Proper English pronunciation can be a big problem for some ESL learners and more difficult for some students than for others. A student’s native language determines, for the most part, the degree of difficulty and the types of difficulties students will have. In my experience, ESL students whose native language is Chinese or Japanese have a much harder time than those whose native language is Spanish, Portuguese or French. But despite the differences between countries, there are certain mistakes that are the most common among ESL students all over the world. Here, you’ll see not only what they are, but also how to help your students overcome them.
7 Worst Pronunciation Mistakes ESL Students Make Around the World
Pronouncing the “th”
The “th” is one of the hardest consonant sounds to pronounce. It can be pronounced in three different ways: as a “d” (/ð/) as in this, that, these, those, they or them; as the voiceless /θ/ in three, thing, thought; or as a /t/ as in Thai or Thames. The pronunciation of the /θ/ is especially difficult for some - students often say tree instead of three.
How to fix it: Go over the difference between the three types of pronunciation. Don’t forget to mention that the third one is the least common. As for the difficulty in pronouncing the /θ/, show students how to place their tongues between their teeth and force air out to make the right sound.
Pronouncing the Schwa
The schwa ([ə]) is a sound that is typical in unstressed syllables, for instance in long words like mem(o)ry, choc(o)late or shorter ones like th(e) or t(o). The usual mistake is for students to pronounce the word syllable by syllable: me-mo-ry.
How to fix it: Introduce the schwa to students and give them plenty of examples. Remind them of the fact that English is a stressed, not a syllabic language, and that unstressed syllables or words in English often have this sound.
Confusing the “l” and the “r”
The “r” and “l” sounds are the stereotypical mistake Japanese students make – they say lice instead of rice. But it is also a difficulty that occurs in other Asian languages.
How to fix it: The problem usually lies in the position of the tongue. To eliminate the confusion first focus on practicing one sound – the “r” –, then the “l”. In both cases, show them and contrast the position of the tongue and teeth.
Pronouncing the Short “i”
The short “i” or [i] as pronounced in words like live, sit, fit, hit usually poses a problem as students may be inclined to pronounce them as leave, seat, feet, or heat.
How to fix it: Give them plenty of practice with these confusing word pairs: live-leave; sit-seat; fit-feet, hit-heat, etc… First say each and ask them if they can hear the difference. Next, repeat each set and have your students repeat. Be sure to either write the words on the board so they can see the difference in spelling or show them word cards. The more practice you give them, the better they’ll pronounce these words.
Confusing the “w” and the “v”
This is a typical pronunciation problem in some European nations. Some students have a hard time pronouncing the “w” sound. Water is pronounced as vater; west is pronounced as vest, and so on.
How to fix it: If you have students who have a hard time pronouncing the “w” show them how to round their mouths into an “o” and then unround them to produce the right sound, like this.
Pronouncing the Magic “e”
Some students may have a hard time noticing the difference between words like not and note or bit and bite. They may be tempted to split them into syllables: no-te and bi-te.
How to fix it: Once again this is a problem that can be fixed by practicing word pairs. Help them notice that note is different from not in that it has the extra “e” but it’s still not pronounced. The effect of the magic "e" is that it changes the pronunciation of the word.
Pronouncing Silent Consonants
This is one of the problems I have personally encountered the most with native Spanish speakers. They sometimes tend to pronounce consonants that are silent, like the “d” in Wednesday or the “g” in foreign.
How to fix it: In my experience, fixing this problem is as easy as writing down the word on the board and crossing the silent letter out. It is very important for you to not only verbally correct the pronunciation and have them repeat, but also write it down. As many times as you have to.
As I mentioned earlier, some of these mistakes are made more often by some students than others depending on their country of origin.
Once you identify the mistakes they make often, it is vital for you to address them and help them work to improve them. Write it down. Have them repeat. Work with word pairs. Soon enough they’ll be making fewer mistakes.
There are probably lots of other typical mistakes I haven’t listed here. Feel free to add them and tell us which students typically make them. What pronunciation mistakes are typical in Russia? Indonesia? I’d love to read them below!