Foreign Pronunciation Close Enough

Your foreign pronunciation is close enough when the foreign word is not mistaken for another word.

Just so a foreigner hears something that sounds near enough to the word you intended -- rather than some other word -- then your foreign pronunciation is close enough.

As long as there is enough difference in your pronunciation of the word so it sounds different from another word that sounds something like it.

Spoken language is a system of sound differences. The differences between the sounds of words enable us to understand them and not misunderstand.

For example, in English a classic example is the differences in sound between:

PAT -- PET -- PIT -- POT -- PUT

Also: PATE -- PEAT / Pete

When a foreigner pronounces these words, you are likely to understand if her native language includes these same different vowel sounds as English. Just so you understand that this foreigner is talking about your friend "Pat" and not "Pete" or your "pet".

But not all languages include the same sounds of vowels and consonants. If a foreigner's native language does NOT include some of the sounds in English, you may not understand the English words she is trying to pronounce.

The same is true when you try to pronounce foreign words. But all you need is for your pronunciation to close enough so that the word is not mistaken for another word.

As long as the foreigner hears something that sounds near enough to the word you intended -- rather than some other word -- then your pronunciation is close enough. Any difference between the sound you make and the actual sound of the word will result in you merely sounding like you are pronouncing that word with an English accent.

You do not have to have perfect foreign pronunciation to be understood. Think of how many foreigners you have heard say English words with a German accent, or Italian accent, or Norwegian accent, sometimes after many years of speaking English, and yet you still understand what they are saying.

Most likely not to be understood are short words of one syllable. The more syllables a word has, the less likely it is to be misunderstood, because the adjoining syllables help clarify the meaning of any one syllable that might sound ambiguous, and might be mistaken for a different word by the listener.

A famous funny example of French being misunderstood is “Je t’adore!” -- three syllables pronounced [zhuh tah-DOHR]. It means ‘I love you!’ -- but to an English-speaker it can sound like ‘Shut the door!’



This Easiest Foreign Language website keeps pronunciations easiest for you -- by whenever possible indicating foreign words with pronunciations close enough to their English relatives that your words can be understood by foreigners -- and by putting those similar pronunciations in single quotation marks: Eis -- [‘ice’].

Your years of experience with those English pronunciations makes them much easier for you than trying some slightly different new pronunciation that might be slightly more accurate in the foreign language.

To keep pronunciations easiest, foreign words are shown to have a similar pronunciation to English if the stress is on the same syllable in most cases, and the letters are pronounced enough alike that foreigners will probably understand what you mean if you pronounce those words as you do in English. You may merely sound like you have an ‘English accent’.

Later while traveling you can listen to the way foreigners pronounce those words, and try to mimic any small differences in pronunciation so you can make them sound more authentic.



A story that illustrates when foreign pronunciation is close enough is told by world-traveler Barbara Dillon about her American friend Fred in French class in Paris.

Slow-talking Fred made no effort to say things with a French accent. Instead he merely pronounced all French words as if they were English.

For example, he would not omit to say the final silent consonants of many French words: for ‘good evening’ -- bon soir -- he would say something that sounded like ‘bone swahrr’ instead of ‘swah’.

(One of the difficulties of French pronunciation is omitting all the final silent consonants of many French words -- especially for English speakers who have spent years pronouncing the final consonants of all words in English.)

For another example, Fred would stress one syllable in each word as is habitually done in English, instead of pronouncing all syllables with almost equal stress as in French.

All the other students in this French class were making mangled attempts to pronounce these new French words in a correct French way. But the French way of pronouncing being much different than all the different ways the students habitually pronounced words in their many various native languages, the results were often hard to understand. This drove all those other students close to crazy.

So the irony was that when out in the streets of Paris, French people often said that Fred’s French was clearer and easier to understand with his slow consistent American accent than any of the other students trying so hard to sound French -- but often not coming close to the real French pronunciations.

As a final irony, Fred had grown up in the United States as the son of a French teacher! But as a youngster Fred had neglected to take advantage of that opportunity, when learning French would have been easier, and was now trying to make up for lost time by coming as an adult to Paris, unable to speak the language at all at first.

But this true story has a happy ending, because after returning to the USA, Fred got a job with the airlines, and worked for many years as a bilingual steward on flights to Paris.


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