09 May Most Common English Pronunciation Errors made by Italian Speakers
Mapping English orthography with English speech sounds can be particularly challenging, even for Italians who have been living or working in English environments for a long time.
The speech sounds and speech patterns of Italian work quite differently from those used in British English. It is common for Italian speakers of English to transfer the speech sounds from Italian and make use of them in English because phonology is not taught as part of most English programmes in Italy.
Sometimes, this means failing to distinguish between pairs of speech sounds that are important in English.
Here are some common errors made by Italian speakers of English and our top tips on how to avoid them…
1. The /h/ sound
In the Italian language, the “h” letter is silent, so Italian speakers tend to transfer this rule to English and omit /h/ in English as well. While there are some English words that have a silent h, such as hour or honest, or small “h” words in fast connected speech, most other words have pronounced /h/ sounds.
home, happening, hard, hope, hats
2. Sentence Stress in English
Unlike in Italian, English syllables don’t carry an even number of stresses. This is true both at the word level and the phrase level.
Because of these major differences, most Italian speakers of English would often benefit from learning the precise rules and exceptions of English tone, rhythm, and stress, placing a particular emphasis on ensuring that English’s weak syllables are less prominent and lazier:
There were five of them there.
/ˈder ˈwer ˈfaɪv ˈɒf ˈdem ˈder/ (IT)
/ðə wə \faɪv əv ðəm ðeə/ (GB)
3. Non-Phonetic Spelling in English
While Italian is a phonetic language, English is not: that means that you can’t always depend on the spelling of a word to know its pronunciation. For example, the words “two”, “too”, and “to” are all spelled differently and have different meanings, yet they are pronounced in the exact same way in stressed positions!
The irregular relationship between English pronunciation and spelling is something that we can help you with at British Accent Academy!
Here are some examples of other homophones in British English that may be challenging for Italian speakers to interpret:
4. Consonant Endings
In Italian, there aren’t many words that end with consonants, while English has many words that end with consonants. To compensate for this, native Italian speakers will often add a vowel at the ends of English words to create a more familiar vowel ending, in line with Italian’s speech sound rules, resulting in words like “stop” becoming “stop-ah”.
One way of improving your articulation of consonant-final words in English is to learn connected speech techniques to make your speech flow better.
Practise the following common words and phrases, taking care not to over-articulate the final consonant by counting a single syllable in each word (1 beat each).
name, crisp, bag, take, case
5. English’s Two TH Fricative Sounds
‘Th’ words can be challenging as /θ/ and /ð/ are dental hissing sounds that don’t exist in the Italian language.
Many native Italian speakers will replace them with a dental /t/ or /d/ plosive. English’s dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are particularly important sounds to practise and perfect if you are aiming for standard UK Received Pronunciation as they are found in some of the most common English words, such as “the” and “they”.
To make these TH sounds in English, touch the tip of your tongue on the bottom edge of your top teeth and exhale, letting air pass between your teeth and tongue for a slightly longer duration than may feel comfortable. If you make this motion voiced by buzzing your voice, you’ll have the /ð/ heard in “these”, and if it is voiceless you will produce the /θ/ in “thing”.
thought, though, than, thin, those, think
6. Navigating the Seven Pronunciations of the letter “o”
Native Italian speakers may struggle to form the English diphthong /əʊ/. This can result in words like “no” being mispronounced with the single, Italian short vowel /no/ rather than with the elongated diphthong with two positions, as it is articulated in the RP pronunciation: /nəʊ/.
In fact, Italian speakers may actually pronounce /o/ for all English words spelled with the letter “o”, when in fact, British native speakers have approximately seven different pronunciations of the letter “o” depending on the context.
In instances where this type of native-language interference is coming about, you need to learn each and every mouth shape in context.
Familiarising yourself with the phonetic script will also allow you to better understand which words use single or double vowels in English: practise the following words and focus on moving from a lazy mouth shape to a rounded mouth shape for /əʊ/.
go, don’t, boat
7. /r/ & silent <r>
In Italian, the <r> is rolled, while in GB English, it is pronounced in a more vowel-like way. Often, it isn’t even pronounced! This can be incredibly confusing for Italian speakers of English, as the rule isn’t immediately obvious.
Received Pronunciation is non-rhotic, meaning that this type of accent sometimes has a silent r, such as in the words car or farm. You can recognize a silent r by its position in a word: if R does not come before a (pronounced) vowel, it will be silent. If R comes before a vowel, it is pronounced.
To avoid trilling the r, keep your tongue from touching the roof of the mouth by bunching the tongue and adding tension to it.
Examples of silent r before consonants or before nothing:
bird, sister, your, turn, learn
Examples of vowel-like r:
red, rain, roll, grapes, freight
8. ED endings
Because Italian is a phonetic language and English is not, ED endings are often a challenge for those who are first learning English phonology. That’s because there are three different possible pronunciations for verbs with ed endings, and none of them are phonetic! There are three main rules to follow:
1. -ed is pronounced as /d/ after voiced speech sounds, except /d/
2. -ed is pronounced as /t/ after unvoiced consonants, except /t/
3. -ed is pronounced as /ɪd/ after /d/ or /t/
helped, visited, rained, called, invited, missed, asked, worked
Learn the precise rules of how to pronounce ED endings in the Complete English Pronunciation Course.
9. Positioning Vowels
Italian speakers often need help positioning the English vowels accurately, particularly the central vowels like WOR (worse, word, work).
Words like “run” and “ran” frequently merge for Italian speakers, whereas for British speakers of English, these words would be contrastive.
Open the mouth wide with a front tongue for “a” and relax the mouth fully for the “u” here.
Learn exactly how to shape your mouth for the vowels of British English & master the rules here:
10. Nuances of Intonation
Many of the nuances of English’s tone patterns are hard for Italian speakers to grasp, especially since British speakers often make use of tone for implication or to show irony. Italian speakers of English often need support in order to master the rules and exceptions of British intonation.
Learn the rules and exceptions of English tone and melody using this e-book (+ audio)
Sign up for a course with British Accent Academy to reduce native language interference from Italian or to work on any aspect of your pronunciation, intonation, and connected speech using a Modern Received Pronunciation model.