How good does pronunciation have to be?

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 "phonemes"

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 their students.

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This is of two types:

    1. using non-standard phonemes,

    2. 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 concerned.

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 criterion.

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 imaginary dialogue.

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.


Every EFL teacher needs to consciously know the sounds of standard American and British speech
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