English does not have a phonetic alphabet and the United Kingdom’s diverse history means that it has a complicated cocktail of spellings.
5 of the Hardest Sounds in the English Language and How to Pronounce Them
English is the most commonly spoken language on the planet and more people speak it as a second language than as a first!
Whether through our English Pronunciation Course or in one-to-one elocution lessons, we have been teaching British English pronunciation for more than 15 years and we have found that although every student is unique there are a handful of sounds that regularly pose a problem to the majority of them.
In this article, we’ll outline some of the hardest sounds in English, so hard in fact that even some native English speakers struggle with these sounds.
1. TH Sound Words
To pronounce the TH sound you must place your tongue between your teeth and then allow air to pass through the space between your tongue and top teeth.
Did you know that there are actually two versions of the TH sound? A voiced th sound – where you create sound using the voice – and an unvoiced th sound which relies solely on the sound of the escaping air.
French, German, Russian, and some other languages don’t have a TH sound whatsoever! So it’s no surprise that this is often mispronounced and replaced with alternatives like a D, an F, or even a z.
Understanding how to pronounce words containing a TH requires you to know which TH sound to use. Let’s look at some examples:
ð sound – a voiced TH: Breathe, father, thee.
θ sound – an unvoiced TH: Bath, path, three.
2. R Sound Words
The English R, internationally speaking, is a peculiar beast! We have a smooth, flat R that doesn’t roll or tap as it does in many other languages.
In contrast, the Spanish R, is elaborately rolled, this is also known as a ‘trilled R’. Other European languages like Italian and even German also have a trilled R.
Beyond that initial difference in the pronunciation of this sound, the English r is non-rhotic, which means we do not pronounce it when it is immediately after a vowel and not followed by another vowel, like in words such as hard, warm, floor, doctor.
This is in contrast to American English which is the dominant variation of English being taught around the world. Therefore if British English pronunciation is what you are going for, then you will need to flatten and in many cases disregard that R.
Let’s look at some r words as an example:
R words: Run, rear, roll, era, dry.
3. The V Sound and the W Sounds
Did you know that V and W are treated as the same sound in Urdu & Hindi? So creating a difference between these two sounds when speaking English can be a little bit tricky at first.
And did you know that there is no V sound in Thai? So this is a completely new sound for a Thai speaker of English to make!
To make things more complicated, most languages only have one or the other, even though, in some European languages, they have both of the letters! How confusing…
To master the pronunciation of V words and the pronunciation of W words, you need to both understand the mechanics of how to pronounce these sounds, and work on the difference between them. This is a complicated subject worthy of a whole post in itself, so we advise that you sign up to our free pronunciation mini-course to find out more.
The V sound and W sound are very different. Here are some examples of V and W words to get you started:
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V and W words: Van, very, advantage, everywhere, week, warn.
4. The H sound
In British culture, the H sound is famously mispronounced, or rather, not pronounced at all, by native French speakers of English. H words can also be problematic to pronounce for Italian and Israeli English speakers. In other languages, the H is a more constricted sound.
Additional complexity comes from English spelling. For example, words like honest and honour have a silent H sound whereas the word who starts with an H sound instead of a W sound.
In English, the H sound is an open, breathy sound similar to the sound you would make if you were trying to cloud a mirror. Let’s listen to some H-word examples:
H sounds: Ahead, hall, who.
Before we go onto our 5th and hardest sound, you can access a mini-pronunciation course based on these 5 hardest sounds for free.
5. The English L sound: Light L vs dark L
There are two L sounds in the English language, a dark-L and a light-L. The pronunciation differences between these versions of the L sound are so subtle that students will need to do some ear training to really understand and replicate the two sounds.
Have a listen to the following examples:
Dark L sound: Film, full, milk.
Light L sound: Alone, lake, like.
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