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

pronunciation
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”

“Caterine?”

“-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.

“Ca-r-la?”

“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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Article written by Catherine Oughtibridge.

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