Most Common Pronunciation Errors for Arabic Speakers Learning English
As a language learner, it is important to consider the differences between the languages you speak. This way, you can maximize the effectiveness of your communication and may even be mistaken for a native speaker! This also holds true for pronunciation across languages. Considering the differences in the sounds of languages can help you discover sounds that you may have difficulty with, or even sounds that you may already have in your native language.
In the case of the Arabic language, as with many other languages, there are several dialects to consider. Arabic has a variety of dialects, including Egyptian Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and several others. Differences in pronunciation are often a common way to distinguish between dialects of a language. This means that some Arabic speakers learning English may have difficulties with some English sounds more than others. Remember that although this post includes examples of common pronunciation differences, it is not necessarily the case for all Arabic speakers. Use this post as a guide in your journey towards English proficiency.
To start, English has several sounds that do not exist in Arabic. These include voiced “th” (“these”, “there”), voiceless “th” (“thanks”, “three”), “p” (“pop”, “people”), “v” (“very”, “vine”), the soft “j” sound (“measure”, “fissure”), “ng” (“thing”, “wing”), and any 3-consonant blends. Consonant blends happen when there are two or more consonants in a row. This happens frequently in English, but in Arabic, but most dialects do not have any clusters, and if they do, there are no more than two in a row. The differences in speech sounds between the two languages are very important if you are looking to improve your pronunciation. If your native language does not contain certain sounds that English does, then it is safe to say that these sounds might be more difficult to produce.
After considering which English sounds are not present in Arabic, we can think about what kinds of errors might be produced in order to compensate for the pronunciation differences. Let’s think about these error patterns in three areas: vowels, consonants, and intonation.
There are several vowels in English that might be challenging for an Arabic native speaker to distinguish. It’s important to know that Arabic has only one vowel, /a/. Compared to English, which has 14 vowels, this is a big difference! This may result in difficulty distinguishing between words containing:
“o” (own) versus “ah” (on)
“o” (toll) versus “oi” (toil)
“ee” (beat) versus “ih” (bit)
“uh” (cup) versus “ah” (cap)
“oo” (boot) versus “uh” (but)
“aye” (mane) versus “eh” (men)
Difficulty with distinguishing these sounds may lead to communication breakdowns, which happens when the listener misunderstands what the speaker is trying to say. For example, an Arabic-native English learner might be at a clothing store, asking to see a certain color of a cap that they liked. When they ask the store clerk to see the “green cap”, the store clerk might become confused, responding that they don’t sell “cups” at the store. Can you figure out what the customer’s mistake was? They said “cup” instead of “cap”, leading to a communication breakdown. The store clerk became confused, and although they might have eventually figured it out, situations like these can be avoided if we can learn about the differences between the languages and how to avoid common mistakes.
In addition to vowel sounds, there are also some consonant sounds in English that might be difficult for Arabic-native speakers. Again, this is influenced by the differences in speech sound inventories between the two languages. Additionally, English learners may again have difficulty telling the difference between two different letters – in this case, consonants. Here are the most common sounds that are “mixed up”:
“n” (thin) versus “ng” (thing)
“t” (bet) versus “th” (Beth)
Voiceless “th” (something) versus “s” (somesing, not a word) or “t” (someting, also not a word), depending on the dialect of Arabic spoken
Voiced “th” (this) versus “z” (zis, not a word) or “d” (dis, also not a word), again, depending on the dialect of Arabic spoken
“sh” (wish) versus “ch” (which)
“w” (wail) versus “v” (veil)
“f” (life) versus “v” (live)
“p” (pea) versus “b” (bee)
Regular “r” versus trilled r (may substitute trilled r)
“s” at the end of words might not be produced (“Tom’s”, “hers”, “bikes”, “drums”)
As with vowels, a mistake in the pronunciation of a consonant sound can lead to a communication breakdown. For example, an Arabic-native English learner might be in an English class where they are working on an animals unit. The teacher asks the English learning student what the name of the picture on the board is (a foal, or baby horse), and the student responds “vole” (a small rodent). The student gets the question wrong because the professor thought he said “vole”, when in reality, he meant foal. Again, there are instances of miscommunication that can occur when pronunciation is not taken into account.
Lastly, we need to consider differences in intonation between the two languages. Although there are not any big differences in intonation between Arabic and English, there may be some difficulty with word-level and sentence-level intonation. Check out our other posts to learn more about intonation in English across the word– and sentence-level.
In terms of word-level intonation, Arabic-native English learners may generally have fairly error-free intonation in this area. However, word-level intonation in English is not entirely regular or predictable, which can become very confusing if English is not your first language. Learning about the irregularity of word-level intonation in English can help you improve your pronunciation and communication skills.
In terms of sentence-level intonation, in English, we tend to “reduce” unstressed vowels. In other words, when a vowel is not stressed, it is generally not pronounced as much. Someone who is learning English might not pick up on this, and it could be difficult for Arabic-native English learners.
Overall, just like any other language, Arabic-influenced English proficiency can be improved by understanding the differences between the two languages in terms of pronunciation. Aside from pronunciation, we have Arabic to thank for so many of the words we use today! Check out the many ways Arabic has grown the English vocabulary here and here. To learn even more about the Arabic language in general, check out this page.
Mojsin, L. (2016). Mastering the American accent. Hauppauge, NY: Barrons.
If you missed us last time, check out our last post, Most Common Pronunciation Errors for Chinese Speakers Learning English.
Questions or Comments? Contact us here.