English Pronunciation Problems of Italian Native Speakers
Teaching English pronunciation to students of other languages is always a big deal. English teachers from other countries may think that it is a topic to be skipped or only briefly introduced to students, but it is one of the most important subjects and it should be an integral part of an English course. As a matter of fact, the full understanding of a language and good communication actually depend, to a certain extent, on how correctly words are pronounced. Also, it is not only a matter of pronunciation but intonation. Every language has its own intonation and stress on words, so an English learner could find it difficult to get used to a new way of pronouncing words in another language. This is true for those learners who speak Romance languages as their mother tongue, for example, Italian.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Stefania F.
Challenges of teaching Italian students
One of the biggest challenge when teaching English to Italians is its phonetics. The difficulty of the Italian people when pronouncing words in English possibly depends on the fact that they are rarely taught the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) at school and university. In addition, movies and TV series are usually dubbed in their own language. As a consequence, they are not as exposed to the English language as in other European countries. Italian does not have aspirated vowels and it is read exactly the same way it is pronounced: when learning English, Italians tend to pronounce words as they are spelled.
Common pronunciation mistakes of Italian students
I personally witnessed pronunciation difficulties when I taught English in Italy in a high school last year. Thanks to this experience, I noticed that the most common problems for Italian learners of English are the following:
- The /h/ sound. They should say it in words like hate, have, and home; However, as in the Italian language, the /h/ is silent, they just omit it, instead of pronouncing it. At the same time, to compensate for it, they add a /h/ where it is not considered – between two vowels, for example, like in the word away or before a vowel at the beginning of a word, like apple.
- A word ending in a consonant. Italian speakers often add a schwa /ə/ at the end words ending with a consonant: for example, stop(ə) and speak(ə). It happens because in the Italian language there are no words ending with a consonant, so they stress the consonant adding another syllable. In this way, they modify the intonation;
- The vowel /a/. As Italian has only an open vowel /a/, Italian speakers use their own /a/ in English, so the word /mat/ is pronounced exactly as they read it, whereas it should be /æ/;
- The vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/. Both of them are often pronounced in the same way by Italian speakers, so heat and hit sound the same (and, of course, without aspirating the h) as well as read; and rid.
- The /th/ sound. This sound does not exist in Italian, so it is often replaced by a dental /t/ or /d/ – sometimes it can also be /f/. For example, think becomes tink but it can even turn into fink.
- Adding either /k/ or /g/ right after they produce the consonant /ŋ/. For example, in the word thing the final g is pronounced as a k, whereas in the word think the final /k/ is pronounced like a /g/.
- Double vowels. When Italian speakers pronounce words like no and go, they make a single /o/ sound, since, in their native language, a double vowel simply does not exist.
- The consonant /w/. This is often substituted with a /v/ at the beginning of the word, like would and water.
Difficulties for Immigrants learning English in Italy
Apart from Italian students, I also taught a small group of French, Latin-American and Arabic migrants, recently arrived in Italy. Not only did they have a low level of Italian, but they were also beginners in English. In general, I noticed that the most challenging difficulties for French speakers were the /h/, which was completely ignored when they found a word starting with /h/; and the sound /th/ which they replaced with /s/ and/or /z/ (zis instead of this, sink; instead of think). This happens because the French language does not have the same sounds as in English. Arabic students had many troubles in pronouncing consonants, especially the /r/. Latin Americans, instead, were not able to aspirate the /h/ sound, which was usually pronounced like a /j/ (it sounds like a velar fricative in Spanish).
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In conclusion, all the above difficulties derive from different habits in the learners’ native languages, for example, unfamiliar phonemes or speech sounds. It is the ability of the ESL English teacher that can make the difference when teaching pronunciation. Drills can be a good solution, both with groups and individuals. Even songs can be an enjoyable listening exercise that can help pronunciation. The IPA can also be an amazing tool to improve pronunciation and using an online dictionary can help a lot to make the students listen to the right pronunciation and make them repeat. A good teacher who wants to improve pronunciation should always “tink ebaut dis”!
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