Activity Workshop

English words

A lot of English speakers complain when they eventually have to learn another language. "It's so difficult", they say. "It doesn't make sense." Well, perhaps they're right. Mark Twain in particular had a lot to say about the difficulties of German, and I'm currently finding out how right he was. But stop to consider for a while the difficulties that speakers of other languages have when they try to learn English. Quite apart from the many irregular verbs and complex sentence constructions, the huge variety of accents on offer, even within a tiny island like Britain, obscure phrases and sayings and the multitude of tenses, the unfortunate learner of English must battle with the most bizarre of spelling conventions ever invented.

Words which look similar

We can start with the famous combination of letters "ough", which will be familiar to readers of Dr Seuss. Now if you see the letters "ough" in a word, it's more or less a guessing game how to pronounce it, because there's no sense to any of it. For example (and I'm sure this isn't exhaustive), you might expect by looking at the following words, that they sound at least roughly the same:

There are also other, less extreme examples of this with other letter combinations, such as:

Words that sound the same but look different

Now, we take for granted the problems of words having two meanings, because that happens in any language. However, in English there are many examples of words which, although they look different (sometimes very different), they are pronounced exactly the same. Which word the speaker is actually saying must be guessed by the unfortunate listener. For example bald/bawled, or kernel/Colonel. Less common are groups of three or more words which behave in this way, although with the confusing variety of accents in the English language, this list can vary, for example in many American accents, the words "paw" and "poor" sound very different, but in many British accents they sound identical.

And cheating a little bit with word contractions:

Words that look the same but sound different

To add insult to confusion, there are also words which, although they have exactly the same spelling, they have not only completely different meanings, but also completely different pronunciation. In many languages, if you ask someone how to pronounce a word, there is usually only one answer. But not here. Sometimes there is a stress on different syllables, changing the sound:

Sometimes the consonant changes, in these examples from an 's' sound to a 'z' sound:

But in some cases the whole vowel sound changes:

So remember that, next time you're trying to learn a foreign language!