannot. do., according to my French pals.

Cuillere (spoon, and that first e should have an accent grave). Something about the u-i-ll-e breaks my lips somehow. It's bad with accueil (welcome), too.
posted by marmot at 10:41 AM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been told by a native Hungarian speaker that the letter combination "gy" (possibly other combinations like "ly" or "ny") is nigh impossible to pronounce for a non-native Hungarian speaker. She had me try to pronounce Gyorgi, and then laughed at me.
posted by baniak at 11:04 AM on February 22, 2012

Some British English speakers tend to put an r at the end of words with vowels when they come before another word beginning with a vowel. I know there's a term for it but I'm blanking on it. This sounds completely nuts in languages where this doesn't happen, and particularly in languages where the 'r' sound is rolled. My husband pronounces Urdu 'baba' (ie daddy) and 'Babar' (a common Pakistani name, eg Babar the elephant) the same way.
posted by tavegyl at 11:38 AM on February 22, 2012

troywestfield: "In Hebrew, some people seem to have a problem with the letter chai, most commonly known as the first letter in Chanukah"

Nitpick: This letter is actually called "ḥet" (ח). Another letter, "ḥaf" (כ), sounds basically the same. There's also this letter ayin (ע), which is usually taught as silent, but picky people say it should be more of a guttural thing that accompanies the following vowel. Thankfully Israel is an immigrant country, so everyone overlooks these things.

marmot: "Cuillere (spoon, and that first e should have an accent grave). Something about the u-i-ll-e breaks my lips somehow."

I find "fruiterie" (fruit store) difficult, combining the "ui" sound with a trilled R. The bonus is that it's impossible to pronounce with an Anglo untrilled R, even badly, so it's a good word to practice.

There are also words like "dehors" where the H is silent, so you have to switch smoothly from one vowel straight into another, without turning it into a diphthong.

Korean has this sound 의 that's something like "(oow)ee", apparently folks find it very hard to say.
posted by vasi at 1:42 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

As previously mentioned, I have trouble with the French R sound (yes, fruiterie! I've never even realized how difficult that one is). I also find the French word for bear incredibly difficult to pronounce: ours. There are plenty of others that I have trouble with that I can't think of right now.

Also, English speakers tend to pronounce silent letters in french... silent T's, silent S's, silent H's. Nous or vous, for example. You would only pronounce the S if the word that follows begins with a vowel or a silent H.

I've also noticed many English speakers have trouble with words like boeuf or oeuf... making too much of an OHFF sound rather than a EUHFF sound.
posted by ohmy at 1:58 PM on February 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Italian Gn and Sb sounds are total landmines for English speakers learning Italian.

Gn in Italian is pronounced exactly the same as a Spanish ñ (as in jalapeño). So, the yummy Italian potato dumplings (gnocchi) aren't pronounced guh-nocci. It's more like "nyoki."

Sb is a tougher one. The best example of a Sb sound is in the name of the pizza chain Sbarro, which you'll hear non-Italian speakers say as Suh-bar-ro. It's actually pronounced more like zbar-ro, with the z pronounced very lightly and as 2 syllables as opposed to three.
posted by deadmessenger at 3:24 PM on February 22, 2012

Oh, one more. English speakers cant pronounce the ya sound properly in Russian (the letter я) when it follows a consonant, such as in Tanya or Katya. I can't even type to explain how it should be pronounced, but it should definitely not be pronounced as tan-ya or Kat-ya, the я changes the way the consonant is pronounced, instead of just being said after the consonant, and English speakers just can't seem to say it right no matter how I try to explain it to them.
posted by never.was.and.never.will.be. at 3:25 PM on February 22, 2012

I have yet to meet an American who can say Ы. I usually explain that it's like a brick falling on your chest with all the weight of life's disappointments behind it. All of the air in your lungs is expelled along with the last shreds of hope you were clinging to. The only possible choice after saying Ы is to drink vodka out of a water glass (follow with salted fish or a pickle).
posted by prefpara at 8:47 PM on February 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

I tried learning Turkish once, and the two letters I had trouble with were the /ö/ and /ü/. The wiki page doesn't give them much justice; they're harder to pronounce than that. My Turkish friends say that a lot of Americans have trouble with these vowels. I also kept mixing up the /i/ and /ı/ with hilarious results...
posted by patheral at 8:33 AM on February 23, 2012

« Older How can I get my Android browser to cut me off?   |   Best Wordpress ecommerce plugin for digital goods? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.