Typical Problems Pronouncing the Alphabet

Alex Case
A summary of problems different students have with saying and recognising the English alphabet, including in connected speech

Perhaps because it is difficult to find interesting and age-appropriate activities, learning how to say and recognise the alphabet tends to be restricted to young learners and a page or two for low-level adults. However, I find that even quite high-level students can have problems pronouncing and understanding the alphabet, especially in fast speech. This article is a summary of the problems all kinds of students have. There are also links at the end to similar information in table form and an article on classroom activities to teach this point to adult students.

L1 interference

With students whose own language also has the Roman alphabet, problems understanding or producing the English alphabet are usually because the names of the letters are different, and it is often the case that the name of one letter in their language is similar to the name of a different letter in English. This leads many students to mix up pairs of letters such as:

  • A/E
  • A/R
  • C/K
  • C/S
  • E/I
  • G/J
  • K/Q
  • W/Y

If it is not obvious from the context that the student is saying a letter, the pronunciation of a letter from L1 might also be confused with an English word. Examples include:

  • A/a
  • B/bay
  • D/day
  • G/gay
  • H/hatch
  • K/key
  • L/lay
  • P/pay
  • R/air
  • S/say

Perhaps surprisingly, students of languages with a completely different script such as Thai and Chinese often have fewer problems with mixing up pairs of letters. The problems they do have are likely to be related to sound distinctions that don’t exist in L1, e.g. the lack of a P/V distinction in Korean. Nationalities who use the Roman script can also have some of these kinds of problems, e.g. Spanish speakers having problems with B and V. Pairs of letters which students often mix up for this reason include:

  • B/P
  • B/V
  • C/Z
  • D/G
  • D/T
  • G/Z
  • M/N

There might also be minimal pairs between letters and English words that cause students problems when it is not 100% clear from the context that something is a letter rather than a word. Examples include:

  • A/hay/hey
  • C/she
  • E/he
  • H/etch
  • K/gay
  • L/air
  • L/hell
  • M/am
  • M/hem
  • N/an
  • N/hen
  • O/or
  • Q/coo/coup
  • S/ace
  • S/ass
  • U/Jew
  • V/fee
  • X/axe
  • Y/vie
  • Z/said

Students might also have problems with sounds that do exist in their language but don’t come at the beginning or end of words. For example, Japanese students tend to pronounce F as “efu”, H as “etchi”, L as “elu/eru”, M as “emu”, R as “aaru”, and S as “esu”, as none of those consonant-sounds come at the end of Japanese words. As with the adding of extra sounds at the beginning and end of words generally, this can have more impact on comprehension than you might think, including in English as a Lingua Franca situations.

As with the “etchi” pronunciation of H used in Japanese mentioned above, there are also sometimes changes in the English alphabet that are not explainable by looking at the sound system of the local language. The Japanese pronouncing W exactly the same as “double” is another example of this.

Varieties of pronunciation

Perhaps the most well-known example of how the pronunciation of the English alphabet can vary is the American and British pronunciation of Z as “zee” and “zed” (rhyming with “bee” and “bed”) respectively. A lesser-known barrier to communication is that American and other rhotic accents have a /r/ at the end of the pronunciation of R, making it sound like “aa(r)”. Non-rhotic accents such as RP pronounce R like the “ah” sound that your doctor asks you to make when s/he looks down your throat, and students can often not recognise this pronunciation. The non-rhotic pronunciation is also easier to mix up with the pronunciation of A. To further complicate things, the pronunciation of R for non-rhotic speakers changes when it is followed by a vowel sound (see below).

The other common change is that some British people pronounce H with an initial h sound (“heych” rather than “eych”). Although this is considered non-standard and most people will drop it when speaking formally or carefully, it is fairly common across the UK.

Putting them together

As mentioned above, when the letter R is followed by a vowel sound in non-rhotic accents a /r/ is sounded, making it similar to the rhotic pronunciation. With pairs of letters, this affects the pronunciation of R when it is followed by A, E, F, H, I, L, M, N, O, R, S and X.

Similar effects can be seen when those same letters (A, E, F etc) have any letter whose pronunciation ends in a vowel before them. A, B, C, D, E, G, I, J, K, P, T, V and Y (plus Z in American English) all gain a /j/ (for “yacht”) sound before a vowel, and O, Q, U and W all gain a /w/, making AA sound like “ei yei” and OO sound like “oh woh”.

Students can also have similar problems recognising combinations of letters when the consonant at the end of the pronunciation of a letter (F, H, L, M, N, S, X and Z in British English) links, or can seem to transfer to, the vowel sound at the beginning of the following letter. For example, FA can sound like “e fei” rather than “ef ei”.

Finally, students can have problems with the use of “double” when we spell things out, most especially with “double you” for both W and UU, where the only difference is in the word stress.

Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub.com
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
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