Non-native pronunciations of English

Non-native pronunciations of English

Non-native pronunciations of English result from the common linguistic phenomenon in which non-native users of any language tend to carry the intonation, phonological processes and pronunciation rules from their mother tongue into their English speech. They may also create innovative pronunciations for English sounds not found in the speaker's first language.



The speech of non-native English speakers may exhibit pronunciation characteristics that result from such speakers imperfectly learning the pronunciation of English, either by transferring the phonological rules from their mother tongue into their English speech ("interference") or through implementing strategies similar to those used in primary language acquisition.[1] They may also create innovative pronunciations for English sounds not found in the speaker's first language.[1]

The age at which speakers begin to immerse themselves into a language (such as English) is linked to the degree in which native speakers are able to detect a non-native accent; the exact nature of the link is disputed amongst scholars and may be affected by "neurological plasticity, cognitive development, motivation, psychosocial states, formal instruction, language learning aptitude," and the usage of their first (L1) and second (L2) languages.[2]

English is unusual in that speakers rarely produce an audible release between consonant clusters and often overlap constriction times. Speaking English with a timing pattern that is dramatically different may lead to speech that is difficult to understand.[3]

More transparently, differing phonological distinctions between a speaker's first language and English create a tendency to neutralize such distinctions in English,[4] and differences in the inventory or distribution of sounds may cause substitutions of native sounds in the place of difficult English sounds and/or simple deletion.[5] This is more common when the distinction is subtle between English sounds or between a sound of English and of a speaker's primary language. While there is no evidence to suggest that a simple absence of a sound or sequence in one language's phonological inventory makes it difficult to learn,[6] several theoretical models have presumed that non-native speech perceptions reflect both the abstract phonological properties and phonetic details of the native language.[7]

Such characteristics may be transmitted to the children of bilinguals, who will then exhibit a number of the same characteristics even if they are monolingual.[8]



  • Speakers tend to speak with a rhotic accent and pronounce /r/ as a flap or trill.[9] They also have difficulty in pronouncing /p/ and /v/. An Arabic native speaker tends to say 'beer' for 'peer' and 'fan' for 'van'.


  • Because of the phonetic differences between English and French rhotics, speakers may perceive /r/ as /w/-like and have trouble distinguishing between /r/ and /w/.[10]
  • French speakers have difficulty with /h/ and systematically delete it.[11]
  • French speakers may pronounce vowels as in their language, making the understanding of some words, such as "bilingual" (which would sound like "bee-leen-gwal"), difficult for a Native.
  • Some speakers who fail to learn English word stress may pronounce their phrases in the French manner, with the stress on the final syllable of the spoken phrase.


  • Speakers do not velarize /l/ in coda positions as most native speakers do.[4]
  • German speakers usually give /a/ for the vowel in cup, and a lengthened version /aː/ for the long vowel in father. As most German schools teach Received Pronunciation, words like ask, bath usually have /aː/ too (Broad A).
  • Short a and e are often merged into /ɛ/, thus bad and bed are pronounced alike.
  • The vowel in words like bird, hurt is /œː/ or even a diphthong /œɐ/.
  • er in sister, baker is usually pronounced /ɐ/ as the same syllable would be in German.
  • The diphthongs in hope and take may be /oː/ and /eː/ as in Scottish English.
  • Word-final voiced consonants are devoiced, which merges rise/rice and had/hat etc.
  • The letter w is often pronounced like v; i.e. what becomes vot, since w is pronounced /v/ (or /ʋ/) in German and there is no /w/. Oddly enough, the confusion is as commonly usual the other way round ('vest' becoming 'west', 'visit' becoming 'wisit' etc.), however, it is not quite clear why.[12] One reason may be: When learning English, most German speakers would accustom themselves to using /w/ and then use it for any English v/w sound (their sense of language does not distinguish between a sound represented by w and another one represented by v).
  • German speakers have traditionally used /z/ for th in this, and /s/ for th in thing; for younger speakers, pronouncing correct 'th' sounds is not such a big issue, but they still tend to confuse them with /s/, especially when /s/ and a 'th' sound are near each other (e.g. in something).
  • Less educated speakers may use /tʃ/ for j in jungle and /ʃ/ for s in vision.
  • Some speakers merge word-initial /s/ and /z/ into either of the two.
  • R may be pronounced like German /ʁ/ (or the free-variant allophones /ʀ/, /r/), thus in the throat. Most younger speakers, however, are able to say a correct /ɹ/. German accents of English (like contemporary Standard German) are usually non-rhotic, thus no r-sound is heard in words like bird, beer.
  • As German has a widely phonetic spelling, speakers will have particular difficulties with the pronunciation of words like women or iron, which are irregular to them. Likewise, they tend to pronounce silent consonants like p in psychologist or b in thumb.
  • In long Romance words, English usually has stress on the antepenultimate syllable; German speakers will sometimes put stress on the penultimate, giving /ɔsɔˈgɹaːfi/ for orthography.


  • The lack of discrimination in Hebrew between tense and lax vowels makes correctly pronouncing English words such as hit/heat and cook/kook difficult.[13]
  • Dental fricatives–/ð/ (as in "the") and /θ/ (as in "think") –are often mispronounced.[13]
  • Hebrew speakers may confuse /w/ and /v/.[13]
  • In Hebrew, word stress is usually on the last (ultimate) or penultimate syllable of a word; speakers may carry their stress system into English, which has a much more varied stress system.[13] Hebrew speakers may also use Hebrew intonation patterns which mark them as foreign speakers of English.[13]

Hong Kong

  • Consonants in Cantonese are all voiceless except nasals and approximants, as a result, *d, *z, *dʒ are pronounced [t] (unaspirated), [s], [] (unaspirated), for example.
  • Many people pronounce "three" as "free", "shree" or even "fee".
  • Most people confuse the endings -d and -t, making "bad" and "bat" homonyms. Same phenomenon also occurs for the pairs -g/-k and -b/-p.
  • Most people confuse the initials sh with s. That is because in Cantonese there is, in terms of vocalisation, no 'sh' sound. Though this condition does not appear on nearly all the younger, or even the middle-aged Hong Kongers.
  • Confusion of Tr and Ch often occurs, making "train" sounding like "chain"
  • Like many places in Britain and the US, Hong Kong English is non-rhotic, which means 'r' is not pronounced except before a vowel. However, with the influence of American programmes shown in TV, young people in Hong Kong have started to pronounce the 'r' sound as in General American English.
  • Some people pronounce "r" as "w", except when followed by consonant other than g and k. e.g. rain -> wayne, free->fee.
  • 'Wh' is read as 'w', as in English English and most American dialects (not /hw/ as in Scottish English and some American dialects).
  • Many Chinese people cannot pronounce 'v' as native English speakers do, because the 'v' sound has no equivalent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and many other dialects; but in the case of other Chinese dialects, such as Wu and Hakka dialects, there is an equivalent of the 'v' sound, hence speakers of those dialects have little difficulty pronouncing this sound. Some people read 'v' as 'w'. (e.g. 'Vector' and 'Aston Villa'; 'Vince' is read as "Whince"; Louis Vuitton, unpronounceable to Chinese, is universally referred to as 'LV', pronounced "E'llo-Wee")
  • Other 'v' becomes 'w' or 'f' mostly with a consensus yet no obvious pattern. (e.g. 'f' in 'favour', second 'v' in 'Volvo' and either 'f' or 'w' in 'develop' depending on the speaker.)
  • Often 'n' is changed to 'l' which reflects current usage in the Hong Kong Cantonese; many people in Hong Kong, particularly the younger generation, mix up the initials /n/ and /l/ in English. (In Cantonese the original correct pronunciation of, for example, 女 (Jyutping neoi5) meaning lady/female/woman is /noi/, but is almost always pronounced /loi/ in modern Hong Kong usage. Also, the correct pronunciation of 你 (you) is nei5, but it is almost always pronounced lei5 in Hong Kong usage.)
  • Nasals in English are stronger than in Cantonese.
  • l vocalization is common: final ('dark') l, *[ɫ], is often pronounced /w/, as in Polish, e.g. "bell" --> /bew/, "milk" --> /miwk/. This /w/ is sometimes strengthened and becomes like /o/ (e.g., sale becomes SAY-o).
  • Beginning 'j' and soft 'g' commonly read as 'dz'[ts]. It is less noticeable as there is no contrast in the initial position between /ts/ and /tʃ/ in both Cantonese and English. Many people also merge the sound "dr" with j/soft g.
  • A speaker of Hong Kong English differentiates the pronunciations of the words affect and effect. In Standard English, both words are pronounced /əˈfɛkt/, with a reduced vowel "schwa" (/ə/).[citation needed] However, a speaker of Hong Kong English often emphasises the vowel, pronouncing affect as /aˈfɛk/ and effect as /iˈfɛk/ (or even /jiˈfɛk/).
  • Merging of /æ/ and /ɛ/ to /ɛ/. e.g. 'bad' and 'bed', 'mass' and 'mess'.
  • The letter “z” is generally pronounced [jiˈsɛt̚] (YEE-zed), a corrupted version (due to various of the above-mentioned reasons) of a very archaic pronunciation /ɪˈzæd/; the usual pronunciations, /zɛd/ (used in UK and most of the Commonwealth nations) and /ziː/ (used in USA), are not understood by some.
  • Multi-syllable words are often differently stressed. For example, while the word "latte" is pronounced /ˈlɑːteɪ/ in most variants of the English language, it is usually pronounced [laːˈtɛ] in Hong Kong English, with the second syllable stressed instead of the first.
  • Omission of entire syllables in longer words. ('Difference' become DIFF-ENS, 'temperature' becomes TEM-PI-CHUR.)
  • Words beginning with unstressed syllables 'con' are generally pronounced its stressed form /kɔn/ with a lower pitch, e.g. 'connection', 'consent', 'condition'. Words beginning with stressed syllable 'com-' e.g. 'competition', 'common' and 'compromise' are pronounced /kɑm/.
  • Due to Cantonese phonology, many Hong Kongers have difficulty pronouncing double consonant endings, except when the second element is fricative. e.g. "think" as "thing", "swamp" as "swam", "send" and "sent" as "sen". "Sense" is unaffected.
  • Finals like /-kt/ is reduced to either -k or -t.
  • In Cantonese, there is no structure of diphthong+consonant. As a result, /eɪn/ becomes /ɪŋ/, /oʊn/ becomes /ʊŋ/, and /aʊn/ becomes /aːn/. Many people pronounce -ake identically to ick, also -ane identically to -ing.
  • For the case /aɪn/ or /aɪt/, some speakers omit the ending consonant, resulting in /aɪ/.
  • When speaking English, many people tend to assign one of the six tones (or nine, if entering tones are included) of the Cantonese language to English sentences, giving it a Cantonese style.
  • Exaggeration of certain final consonants, for example 's' (to /si/) and 'd' sounds of past-tense form of verbs (to [tət̚]).
  • Differences or omission in ending sounds. (as the ending consonants are always voiceless and unreleased (glotallised) in Cantonese with the exception of 'm', 'n' and 'ng', similar to Basel German)
  • Producing the 'w', 'h' or 'l' sounds in words like Greenwich, Bonham, Beckham, and is reflected in the transliteration of the words, for example, Beckham is transliterated 碧咸 (pronounced [pɪk̚ ˥haːm˩]).[missing tone]
  • Merging the contrast of voiceless / voiced consonants with aspirated / unaspirated if any contrast exists in Cantonese. This is because English voiceless consonants are most often aspirated, whereas the voiced ones are always unaspirated. The stop /p/ becomes [pʰ] and /b/ becomes [p]; /t/ becomes [tʰ] and /d/ becomes [t]; /k/ becomes [kʰ] and /ɡ/ becomes [k] (except when preceded by s, where the English consonants are unaspirated).
  • Merging voiceless / voiced consonants into voiceless if there is no contrast in aspirated / unaspirated in Cantonese. Both [f] and [v] become [f]; both [z] and [s] become [s]; both [tʃ] and [dʒ] become [tʃ] ; both [ʃ] and [ʒ] become [ʃ]; the only exception might be that [θ] and [ð] are never confused, due to difficulty in pronouncing [θ] and [ð]: many pronounce [θ] as [f], [ð], as [d].
  • Confusion between homographs (words with the same spelling but different meanings), e.g. the noun "resume" (c.v.) and the verb "resume" (to continue).


  • The dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ may be replaced by [s̻] and [d̪][14]
  • Since Hungarian lacks the phoneme /w/, many Hungarian speakers substitute /v/ for /w/ when speaking in English. A less frequent practice is hypercorrection: substituting /w/ for /v/ in instances where the latter is actually correct.[15]


A study on Italian children's pronunciation of English revealed the following characteristics:[16]

  • Tendency to replace the English high lax vowels /ɪ/ /ʊ/ with [i] [u] (ex: "fill" and "feel", "put" "poot" are homophones), since Italian does not have these vowels.
  • Tendency to replace /ŋ/ with [ŋɡ] ("singer" rhymes with "finger") or as [n] (combined with the above tendency makes the words "king" and "keen" homophones) because Italian [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ before velar stops.
  • Tendency to replace word-initial /sm/ with [zm], e.g. small [zmɔl]. This voicing also applies to /sl/ and /sn/.
  • Tendency to add /h/ to some vowel-initial words.
  • Tendency to replace /ʌ/ with [a] so that mother is pronounced [ˈmadər] or [ˈmaðər], since Italian does not have this vowel.
  • Italian does not have dental fricatives:
    • Voiceless /θ/ may be replaced with a dental [t̪] or with [f].
    • Voiced /ð/ may become a dental [d̪].
  • Since /t/ and /d/ are typically pronounced as dental stops anyway, words like there and dare can become homophones.
  • /æ/ is replaced with [ɛ], so that bag sounds like beg [bɛɡ].
  • Tendency to pronounce /p t k/ as unaspirated stops.
  • Schwa [ə] does not exist in Italian; speakers tend to give the written vowel its full pronunciation, e.g. lemon [ˈlɛmɒn], television [tɛleˈviʒɒn], parrot [ˈpærot], intelligent [inˈtɛlidʒɛnt], water [ˈwɔtɛr], sugar [ˈʃuɡar].
  • Italian speakers may pronounce consonant-final English words with a strong vocalic offset, especially in isolated words, e.g. dog [dɒɡᵊ]. This has led to the stereotype of Italians adding [ə] to the ends of English words.
  • Tendency to pronounce /r/ as a trill [r] rather than the English approximant /ɹ/, e.g. parrot [ˈpærot].

In addition, Italians learning English have a tendency to pronounce words as they are spelled, so that walk is [wɒlk], guide is [ɡwid], and boiled is [ˈbɔɪlɛd]. This is also true for loanwords borrowed from English as water, which is pronounced [vatɛr] instead of [ˈwɔːtə]. Related to this is the fact that many Italians produce /r/ wherever it is spelled (e.g. star [star]), resulting in a rhotic accent, even when the dialect of English they are learning is nonrhotic. Consonants written double may be pronounced as geminates, e.g. Italians pronounce apple with a longer [p] sound than English speakers do.


  • Speakers tend to confuse /l/ and /r/ both in perception and production,[17] since the Japanese language does not make such a distinction. The closest Japanese phoneme to either of these is /ɺ/, though speakers may hear English /r/ as similar to the Japanese /w/.[18]
  • There is a tendency to end words which do not end in a vowel or 'n' with a vowel sound, as no such words exist in Japanese. The vowel is usually very slight.
  • Japanese usually pronounce B and V in the same manner.


  • There is no /w/ in Russian; speakers typically substitute [v].[19]
  • Native Russian speakers tend to produce an audible release for final consonants and in consonant clusters and are likely to transfer this to English speech, creating inappropriate releases of final bursts that sound overly careful and stilted and even causing native listeners to perceive extra unstressed syllables.[20]
  • There is no hard American English /r/ in Russian. Native Russian speakers usually roll their /r/.
  • There is no "th" sound in Russian. Native Russian speakers often substitute a /ф/ (f) or /с/ (s) sound. The combination of "r" and "th" sounds make words such as "thirty" especially challenging for Russian speakers learning American English.
  • The Cyrillic alphabet's equivalent to the /h/ sound is /х/. The latter has a heavier sound, with a lowered soft palate. Many Russian speakers do not correct the different sounds.


  • Since Spanish does not make voicing contrasts between its fricatives (and its one affricate), speakers may neutralize contrasts between /s/ and /z/; likewise, fricatives may assimilate the voicing of a following consonant.[21]
  • Speakers tend to merge /tʃ/ with /ʃ/, and /dʒ/ and /ʒ/ with /j/.[21]
  • /j/ and /w/ often have a fluctuating degree of closure.[21]
  • For the most part (especially in colloquial speech), Spanish allows only five (or six) word-final consonants: /s/, /n/, /r/, /l/ and /d/ (plus /θ/ in Castilian Spanish); speakers may omit word-final consonants other than these, or alter them (for example, by turning /m/ to /n/).[5]
  • In Spanish, /s/ must immediately precede or follow a vowel; often a word beginning with [s] + consonant will obtain an epenthetic vowel (typically [e]) to make stomp pronounced [esˈtɑmp] rather than [stɑmp].[5]
  • In Spanish, a voiceless dental fricative /θ/ phoneme exists only in certain Peninsular dialects; where this sound appears in English, speakers of other Spanish dialects substitute /t/, /s/ or /f/ for it.[21]
  • Speakers tend to merge /ð/ and /d/, pronouncing both as voiced dental plosive unless they occur in intervocalic position, in which case they are pronounced [ð].[22] A similar process occurs with /v/ and /b/.[21]
  • The three nasal phonemes of Spanish neutralize in coda-position; speakers may invariably pronounce nasal consonants as homorganic to a following consonant; if word-final (as in welcome) common realizations include [n], deletion with nasalization of the preceding vowel, or [ŋ].[21]
  • Tendency to replace the English near-high near-front unrounded vowel /ɪ/, and the near-high near-back vowel /ʊ/, with [i] and [u] respectively ("ship" and "sheep", and "full" and "fool" are homophones).[23]


Note: There are two main dialects in Vietnamese, a northern one centered around Hanoi and a southern one centered around Ho Chi Minh City.

  • Speakers may not produce final consonants since there are fewer final consonants in Vietnamese and those that do exist differ in their phonetic quality:[24]
    • Final /b/ is likely to be confused with /p/
    • Final /d/ is likely to be confused with /t/
    • Final /f/ is likely to be confused with /p/
    • Final /v/ is likely to be confused with /b/ or /p/
    • Final /s/ is likely to be confused with /ʃ/ or simply omitted
    • Final /ʃ/ is likely to be omitted
    • Final /z/ is likely to be confused with /ʃ/ or /s/
    • Final /tʃ/ is likely to be confused with /ʃ/
    • Final /l/ is likely to be confused with /n/
    • Final /t/ is likely to be confused with /k/ (by southern Vietnamese)
  • Speakers also have difficulty with English consonant clusters,[25] with segments being omitted or epenthetic vowels being inserted.[26]
  • Speakers may not aspirate initial /t/ and /k/, making native listeners perceive them as /d/ and /ɡ/ respectively.[27]
  • Speakers often have difficulty with the following phonemes, which may depend in some cases upon where in Vietnam they are originally from:[25]
    • /θ/, which is confused with /t/ or /s/
    • /ð/, which is confused with /d/ or /z/
    • /p/, which is confused with /b/
    • /ɡ/, which is confused with /k/
    • /dʒ/, which is confused with /z/
    • /ʒ/, which is confused with /z/ or /dʒ/
    • /s/, which is confused with /ʃ/ (by northern Vietnamese)
    • /tɹ/, which is confused with /dʒ/, /tʃ/ or /t/ (by northern Vietnamese)
    • /v/, which is confused with /j/ (by southern Vietnamese)
    • /ɪ/, which is confused with /i/
    • /ʊ/, which is confused with /u/ or /ʌ/
    • /ɛ/, which is confused with /æ/
    • /æ/, which is confused with /ɛ/ or /ɑ/
  • Vietnamese is a tonal language and speakers may try to use the Vietnamese tonal system or use a monotone with English words. They may also associate tones onto the intonational pattern of a sentence and becoming confused with such inflectional changes.[26]

See also



Further reading

  • Wiik, K. (1965), Finnish and English Vowels: A comparison with special reference to the learning problems met by native speakers of Finnish learning English, Turku: Annales Universitatis Turkuensis 

External links

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