Pronunciation does matter, have you heard about the
Japanese tourist who ordered a cappuccino and got a cup of tea?
Speech consists of a set of sounds used to communicate ideas.
It works because the sounds are standardized, a bit
like the Morse code my grandmother knew so well
or the HTML code I used to make this website.
The technical term for the sounds used in a given language is
This is how the Oxford English dictionary defines the word "phoneme":
noun: phoneme; plural noun: phonemes
1. any of the perceptually distinct units of sound in a specified language that distinguish one word from another, for example p, b, d, and t in the English words pad, pat, bad, and bat.
Mainstream American and British English speech uses a
particular set of phonemes, and other languages use other ones.
Below-standard pronunciation of phonemes means communication
failure, above-standard means wasted effort.
EFL teachers need to have the ability to teach their students
the phonemes of mainstream English. Teachers need to be
conscious of what the standard phonemes actually are, what
their names are, how to link them into syllables, use proper
stress, understand liaison etc. Otherwise they would
be failing their students. The resources available from this
website form a teacher's toolkit for teaching proper
pronunciation (see the "EFL teacher resources" page of this
site, which includes test sheets for checking pronunciation).
Actually, it is quite a common thing for native English
speakers to go through their lives completely unaware of their
pronunciation errors. For instance, my elder brother, who has
lived all his life in England, pronounces the th-sound as an
f-sound: firty fausand etc. EFL teachers needs to be
phonetically aware to avoid passing this sort of thing on
Jump straight to Conclusion
This is of two types:
- using non-standard phonemes,
- saying standard phonemes wrongly.
Using non-standard sounds
Here is an example of non-standard phonemes resulting in
communication failure. When we got off the plane at Auckland
airport in New Zealand, my wife found that her keys were
missing. I phoned the airport later and asked them if any keys
had been found near our seats. To my relief, the voice on the
phone said that some had, and asked me if I had "a pin". This
brought to my mind the bursting of balloons or Personal
Identification Numbers (that should never be given over the
phone). When I queried the need for a pin, the voice said that
it was to write down a reference number. Here it dawned on me
that it was a pen that was meant. Substituting the
i-phoneme for an e-phoneme is common in New Zealand speech,
and this is non-standard as far as mainstream English is
Saying standard phonemes wrongly
If you are used to speaking one language it is no easy thing
to start using the phonemes of another language. It takes a
determined effort to do so. If this is not done at a very
early stage then it is difficult to change. Ideally, as soon
as a child starts to learn English, it should be carefully
taught to say the phonemes of English accurately. And a
non-native speaker that has been learning English needs to be
tested and shown what needs to be corrected. Phonetic text
makes this easy to do.
For the EFL teacher, pronunciation just has to be good enough
to ensure phoneme recognition, but for the academic linguist
there is a general tendency to go beyond this. The more
differences are focused on, the more they escape. The linguist
might say that no two people can really say the same sounds in
the same way, and that in fact nobody can even say the same
thing in exactly the same way twice. And so you cannot say
that there is any real difference between the sounds. I would
say that they are looking at things through the wrong end of
the telescope, it is not useful. And usefulness is the
It is to be noted that in the academic world, phonetic text is called phonemic text and slightly different ways of pronouncing phonemes are called allophones.
Going beyond plain phonetics is illustrated in the following
Philosopher’s fudge fosters phonetic failure
Philosopher: The notes of music are just a continuous
spectrum, they don't really exist as separate entities.
Wife: You never were much of a singer, dear.
Philosopher: The different colours are all perfectly arbitrary. They all blend into each other and it is impossible to say where one ends and another begins.
Wife: Then why did you insist on painting the bathroom magnolia, dear?
Philosopher: I was not sure of the definition of "definition" so I looked it up in the dictionary. Then, to be sure, I looked up every word in the definition too, and so on. Objectively, every word links up to all the others and does not have independent sense.
Wife: Nonsense, dear.
Philosopher: This picture is just a load of dots.
Wife: Stop using that magnifying glass, dear.
Philosopher: Would you call this a chair or a stool?
Wife: Just sit down, dear.
Philosopher: Nobody can actually say any of the sounds of English the same way twice. Can we claim that there is really any difference between "sheep" and "ship".
Wife: "sheet" and what, dear?
Philosopher: I totally reject stereotyping, the universe is a trackless void!
Wife: Try Googling "bell curve" and "normal distribution", dear.
Students of English need to be taught to say the right phonemes and how to pronounce them sufficiently well for the average native speaker to recognise them immediately.