I would like to tell you my story, and tell you why I decided to start this podcast. It was the year 2000 when I moved to the United States for work. He worked for a multinational software consulting company. I am originally from Lima, Peru, and I felt that speaking English acceptably was a challenge I had to overcome. I had a relatively strong accent at the time, but working in this company I had the opportunity to interact with people from many countries. These exchanges with non-Spanish speaking colleagues were, of course, in English. It was there that I noticed that most of us had difficulty pronouncing many words in this language correctly. In general, many could read and write English quite well, but when it came to pronouncing it, there was a difficulty.
Being in Pennsylvania, I took this situation as an opportunity to improve my English. I used to live in Miami, where the vast majority of people speak Spanish. But being in Pennsylvania was different: no one spoke Spanish here, and it was an English immersion situation. When I arrived in town, the first thing I wanted to do was to visit the Reading Railway Station. If you ever played Monopoly, you will remember that there were 4 railroads, one of which was the ‘Reading’ railroad. The station today is a market, and I set out to visit it immediately. As a good tourist, in times when there were no Google Maps, I started asking people for directions:
– Where is the Reading [Riding] Railroad Station? (Where is Reading Railway Station [Riding]?)
– It’s not Reading [Riding], it’s Reading [Reding] (No es Reading [Riding], es Reading [Reding]). – one of the people replied, looking at me with pity.
– Reading [Reding]? Why? (Reading [Reding]? Why?) – I asked, since all my life I had pronounced the conjunction of letters ‘read’ as [Rid], I did not understand why in this case it would be pronounced [Reding].
– I don’t know, but that’s the way it is. (I don’t know, but that’s just the way it is). – He answered me, resigned.
This anecdote caused me a little reaction, and motivated me to find out more and find out better why English is spelled and pronounced irregularly. My point of view at the time was that English had to have certain rules for spelling words, and that their spelling represented in some way how they should be read. And I just didn’t think I had been taught all the rules. So I started asking for courses, or people who could explain to me why words are spelled the way they are spelled, and why they are pronounced the way they are pronounced.
I did not get a specific answer, a clear answer to my question, no matter how many people I asked. I decided to go to the Merrian-Webster dictionary, which is one of the leading English dictionaries, and asked them this question. The pronunciation editor of the dictionary was kind enough to respond to me, and basically told me that he did not know of any books on the subject explaining the relationship between spelling and sound in English.
Of course this to me was an even bigger surprise, given that if the very head of phonetics of one of the major English dictionaries does not know of a book that specifically addresses the subject, it means that there is really no compendium, no work that explains this.
I continued researching, but it was clear that there is no study on this subject. One thing I noticed comparing English dictionaries with other European languages is that in the English dictionary, each word has a pronunciation guide. The word is written, and next to it is a series of symbols that are not necessarily the symbols of the regular alphabet, but are symbols of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) that explain the pronunciation of each word. This is not the case in any other European dictionary. The other dictionaries simply define the pronunciation rules specific to the language, or have special diacritical symbols (symbols that are written over vowels or letters, such as the accent or umlauts in Spanish). Once the rules are understood, it is not necessary to represent the phonetics in each word.
I continued researching, and one of the first books that shed more light on this subject was ‘Mother Tongue’ written by Bill Bryson, who explains in this book the point of view of the English speaker, who is aware of the divorce between the written word and the pronunciation. In his book, he points out that there is no need to do anything about it, that this is the way things are and that there is no need to change anything.
Of course, English speakers have every right to think this way, but since English has become the international language, then all of us who learn English as a second language are affected. Approximately one billion people in the world study English, and there are many more people learning English as a second language than there are native speakers.
As I continued my research, a question arose as to why English scribes represented words in a certain way? Consulting with linguists, I discovered several ancient Latin rules that were used by English scribes. For example, the use of the double consonant to change sounds. This allowed me to isolate the basic sounds used in English, and the relationship to how the words were written. This allowed me to improve my pronunciation a lot. I had already been in the United States for many years and had relatively good pronunciation, but people constantly asked me ‘where are you from?’ As much as I tried to speak English as well as I could, they always kept asking me. After understanding these sounds, I improved my pronunciation, and with constant practice I was able to get closer and closer to the natural sounds that English speakers make.
Discovering these sounds allowed me to reduce the confusion that arises from all these problems I described, and that also arises from the multiplicity of accents that English speakers themselves have. This occurs not only between countries, but also between regions or even within a few kilometers of each other.
My intention is to share with you this experience and this data in the hope that it will help you improve your pronunciation as I was able to improve mine. In addition, they are quite interesting facts that are little known: few people know that there is a sound called the ‘schwa’, which is the basic vowel sound, when the mouth is relaxed. This sound is in more than 60% of English words, yet its spelling is not indicated anywhere, and it is generally not taught in traditional English courses.
In this series of podcasts we will discuss various topics, including the peculiarities of English compared to other languages. Let’s review the Western scribal tradition (Latin, Greek, Hebrew) which all had the same 5 vowels that we have in Spanish. We will also understand why these 5 vowels are used in the Latin alphabet. We will see why the alphabet is divided between vowels and consonants, what the difference is and how these differences influenced English. We will see the evolution of English, which started as a regular language and ended up as an irregular language. We will discuss schwa, short vowels, long vowels and the other English vowel sounds that are not represented in the spelling. We will talk about the experience of learning English as a native speaker, and how despite being immersed in the language, they too have their difficulties.