When we're learning a second language, we tend to approach it with our eyes first and our ears second. But native English speakers approach the language with their ears, not their eyes. This concept is crucial to understand if you want your pronunciation to improve.
Be Like a Child
I have helped literally hundreds of people from all over the world with their pronunciation. Many of my students have lived in England for a long time, speak at an advanced level, and have lots of British friends and colleagues, yet they are often surprised when I show them how natives really speak. My students often ask, “Why is this word pronounced this way?” But that is not the question that a native would ask. A native would ask, “Why is this word spelt this way?”
I remember asking this question when I was a child. I learned to read and write at school when I was about five. At that age I could already speak fluently, with a vocabulary of several thousand words, but I didn't know how to spell those words. Just like all the other children, if I had to write a word whose spelling I was unsure of, I would make a guess. But, English spelling being so irregular, I often got it wrong. Here are some examples of typical spelling mistakes made by children in the UK.
Frend (friend), kat (cat), mows (mouse), rode (road), wimin (women), bruther (brother), teecher (teacher)
Once, when I had written 'frend', my teacher corrected me. I remember looking at her in disbelief; it just didn't make sense. Why would the word 'friend' have an 'i' in it? And shouldn't the 'i' at least go after the 'e', not before it? I can't remember how my teacher replied, but she probably said, “That's just the way it is.” Not a very satisfying answer.
My students often ask, “Why is this word pronounced this way?” But that is not the question that a native would ask. A native would ask, “Why is this word spelt this way?”
Trust Your Ears
The point is, I cannot remember ever asking the teacher why a word is pronounced the way it is. That's because, as a native, in my mind the word is defined by how it sounds, and I trust my ears. The written form of the word is secondary: writing is just a tool. By contrast, I have noticed that my pronunciation students often have excellent English spelling – sometimes better than mine! This is because adult learners tend to approach the language with their eyes, not their ears. But this hurts your pronunciation.
For example, I had a student who mispronounced the word 'answer'. He would always pronounce the 'w'. But that is wrong: the 'w' is silent. 'Answer' is a very common word, and this student had lived in the UK for quite a long time. That means he must have heard native English speakers say the word correctly many times. So, why did my student make this mistake? Because he ignored his ears and trusted his eyes instead.
as a native, in my mind the word is defined by how it sounds, and I trust my ears. The written form of the word is secondary: writing is just a tool
Remember, English spelling is weird; that's why most native English speakers, including me, have such terrible spelling. I often make spelling mistakes, but I never make pronunciation mistakes. So, from now on, I want you to try to think like a native. Listen to how people really speak and, if the spelling of a word seems to disagree with the pronunciation, trust your ears.
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