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15 Words That ESL Students Don’t Realize They're Mispronouncing

When learning English in school most students are taught to read phonetically. Teaching students to use this technique may make the teacher’s job a bit easier, but it often causes students to produce pronunciation errors when speaking. The result is that common terms are often mispronounced, creating a more noticeable accent once students become fluent speakers—and while this isn’t necessarily a problem for everyone, very strong accents may cause comprehension difficulties for the listener in some cases. When using the terms that follow, apply the tips below to sound more like a native speaker. Keep in mind that learning the correct pronunciation for all of these terms will also make it easier to understand native speakers!


1. Can’t

Here’s a secret: The “T” is silent. This is actually the case with most words that end in “T.” It is almost never pronounced. In the word can’t, omit the T completely and replace it with a complete cessation of air flow. As you finish the word, sharply and abruptly stop after the N is pronounced. If done correctly, the N should also sound slightly faster than normal, as if being cut off halfway through. The reason we want the N to sound faster than normal is to avoid confusion with the positive form of this word, can. If it is drawn out for too long, listeners will hear can instead. Don’t worry if you find this tricky—people who speak English as their first language often have misunderstandings related with this word too. If clarification is necessary, it is ok to pronounce the final T, but it should be avoided when possible.

2. Hotel

Most speakers use the right phonemes for this word, but fail to employ proper word stress. While a native speaker would emphasize the second syllable of this word, people who learn English as a foreign language tend to emphasize the first syllable. In other words, non-native speakers would say HO-tel, whereas native speakers would say ho-TEL. To be fair, this term actually breaks away from normal word-stress patterns; generally speaking, nouns with two syllables do emphasize the first syllable, not the second.

3. Beautiful

There are two common mistakes that are made with this one. First, most people want to pronounce the first syllable using a Long E for the vowel sound. Those who learned that ea sounds like ee when learning English often make this mistake because they forget to account for the u that follows. The result is a mispronunciation that sounds something like bee-YOU-tih-ful. Here, failure to account for the u results in the insertion of an additional syllable. Notice that when native speakers say this word, they use three syllables instead of four. The result is something that sounds more like BYOU-tih-ful.

The second mistake that ESL students to make relates to the T. It doesn’t actually sound like T at all, but instead, like D. To avoid confusion, we won’t get into the specifics of why this occurs right now. To discuss this topic in more depth, new students can book a trial session directly using this link (no credit card required).

4. Knowledge

This word contains nine letters, but don’t be fooled; it only contains two syllables. While it may be tempting to pronounce the W, avoid it altogether. Also consider replacing the Short E sound (created by the first E) with a Short I to make it sound even more natural. If done correctly, NAH-lij will be heard.

5. Rural

This term does technically contain two syllables. However, making two R sounds in quick succession is difficult even for native speakers. Rather than using this formal pronunciation, most people say use one long, drawn out R sound followed by an L sound. The result sounds like RRr-uhl. In more formal situations, it would be more appropriate to pronounce the word in its entirety. In this case, the result should sound similar to ROO-ruhl.

6. Actually

While most learners say AKSH-you-wuh-lee, pay close attention and you’ll notice that native speakers often omit the second syllable. They say something that sounds more like AKSH-wuh-lee.

7. Suggests

Students often sound like snakes when they pronounce this word. This is because they try to clearly pronounce the last three letters of the word, STS. To avoid sounding unnatural, simply omit the T. Replace it with a single S sound.

8. Attempt This is another term where students often try to pronounce the final three letters distinctly. This should be avoided. Omit the P and the problem is solved. Native speakers would say uh-TEMT here.

9. Call

Too much rounding of the lips sometimes causes this word to be mispronounced. When this happens, a native speaker may mistake call for coal, the short for charcoal. In most cases this shouldn’t cause confusion, but it isn’t impossible. To avoid making this mistake, relax the tongue and lips so that they both sit in neutral positions. Doing so should make it easier to say cahl, which is how this word should sound.

10. Buffet

This word contains a silent T at the end, because it doesn’t actually have English origins…this word is French! When English speakers use French loanwords that end in ET, notice that what is heard sounds more like ay, which makes the Long A sound. Native speakers of English would say buh-FAY when using this word in a sentence.

11. Hors d’oeuvre

This is another French loanword! All English speakers struggle to pronounce this term, regardless of proficiency. This word doesn’t follow any English pronunciation rules. To keep it simple, pronounce this word as or-DERV in English.

12. To

This word is often pronounced identically to the word two (2). While not technically incorrect, this pronunciation is too formal for most situations. Native speakers use a Schwa sound when saying this word, making it sound more like tuh. The reason we do this is simple: it’s easier. If we use the formal pronunciation at all times, speech can sound rigid and robotic, and it requires much more physical effort to transition from to into whatever word follows. Using this pronunciation may feel awkward at first, but implementing it is sure to make speakers sound more fluid and natural. Upon implementing the right pronunciation, students often receive compliments about how much their English has improved!

13. Statue

This word is often read and pronounced phonetically, making it sound like STAT-you. While this would seem to make sense due to the word’s spelling, it is not correct. This word should be pronounced STATCH-you with a CH sound, as is often the case when T and U are together within a word.

14. Wanted

WAHN-tid is technically acceptable, but it is slightly formal and can make speaking quickly more difficult. For this reason, native speakers generally pronounce this word without the T, making it sound like WAH-nid.

15. Comfortable

When basing their pronunciation off of each letter’s phonetic sound, many students have observed that spoken English often sounds quite different expected. Comfortable is an excellent example that demonstrates how this is true. Once again, it isn’t incorrect to pronounce all of the letters in this word, which would sound like cum-fer-tuh-bll if written and pronounced phonetically. But this more formal pronunciation isn’t necessary in most situations. When native speakers use this word, the second syllable is usually omitted. The result is a pronunciation with three syllables. Written the way it sounds, comfortable is more like cumf-ter-bll. Like several of the other alterations in pronunciation mentioned so far, we omit a syllable because it makes pronunciation easier. Saying a word with three syllables is both easier and faster than saying a word with four.

In conclusion, It may feel awkward trying to implement these new pronunciations at first. This is especially true for speakers who have been using English regularly for extended periods of time. Just remember that native speakers will have a much easier time understanding speech when these terms are pronounced the way they are expected to be heard. Assimilating proper pronunciation into everyday usage is not easy, and doing so with 100% success can be impossible if a guided approach is not used when practicing. To start, consider choosing just one word from the list above and using the proper pronunciation in your everyday speech. Once implementation feels natural, a new word from the list can be chosen and practiced, then the process repeated. A dedicated learner could likely implement all of these terms into their everyday speaking habits within 2-3 months with regular, structured practice. While these are some of the most commonly mispronounced words, they often follow rules that were not discussed here in detail. To learn more about why a particular term uses a particular pronunciation, book a session today (remember, trial sessions are available for new members).

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