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Literacy Resources for ESL and ABE Learners: Pronunciation

Pronunciation and Phonotactic Constraints

Speaker A:  How can I help you?

Speaker B:  I looin fo engli cla.

Speaker A:  I'm sorry, can you repeat that please?

Do you ever feel like no matter how hard you try, regardless of how many times you are corrected, given examples to model, or how much you practice, you just can't pronounce something correctly? People just never seem to understand what you are saying. "What?"; "Can you please repeat that? "; "I don't understand."; "What do you mean?" Do you get frustrated and feel like you want to give up? Don't worry. All you need is a brief introduction to Phonotactic Constraints.

Phonotactic constraints are rules that tell us what sound combinations and sequences are possible in a language. For example, in English you will never see the consonants "k" and "t", or sounds /k/ and /t/, used together at the beginning of a word. However you will see the consonant cluster /st/ as in  "stop' or "stand".  If you speak Spanish this may seem strange to you. In Spanish the cluster /st/ is impermissible, or not allowed, at the beginning of a word. So when you want to tell someone about an interesting "story' that you read, you might end up saying "estory" or /eststɹi/, and the English speaker listening to you might think you said "history." This is because /st/ is impermissible at the beginning of a word in Spanish,  but /est/ is not. So what you are doing is unconsciously adding the vowel sound at the beginning of a word so it matches the rules of Spanish.

Other phonotactic constraints have to do with syllables. In English, there is a wide variety of vowel (V) and consonant (C) sound sequencing allowed in a single syllable:

  • CVC                hat            /hæt/
  • CV                   to              /tu/
  • VC                  am             /æm/
  • CCVC            queen         /kwin/
  • CCV               free            /fɹi/
  • CCCVCC       streets       /stɹits/

or for multisyllabic words:

  • VCCV             into            /ɪn tu/
  • CVCVCC        behind       /bɪ haɪnd/

There are of course more combinations, but this shows you that a syllable can end in a vowel or a consonant. However, in some languages syllables can only end in a vowel. Therefore people who speak Thai might say "fry rye" when they are trying to say "fried rice". A Vietnamese speaker might say "wor" when they want to say "work" or "word". In each situation, the speaker is omitting, or taking away, the final consonant sound because they are not accustomed to ending a word or a syllable with a consonant sound. As for a Korean speaker, she might say "churche" or /ʧɚʧei/ instead of church. Instead of omitting a final consonant sound, she is adding a vowel and another syllable to the end of the word so it also conforms to the pattern of having a vowel sound at the end of a syllable.

With this in mind, it is a good idea to learn about the phonotactic constraints in your first language and which constraints will cause problems for you when learning and speaking English. Just so you know, people often times cannot even hear or process sounds, sound combinations, and/or sound sequences that are not present or permissible in their first language. So, no matter how many times someone corrects you or models correct English pronunciation, you may never even really process what you are hearing.

So instead of having people continually correct you with little or no improvement, a knowledge and awareness of phonotactic constraints will give you an understanding of WHY you are making particular mistakes. You will have the tools to begin to make real changes.

Pronunciation Books

Here are some books to help you get started with improving your English pronunciation.