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Some English Problems for Non-Native Speakers

by Sidney Beck


A  very common pronunciation weakness in foreigners confuses /ee/ (as in sheep) with /i/  (as in ship). The weakness arises from the foreigners’ own native languages which probably contain no /i/ sound as it is found in English. Therefore they have never had any practice with the /i/ sound. When you pronounce ‘sheep’, your jaw should be nearly closed, your tongue very far forwards in the mouth and your lips spread. To pronounce ‘ship’, your tongue should be further back in the mouth, your jaw should be more open (mid-closed) and your lips should be more relaxed.

Mother tongue interference causes the problem. Many foreigners’ languages (including all Slavic and  Latin languages) only have one vowel sound in this area of the mouth.   If their language has only one, it is quite likely that they will use that vowel for both /i/ and /ee/ in English, causing a pronunciation error. They can overcome this by learning the English mouth positions and practising short, long and reduced English vowel lengths.  The long vowel /ee/ is quite long in English before a voiceless consonant (e.g. 'seat'), but very much longer before a voiced consonant like ‘seed’ or ‘need’. My advice to foreigners is that all their long vowels be consciously lengthened regardless of voiceless/voiced final consonant.

Foreigners need to practice and repeat the English /i/ sound as in “fish” without the distraction of other sounds. This is a  kind of a phonic approach   -  “Bill with his big fish” /  “this is his fish”. Make sure there are no possible word-pair partners to confuse the student.  So that no  English words spell as “beel weeth hees beeg feesh”. The foreigner will often confuse the long vowel -  before a final 'l', where the dark 'l' tends to obscure the nature of the preceding vowel (e.g. confusing 'fill' with 'feel'). Better to use another word-pair eg chill/ cheel. There is obviously no such word as “cheel’. This removes confusing words from the discussion. Lots of time is often wasted getting students to repeat the confusing word-pair “sit/seat” where the two words are semantically related.

Never teach with widely-known pairs like ship/sheep sit/seat , unless they are unavoidable.  These may be counter-productive because the first word and the second word in the pair can each be believed as a true word. Only use pairs where no such second word exists. Examples might include… skid/skeed,  trip/treep,  cliff/cleef,  and teacher should stress usage only of the real word. Only after a great deal of repetition of such carefully arranged sounds do we need to go to real life examples in normal sentences.


Look at words like night, taught, weight, brought These are some of the many words containing the trigraph GHT… which is built in turn on GH.. When you see a GH spelling in English and it's silent or not pronounced like G, you're dealing with ‘Middle English’. That's the language for which English spelling was developed. So when you see a "gh," it was pronounced with the blech sound in the earlier ‘Old English’. Early scribes knew Latin didn’t have the /x/ sound, so they used "h”. Eventually, they settled on "gh." This was  ‘Middle English’.   

The English /x/ was pronounced rather like German CH after vowels. In broad Scots they say something like 'It's a bricht, moonlicht nicht’. So was the sound of  /x/  like that? Probably. That /x/ is easily found in German, and if you look for the German counterpart of English "gh" words, you will often find the sound there: light/licht, night/nacht, eight/acht, high/hoch, neighbor/nachbar, though/doch.


We should recall that English contains many examples of two-letter digraphs ( th, ph, st, br, cl, etc) and three-letter trigraphs  (spr,thr, sch, chl,scr,etc), but relatively few Quadrigraphs. Now English, German and Danish are horses from the same stable historically. So no wonder that our quadrigraphs in English are known as “Danish” quadrigraphs.  First, let’s look at all the    English words (hundreds actually ) which contain the  Danish phenomenon of the quadrigraph, which is four letters that represent a single sound. The strangest English letter combination is   -OUGH and of course, the sound is a single sound but it varies from one example to another.

Consider these words -  cough, rough, lough, through, though, thought, plough, thorough, hiccough. There are clearly nine different sounds coming from the   -OUGH quadrigraph. The reason for this variety lies in the simple fact that similar spelling in these nine words does not indicate that the origin of the words is identical nor that they have been moulded historically under identical linguistic processes.


Nouns may be countable or uncountable. Countable nouns are for separate objects, people, concepts, which are easy to identify. They have a singular and a plural form. They may take a singular or plural verb. We can use the article a/an with these nouns.”Some” is used with these nouns only in the plural.

Uncountable nouns are for materials, liquids, concepts, collections, mass objects without boundaries. It is impossible to count the “uncountables” cos they are not separate objects (sugar, butter, ice, pasta, tea, bread, water). These nouns have only a singular form and thus use only a singular verb  (the cheese is/ my water was ). We can not use the article a/an with these nouns (a furniture? a toothpaste?) “Some” can be used with these singular nouns. No /s/ can be added to pluralise them.  However, in a café the waiter might say “Three teas and two waters? Right?” This implies “three cups of tea, etc”

Some nouns are countable and uncountable. Chocolate can be countable - “a box of chocolates” and uncountable - “a bar of chocolate”. Egg can be countable “Give me an egg” and uncountable “don’t spill egg on your shirt”. Uncountables can be treated like countables if they are in a container of some sort. “Three bottles of milk” “two bowls of rice”.


Tea leaf/Toronto Maple Leafs/Minnesota Lynx/Mouse/Louse/Mongoose.  ‘Tea leaf’ is cockney rhyming slang for “thief”. The normal plural “thieves” is rendered by the unusual ‘tea leafs’. A Canadian sports team is called unusually the ‘Toronto Maple Leafs’. Each team member is a “Maple Leaf”.  In Minnesota, a sports team is called the “Minnesota Lynx” (a single animal). ‘Mouse’ usually pluralises to ‘mice’, but if it means an electrical computer gadget, it pluralises to ‘mouses’. Likewise, ‘louse’ usually becomes ‘lice’ unless it means a contemptible unpleasant person, when it pluralises to ‘louses’. Mongoose does not pluralise to ‘mongeese’, but simply to ‘mongooses’.

Animals in Groups

Sheep/ buffalo/deer/fish. All of these in the plural take no /s/. The pattern is consistent - 2 sheep, 13 buffalo, 100 deer, 6 fish. However, as an exception, it is also perfectly acceptable to say ‘6 fishes’. We have the choice.


Symmetric/symmetrical Symmetric is a technical term common in math or physics papers. Symmetrical is a non-technical term meaning evenly-shaped and balanced about an axis.

Electric/electrical Electric means pertaining to electricity (literally or metaphorically). Electrical means things concerning electricity – equipment, wiring, switches.

Alphabetic/alphabetical. Alphabetic relates to orderly arrangement. Alphabetical means concerning the alphabet.

Historic/historical. Historic means having an important impact. Historical means related to history and the past.

Continuous/continual. Continuous means lasting all the time without ever stopping. Continual means lasting all the time but with breaks here and there.

Sensuous/sensual. Sensuous means related to the senses. Sensual means almost the same as sexual.

Strange   numbers

Elevenses means a break around 11 o clock for a drink and maybe a snack. Fourses means a break around 4 o clock for a drink and a snack.

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