I have learned English for many years, and from the first day I began to learn it I know the dictionary is necessary for the study. One of the important aspects is that English words, unlike German and Spanish, usually can not be read correctly without phonetics. But recently, I talked with some native speakers and they told me they can read any word directly and rightly even though they never learned it before. I just want to know how they can do that -- there is no ordinarily acceptable method to read an English word?
Unlike in some other languages, English spelling tends to reflect the developmental history of the word rather than its pronunciation. Therefore, it takes more learning and practice to pronounce English words. After learning the basic rules, you also need to learn some exceptions, and with enough practice, you may be able to spot some patterns.
Given that English is built on Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon / Norse, and French influence, and continues to assimilate words from other languages, it helps to consider which set of pronunciation rules to apply depending on the word's origin. For example, "ch" in words of Greek origin (e.g. psyche) would generally have a /k/ sound. In words taken from French during an earlier period (e.g. chief), "ch" would have a /tʃ/ sound. Later French borrowings (e.g. chef) would have a softer /ʃ/ sound.
Even with lots of experience, any English speaker who claims to be able to read any word correctly is lying. Here is a whole thread on Reddit full of words that people have mispronounced for years. Some examples include:
- hyperbole, epitome, synecdoche
- lingerie, macabre, melee
I'd also add
- row (in the sense of a fight)
No amount of experience would ever help you guess the British pronunciation of "lieutenant".
Part of the difficulty is, believe it or not, deliberately introduced. In words like "scent" and "debt", silent letters were added to make them fit their etymology.
Your only consolation is that English is still easier to read than Chinese.
Have you figured out the pronunciation of the words above? Here are the answers!
/haɪˈpɝːbəli/ /ɪˈpɪt.ə.mi/ /sɪˈnɛkdəki/
/ˌlɑn.(d)ʒəˈɹeɪ/ /məˈkɑːbɹə/ /mɛˈleɪ/
/ˈtʃæsi/ or /ˈʃæsi/
Native speakers of English who already have good vocabularies can correctly guess how to pronounce most words, but not all words. There are a number of patterns that help:
- Most "complicated" words are built out of shorter prefixes, roots, and suffixes. These prefixes, roots, and suffixes follow patterns.
- English has patterns for how to stress the various syllables of long words.
Also, even if a native English speaker has never read a particular word, they may have heard it (or a related word) on the radio, on television, in school, or in a church sermon. So they might subconsciously know how to pronounce the word.
Native English speakers with poor vocabularies are often not familiar with some of the roots and suffixes. They also tend to read very little. Fewer of their pronunciation guesses are likely to be right.
But even native English speakers with good vocabularies guess wrong about some words. One lady I know tells about how she used to think that "tarantula" was pronounced "tare-ann-too-luh" (instead of "tuhRanchYouLuh") and "debris" was pronounced "DebRiss" (instead of "DehBree").
In the United States, most native speakers spend literally hundreds of hours in school learning spelling. In the process, they learn rules for which combinations of letters are pronounced like other letters, and which letters can be silent. (9 - 13 years of school * 170 - 180 school days per school year * 45 - 60 minutes of English class per school day * 15 - 25 percent of time on spelling and vocabulary = 200 - 500 hours of spelling and vocabulary practice.)
Some people may say that they can pronounce any new word they see, but they can't. A simple way to show that this claim isn't true, is to take the letter cluster : -ough
This can have nine different pronunciations in English. Here are some example words and pronunciations:
- though /əʊ/
- through /u:/
- thought /ɔ:/
- tough /ʌf/
- bough /aʊ/
- trough /ɒf/
- hiccup/ hiccough /ʌp/
- lough /ɒx/
So lets imagine that a native speaker sees a new word crough. How would they pronounce it? It's not possible to predict what a word like crough would sound like! It would be impossible!
I can pronounce any word I see written, but I have no way of knowing whether I'm doing so correctly!
The irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation are mostly with the shorter and more regularly used words. Longer words tend to stick to more established patterns. If you've got a long word that starts with "pn", "ps", or "pt", it's fairly safe to assume the "p" is silent. If it starts with "pr" or "pl", it won't be silent. And so on, and so forth.
You can guess with high accuracy, but it is nothing more than a logical guess.
There are many patterns in English that are repeated so many times that you can guess the pronunciation but English is a global language with words derived from all over the world.
For example: Cage, mage, wage, sage... all follow the same pattern pronounced "...eij" but if "Kage" from Japanese became mainstream in English which is pronounced "Kah-geh" then this rule would still work most of the time but not always,
so yeh you can guess with high accuracy because of patterns, but not always know.
About 80 percent of English is pronounced as a native speaker would guess from basic rules. Some of the other words are easy to get if you know something about their origin. (One reason English is difficult is its absorption of a very large loanword vocabulary starting literally over 1200 years ago.) Even though we butcher the rest of the word compared to the original, champagne and chamois start as they do in French. So if I see a word I don't know beginning 'ch' that I guess it is of French origin…
To take just one example elsewhere on this thread (and there are many here), no one could ever get both laughter and daughter without peeking at a dictionary.
I misspell things on a daily basis. English is pretty bad in this way. I didn't realize how bad English is until I started studying Spanish and Korean. I'd say a lot of Americans don't realize that spelling shouldn't be hard. Most people in the US (75% estimated, no one knows) are monolingual sadly so I'd say a lot of people don't know how bad it is until you explain it to them. But even then, they just shrug. What are they supposed to do about it?
The English classes I remember as a kid didn't ever compare English to anything. It was studying grammar trees and famous books. I think it would have been more interesting if it was like a world religions thing.
Just today I spelled plaguing three ways until I got it right and I'm a native English speaker. Other words I get wrong or have to slow down to type/write: privilege, February, occasionally.
How do I check? How do I find out if I'm right? I just did this today: I googled for "Neil degrasse Tyson" to see if I spelled it correctly. I don't know how to spell his whole name. English first names are pretty common. So I know "neil" and "tyson". Sometimes last names are already other words, like West, Burns, Bush, Love. In that case, you get lucky.
Unknown words aren't very common for native speakers honestly. Reading is the easiest thing. I read Spanish the best and can hardly produce it. Some people would call fancy words "SAT words". SAT is a national test with a vocabulary section in the U.S. (I don't know if this is well-known). It's another way of saying "overly fancy" or "show off" words. Maybe the person is just trying to demonstrate how smart they are or maybe they really do use "SAT words" often. From person to person, it's hard to say. To this point, there are common words and then "fancy words" to some extent. At some level of education, I'd say there are very rarely uncommon words for native English speakers but this is just an anecdote.
If you make up new words, you find that the rules fall apart and English shows it's true confusing nature. I've used this example in the past. Take these two words: tainted and mountain. How do you pronounce this new word: mountainted. Most people I've asked say "moun-tane-ted" even though mountain is "moun-ten".
I started learning English when I was 10 when I moved to the US. Even now, after 30 years of continual living in the US, though I speak with the same pronunciation as native born English speakers, I still find that:
1) When encountering a new word (usually names of foreign cities but pronouncing it as a native American English speaker would) I found that I sometimes tend to initially pronounce it closer to the way it would have sounded in my native language. Maybe (fairly common percent) to (an even higher percent) of time I will get it right the first time.
2) I found that I still count, subtract, add, multiply and divide in my head by revering back to my native tongue, since that's how I memorized the multiplication table (I guess).
3) My dreams are in English.
4) "Little voice in my head" is a mix of both languages, both spoken through the implant after I was abducted, but I never really thought about whether the language choice is random or based on some organic pattern.