How to be understood speaking English (without mastering the ‘th’ sounds)

It probably bothers you a lot more than it bothers me if you can’t pronounce my name.

Do you sometimes say something in English and get no response?

You’re faced with a blank stare. Frantically, you search through your cluttered brain trying to work out what you said wrong. Was it the verb? Was it conjugated wrong? Did you say something inappropriate by accident? You’re not sure, but she’s looking at you, waiting.

You open your mouth and feel each syllable as it passes through your lips. They sound awkward and forced. It’s no good. The listener doesn’t understand, and you were so sure you were saying it right.

So where were you going wrong?

Pronunciation is as much a listening skill as a speaking skill.

The listener repeats the exact same word that you were saying. And you’re confused because you think you’re hearing the same sounds as you’re saying, but you’re not, not quite. All languages have certain sounds which really matter to understanding.

Without the ‘th’, I’m Caterine, Caterina, Catrina or something else entirely

Whenever I meet someone on my travels, we have a short awkward conversation where I introduce my name, and they reply, “Caterine?”

“No, not quite, Ca-the-rine”


“-Th- Catherine.” Eventually I just smile saying that it’s close enough.

But it’s just like me rolling my ‘r’s

Imagine you’re having dinner with a Catalonian family. Beside you, at the table is a five-year-old girl called Carla. That’s Ca-RRRRR-la. And every time you correct anyone on their lacking ‘th’, she challenges you to say her name.


“No!” she laughs, “Ca-RRRRRRRRR-la.”

Being unable to roll the ‘r’ used to get me really annoyed

Until a kindly French lady pointed out that if I said an ‘r’ sound, as strongly as I could, the French would understand me, on one condition… That when speaking French, I get my stresses correct.

Stress matters much more in French than in English

Which made me think, if stress is the keystone to being understood in French, what really matters in the other languages I’m faced with. And when I’m teaching people English pronunciation, what do I need to focus on?

Like the French R, the frustrating English ‘th’ sound isn’t as big a deal as it’s often made out to be

In fact, if you’re speaking English to a non-native speaker, you shouldn’t get overly concerned with it. In International English, the flow of your communication is much more important than the irritating ‘th’.

Just imagine it, a French man speaking to a Spanish woman, neither of whom can really hear or speak the ‘th’ like an English native, what does it matter?

And most native speakers who work with people who speak English as a second language won’t have a problem understanding your trees to sometimes be threes. That you fink rather than think will merely go down as a quirk in your accent.

The ‘th’ matters so little that the Irish have totally mangled it

Which isn’t saying that I have any idea what an Irish person talking to another Irish person is saying. But I do understand when they start trying to communicate with me – and it’s not because they have switched to ‘standard English’. They still carry their own accents, but the exuberance is muted.

Furthermore, there’s a town near where I grew up, called Barnsley

Barnsley isn’t far from when I grew up. It’s in the same county as I was taught Shakespeare. We have the same blue bus stops. But if one Barnsley lad speaks to another Barnsley lad, I’ve got about as much hope of understanding them as Carla.

Yet, like the Irish, if they want to be understood, they can make themselves understood

You don’t have to speak English like David Attenborough to have a meaningful conversation. I never have and never will. To speak ‘standard’ English would be a betrayal of my identity.

Which brings us to another problem with speaking English to a native speaker. A problem you don’t get with people who use the language as a common language, a lingua franca

English people speak awful English

At least, if you compare them to the idealized language of politicians educated at Eton and Oxford, or David Attenborough. English people speak English with dialects that vary from town to town.

But that’s the beauty of the language. It’s a mongrel tongue, ever-changing, ever abused, ever flourishing. It’s not perfection, and nor should you treat it like such.

If your goal is to get business done with an international audience

Then don’t get hung up on the ‘th’. Put your energy into the length of your vowels (still/steal, till/teal).

And those tricky consonant clusters, where every consonant (unless it’s silent) matters in making the word have meaning (stop, strop)

And when you come across an unintelligible native speaker, remember, it’s likely they don’t speak ‘standard English’ either.

Listen, and enjoy it.

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How do you learn a language?

Life on a French farm

“Mon serviette,” the trilingual three-year-old demands from his high-chair.

“Ma serviette,” Grand-meré corrects.

“Mon serviette,” the boy insists.

“Non, ma serviette. C’est feminine.”

“Mon serviette.”

Later on, the grand-daughters are practicing their spelling.







How do you learn a language?

Not how do you memorize vocabulary, or correctly conjugate verbs, but how do you open your mouth and persuade a sound to come out? What’s more, how do you make this sound loud enough and clear enough that someone sitting at the other side of the dinner table knows you’re speaking to them?

This is a skill that the children have and I struggle with. Everyone at the table is in the process of learning. The children are learning both English and French, the grandparents are improving their English with the help of my frequent but gentle corrections and I’m…

… I guess I’m learning to overcome that debilitating panic that numbs my memory. I’m lost every time I want to ask for something or reply to someone in French. It doesn’t so much matter that I’m stuck in the present tense, nor that I have atrocious pronunciation. I just have to start.

How do you feel about speaking a foreign language?

Sicilian style language learning

learn english italian
A random sculpture found hanging out on the balcony. Sicily, 2016

First, find something you don’t know how to say. Gesture wildly, play charades, describe the word or phrase in high speed Italian (or Sicilian). Ignore my confusion.

Halfway through an elaborate sentence, pause. See that I’m trying to say something that might be useful. You’re sure it’s wrong, so keep gesturing until I say a word you prefer the sound of. There are many English words. You can pick and choose vocabulary. You avoid ugly words and choose emotionally. Maybe you don’t know why you like it, but that’s okay.

It’s probably wrong. Take both words. I’ll use them as pairs, defining one against the other ‘audacity’ fights ‘courage’, ‘to learn’ takes on ‘to find’. Somehow, I’ll convince you that ugly words are worthwhile too.

Sing a song. ‘Find’ is similar to ‘discover’ but you think it’s uglier, and Columbus discovered America, and at school Leonardo learnt about Columbus – on the 12 October he set off from somewhere in Spain. Don’t worry if you’re now lost. Comprehension is a bonus. Dance. If there isn’t enough space in the room, it doesn’t matter. Sing in any language. ‘We are the champions’ followed by ‘My bonny lies over the ocean’, if you like.

Discover, or find out, that this verb, to learn, is not regular. I fumble and speak in staccato. I gesture with the whole length of my arms. My gestures have become wild.

“No, no, no, no, no!” Who sounds Italian now? Slam the table.

I will watch as you argue in Italian, without breathing. Raise your voice until it’s indiscernible from shouting.

And keep shouting.

Then in a normal quiet voice turn to me, repeat the ugly word and clarify its meaning.

I’m starting to speak Italian.

The village school and missing my chance to find Prince Charming

Community Education in Spain

“Did it turn into a prince?” my sister, the Midget, asks.

“I didn’t kiss it.”

“Someone might have tried.”

If someone had tried, I would have used both of the two English words that 5-year-old children in Spain seem to understand: no and stop.

I’m all for children having fun with nature, but I don’t want to be held responsible for a child eating a live frog.

Which begs the question, what was I doing with a bunch of five-year-olds and a frog?

It started the other day, when it was explained to me that many parents volunteer at the village school. Once a week, in each class, four volunteering parents go into school and give up an hour of their day to run activities with the kids. Other times parents give talks on their professions, or people who speak different languages go in and allow the children to ask them questions.

I found myself volunteered into a class of five-year-olds, equipped with a load of magnifying glasses and pots for collecting things in, and sent out into the school gardens.

Children in Catalonia speak Catalan. At school, they learn Spanish and English, but whilst these kids could probably sing ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ at me, anything more complex was not going to happen. Their English is only a little better than my Spanish. I could have said, “In English, ant,” a thousand times to some children, and still they would just point. Other children managed to tell me that the ant was black and had six legs, probably the effect of extra English lessons and English speaking au pairs.

I lead the activity by the only method I could think of. I scrambled around in the dirt with excessive enthusiasm, picking flowers, tearing off leaves and catching ants, spiders and a single, beguiled frog.

In England, I couldn’t have done it. We have rules back home. Us English are seen as very frightened people on the subject of child protection. A lesson I learnt the first time I was in Spain.

However, here there is a different feeling about who owns the school, the families of the village have taken responsibility for making the place theirs. There are three classes of five-year-olds, because the parents demanded it. There are parents (and extras like me) who partake in maintenance work, planning, teaching and catching frogs.

Education is not just a system, but a community effort.

I’m kind of impressed.

Magic stars, climate change and primary school teachers

If there was ever a day where I woke up knowing I did not want to become a teacher, it was today.

This is not to say it was something I was considering yesterday. I wasn’t. I just merely spent a few hours learning about the challenges of becoming a teacher with a dear friend and her housemate. Two lovely ladies with hearts of gold and whose bookshelves suggest an average (median I suppose) reading age of 6.

Now, the last time I listened to a conversation between trainee teachers was on a late night train in the North-West of England, and the drunken conversation I followed was enough to put any woman off ever ever ever having children. Like ever.

(Guess the CD in the car.)

Last night’s conversation was also in the North-West of England, and certainly demonstrated that there was hope as well and horror in primary education.

After dinner, I collapsed in the corner of the sofa in a flat so clean you could take photos for a magazine shoot. I clutched a cup of tea, munched through my home-made Jaffa Cake bun and watched as packed lunches were made, flowers were propped up in water and presents were diligently wrapped. No hesitation. No procrastination. No moaning about having to do the washing-up.

Thirty packets of magic stars, ordered over the Internet because you can’t get the big bags at the local supermarket, tumbled into a gift bag.

“The kids are all my magic stars.”

I read a book about cow farts and global warming. The illustrations were gorgeous. Disappointingly though, climate change isn’t on the curriculum for the children in these ladies’ classes. Physics next term is stars. They’re all going to dress up as astronauts. I think they should study droughts, floods and hurricanes.

Shouldn’t stars come second to the Earth?

The cuddly elephant interrupted with a song and a chorus erupted around me.

They’re insane, I concluded. They’ve taken on the characters of the children they teach.

But they really do care. And that’s rather reassuring.

Personal branding and the name Catherine

My name isn’t Kate.

Except it is. Except it isn’t.

Choosing a name

The name my parents gave me is actually Catherine, and it’s Catherine that I default back to when I’m uncertain. Catherine is a proper name: Catherine of Aragon, St. Catherine, Catherine De Medici, Catherine the Great, etc.

Maybe it’s just me, but even in fiction, the name Catherine (in its many iterations) seems to go to women who know their own mind. Katherine Beckett in Castle, Kat in 10 Things I Hate about you, Catherine in Under the Tuscan Sun, Katy in What Katy Did.

Katherine needs to be stopped. Katherine, or one of its derivatives, is what you call your main female character when you realize you can’t call her Main Female Character. It has turned, hydra-like, from a name into a multi-headed monster, with Kate, Kay, Kathleen, Caitlin, Cathy, or Cat as its alternatives. I’ve had it pointed out to me that Meg Ryan has played a Katherine-ish name six different times – once she played three Katherines in a row. I’d have to argue that few actresses will have no Katherines on their resume, especially if they play the main character. It’s ubiquitous, and therefore meaningless.

Esther Inglis-Arkell

Great. With so many Catherines, what’s this Catherine meant to do. Kate is softer, less hard work. Kitty appeals to me as it’s a bit more flouncy (think of Kitty in Pride and Prejudice), it comes with less expectation. She might be a bit flat, but then again Catherine De Bourgh…

When asked what I want to be called, I shrug my shoulders. I’m happy leaving the choice to the speaker, although I’d prefer to keep away from ‘Cath’ or ‘Cathy’.

There was a time when Cat, which is a difficult name to write on the bottom of a professional email, was first choice. I drew a large number of cats intertwined with my name, yet, I’m not a huge cat fan. If anything I’d prefer they were absent from my life as they make me sneeze. As a verbal nickname ‘Cat’ is an acceptable choice. If I was a ‘Katherine’, rather than ‘Catherine’ and therefore ‘Kat’ not ‘Cat’ it would also work on paper. As it is,  I can’t write it down without thinking ‘meow’.

All this complaining, you might think I don’t like my name. This wouldn’t be true. I think it’s a good name: solid, reliable. It’s just got a few minor flaws.

At work, I tend to stick with Catherine. Chewbacca ignores this convention and whilst emails start with a professional ‘Hi Catherine’, in person she’s more likely to call me Fluff, Spock or something that starts Ca- but goes places.

Chewbacca has similar naming strategies for her peace lily.

My parents, despite each having a 50% say in what my legal name is, each call me by a range of names. These names don’t overlap, and don’t always relate back the starting point. The choice depends on how nostalgic they feel and whether they’re asking for something.

In Italy and Spain, where ‘th’ isn’t, my name is given a spin of Caterina, Catarina or something along those lines.

Not surprisingly, I’ve introduced myself as different names at different times. It depends on my mood at the time and how many other Catherines are in the room.

Personal branding and consistency

Awkwardly, I’m now at a stage where having a name would be preferable to having half a dozen of the things. It’s not that I mind what I’m called (pick the iteration you think suits me best), but consistency, at least when you’re in marketing, helps. Email signatures, social media accounts and copyright messages all need to match. The internet is the medium of my work, and I am the sum of all that I do.

There’s no point actively selling myself short.

Because, like it or not, marketing is getting more and more personal. Whether it’s initials being tacked onto tweets so that you know which customer services representative you’re talking to, or a page of photos on a company website, companies are realising that their employees aren’t just useful hidden behind desks. There’s money to be made from their identities as real people.

This may make you feel uncomfortable. Yet, even my academic friends are being given the hint that having a person behind the paper helps it gain traction.

‘Catherine a.k.a Kate, Cat, Katie, Kitty, etc.’ – it isn’t branding best practice.

At work, I write as Catherine. It might have high expectations of me, it might be have connotations of purity, but it’s the name that’s not used by anyone else in the office. It’s the name stuck on my LinkedIn profile. It’s the name at the bottom of blog posts I’m paid to write. It’s the name I’m going to have to stick to.

Hence, my name isn’t Kate. Except it is. Except it isn’t.

Take your pick.

Saying Catherine

There’s also a small, and uncomfortable, question of pronunciation. When I was in primary school, a well-meaning teacher explained that words are composed of syllables.

One day, to try and illustrate the point, a small group of us were asked to sit in a circle. One of those big rattles in Caribbean colours that you have in every small children’s music class was passed around.  The idea was that we shook it once for each syllable in our name.

Now, I should confess, I’ve not got the most perfect speech. My tongue is rarely in sync with my brain. Like a record on the wrong speed, it’s not always clear what my message is. The more tired (or intoxicated) I get, the slower the record plays. My hearing hasn’t always been ideal either. Despite having a ‘th’ in my name, it didn’t enter my speech until after I’d read Lord of the Rings.

“Think before you speak.”

“I do fink before I speak.”

This isn’t to say that my speech isn’t good enough to get by. It manages quite well. However, occasionally I realise that a word I’ve been using for years doesn’t exist, or exists rather differently than I’d originally thought. ‘Happenence’ for example.

I took the rattle, and considered my name.

“Ca-frin” seemed a sensible option.

“Ca-th-rin” might be more correct.

“Ca-th-ehr-in” seemed a tremendously long way of going about it.

Ideal for a musician or a poet trying to make a name fit a line. But for a child who doesn’t like being the one speaking up in class, it’s frustrating. Nobody else had got stuck. When I explained I was unsure whether it was a two, three or four syllable name, my teacher asked me to say my name as I would say it.


“It’s got a ‘th’ as in thumb, not a ‘f’ as in fish.”

This teacher missed the point. My name did not play by the rules. She made me shake the rattle three times and then hastily moved on to the next child. I decided syllables were not for me.

I crossed my fingers hoping we weren’t about to go onto surnames.

How would you say Catherine?