An issue I often face as an English learner is that I forget the pronunciation of words, given that their spelling gives a little hint about the actual pronunciation. As an example, I just saw a word today morning, written as "clairvoyance" and pronounced as /ˌkleɚˈvojəns/ . I came back to the word again a few hours later and I was not sure if the world should be pronounced/ˌkleɚˈvojəns/ or /ˌkleɚˈvəjəns/, so to speak. I don't have this issue for the words that I listen/use frequently but if the word is not common, I would feel doubtful about the right pronunciation. For some reason, I don't think English speakers feel the same way. I guess they listen to the word for one time and that's it. How much is this true? And if it is the case, how and why?

  • Do you find that to be true of "new" words in your native language? I suspect the answer is universal. (Although I could be wrong.) Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 23:32
  • Yes. But my native language has specific structures on the pronunciation and formation of words so it is less of a struggle. Commented Jul 4, 2018 at 23:38

1 Answer 1


When an adult native speaker sees a word written down it is likely that they already know the word in spoken language, so there is no need to learn the pronunciation, only to learn the spelling. We have lots of trouble learning spelling (as is evidenced by the number of red underlines that I can see in this answer, but will fix before posting), we have relatively less trouble learning to say the word, since the patterns and structures of English phonetics are learned at a very early age.

Native speakers have a passive vocabulary of tens of thousands of words (estimates vary) so we have lots of examples that help us to remember how a word is pronounced. Even so, words with unusual spellings can be hard to remember. I recall when I was younger not realising that the word "epitome" was the same as the spoken word "/e-pit-tow-mee/" I knew both the written word and the pronunciation, but didn't realise that they were the same word, I had assumed that the "epitome" rhymed with "home". Genuinely new words which we see written down without knowing the pronunciation would cause native speakers problems, but this situation is rare.

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    I've always been an avid reader, and often made mistakes in pronunciation of words I had read but hadn't heard much (if at all) in conversation. Some examples of words I had "creative" pronunciations for as a child: "omnipotent", "obfuscate", "anemone", and "gala". My pronunciation is a lot less interesting now that I'm an adult and people feel free to use big words around me :)
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 3:40

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