The Sound System

The Sound System
A selection of the types of mistakes that are made in the pronunciation
of English by Arab students.
Sources of difficulty:
A-The articulatory differences between English and Arabic.
English has twelve vowels and thirteen diphthongs; Arabic has six
vowels and two diphthongs.
English has twenty-four consonants; Arabic has twenty-eight. Some
consonants are found in both languages (common consonants), but some
are found in one language and not in the other. Because learning Arabic
comes years before learning English, Arab students impose some Arabic
pronunciation on the sounds of English.
B- The spelling of English.
The spelling of Arabic is regular. In contrast, the spelling of English is
very irregular. Moreover, to the learner, written English is not always a
reliable guide to pronunciation, and they are often misled by the graphic
representation of sounds.
Examples: /f/deaf, suffer, rough, phase
/i: /lead, see, people, me, deceive, believe.
Mistakes with vowel sounds:
Arab learners face the problem not only of recognizing certain sounds
but also of producing them. A more serious problem is that of confusing
these sounds.
A-Difficulty in the recognition and production of some vowel sounds:
(i) /eə/, /ʊə/, /iə/
/eə/ as in there /ðeə/, fair /feə/, wear /weə/
/ʊə/ as in sure /ʃʊə/, poor /pʊə/, pure /pjʊə/
/iə/ as in ears /iəz/
These are often replaced by the nearest vowel sound followed by a clear
Arabic /r/. Thus,
/eə/ becomes /e: / as in de:r/ ‫دير‬
/ʊə/ becomes /u: / as in /du:r/ ‫دور‬
/iə/ becomes /i: / as in /bi:r/ ‫بير‬
(ii)/əʊ/ as in coat /kəʊt/, hope /həʊp/
This sound is often replaced by the colloquial Arabic vowel /o: / as in
/fo:z/‫فوز‬, /mo:z/ ‫موز‬, /lo:z/ ‫لوز‬
(iii)/ei/ as in tail /teil/, late /leit/
This is replaced by the long colloquial Arabic vowel /e: / as in /be:t/
B- Confusion of some pairs of vowel sounds:
(i) /i/ and /e/ as in sit /sit/ and set /set/
/ʌ/ and /ɒ/ as in luck /lʌk/ and lock /lɒk/
/əʊ/ and /ɔ: / as in coat /kəʊt/ and caught /kɔ:t/
The difference between these pairs is non- phonemic in Arabic. They
occur as variant allophones of the same vowel.
(ii)/u:/ and /ʊ/ as in fool /fu:l/ and foot /fʊt/
The difficulty here is largely due to the spelling.
(iii) /ɜ: / and /ɑ: / as in dirt /dɜ: t/ and dart /dɑ:t/
The former sound is non-existent in all forms of Arabic, and the latter is
an allophone of /ᾱ/, not a separate phoneme as in English.
(iv)/ei/ and /e/ as in sail /seil/ and sell /sel/
The former is non-existent in Arabic, and the latter is an allophone of /i/,
not a separate phoneme.
C- Intrusive vowels: The Arab learner often introduces an extra vowel
into English words, for example:
/si ̍priŋ/ instead of /spriŋ/ spring
/wɜ:kid/ instead of /wɜ:kt/ worked
/grændi̩ fɑ:ðə/ instead of /grænd ̩fɑ:ðə/ grandfather
This is often because of the difficulties of English consonant clusters.
D-The schwa /ə/:
The difficulty arises from the very nature of this sound in the English
sound system. The schwa sound is the commonest of all English vowel
sounds, and yet it represents no particular vowel. The root of the
problem lies in the fact that the schwa replaces any of several vowel
sounds when they are unstressed. This is compounded by the absence of
any similar vowel in Arabic. A related problem is that in English there is
a whole group of words-function words-which may have no stress at all.
Words like am, does, the, for, and to have weak forms. That is, when
they are pronounced in connected speech, they are unstressed and the
vowel reduces to the schwa: am /əm/
for /fə/
/to /tə/.
Such a reduction of the vowel sound is not a distinct feature in Arabic.
In addition, the Arab tradition insists on very distinct articulation of
every letter of the alphabet when reading a text.
Mistakes with consonant sounds:
Some of the English consonant sounds are not found in Standard Arabic
as phonemes, while the manner of articulating others, e.g. /t/, /d/, /n/, /r/
is different from their Arabic counterparts.
A- Confusion of some pairs of consonant sounds:
Many of these confusions result from the Arab learner not recognizing
the voiced-voiceless distinction for these sounds.
(i) /f/ and /v/ as in fast /fɑ:st/ and vast /vɑ:st/
In Arbic /v/ occurs in borrowed words only, and /f/ is often used for both
sounds in English pronunciation.
(ii) /tʃ/ and /ʃ/ as in chair /ʧeə/ often pronounced /ʃeə/
/ʤ/ and /ʒ/ as in jar /ʤɑ:/ often pronounced /ʒɑ:/
In both these cases the problem arises from the absence of the former
sounds in Standard Arabic.
(iii) /p/and /b/ as in pin /pin/ and bin / bin/
/p/ occurs in Arabic as an allophone of /b/, that is, there is no phonemic
contrast as in English. Arab learners often substitute it with /b/.
(iv) /ŋ/ and /n/ as in sing /siŋ/
This is often replaced by /ng/ sounding as two separate phonemes, e.g.
/singə/ instead of /siŋə/ for singer.
(v) /s/ and /ɵ/ as in sin / sin/ and thin /ɵin/
/z/ and /ð/ as in zoo /zu:/ and they /ðei/.
In these two cases, the latter sounds are replaced by the former under the
influence of certain Arabic dialects, where the latter sounds are rarely
B- Consonant clusters:
Consonant sequences in Arabic and English differ greatly. Arabic has no
sequence of more than three consonants, whereas English has as many
as four consonants with no vowel intervening between them, e.g. texts
/teksts/. In connected speech, the sequence may be even longer; one
word may end with a consonant sequence and the next word may begin
with another. As a result, we can have longer sequences like banks
/bæŋkskləʊzd/. This causes problems to Arab learners as they
often add an intrusive vowel that acts as a breaker. For example:
Grandfather /grænd̍fɑ:ðə/ becomes /grændi ̩fɑ:ðə/
Spring /spriŋ/ becomes /si ̍pring/.
Another example is that of the past tenses of verbs ending in a voiceless
consonant. For example:
Wished /wiʃt/ and asked / ɑ: skt/ become /wiʃid/ and /ɑ: skid/.
C- Consonant doubling:
Although English has much doubling of consonants, e.g. allow,
embarrass, these tend to be pronounced as a single consonant sound, e.g.
/ə ̍laʊ/ /imbærəs/. Doubling is, however, a feature of Arabic
pronunciation and tends to make Arab learners double the pronunciation
of English consonant. So, allow /ə ̍laʊ/ becomes /æl-laʊ/.
D- Syllabic consonants:
English makes much use of /l/, /m/ and /n/ as syllabic consonanats, i.e.
they can function as a syllable without a vowel. Examples are bottle
/bɒtl/, rhythm /riðm/, and button /bʌtn/. As seen earlier, Arab learners
tend to use an intrusive vowel here, and in many cases, the spelling of
the words seem to support them:
Bottle /bɒtl/ becomes /bɒtil/
Rhythm /riðm/ becomes /riðim/
Button /bʌtn/ becomes /bʌtɒn/
E- Difficulty with the selection of phonologically conditioned variants:
These are persistent but minor mistakes in that they rarely lead to
confusion or misunderstanding, merely to the creation of a ‘foreign’
(i) In English, when /p/, /t/, or /k/ is pronounced initially or at the
beginning of a syllable before a stressed vowel, they are produced with
great force and a clear puff of air, which is called aspiration.
For example: compare
Pin [p(h)in] and spin [spin]
Tan [t (h) æn] and stand [stænd]
Core [k (h) ɔ:] and score [skɔ:]
(ii) /t/ and /d/ as in ten /ten/ and den /den/ are alveolar in English but
dental in Arabic.
(iii) /r / as in write /rait/. In Arabic /r/ is a voiced flap consonant,
produced by successive rapid flaps of the tip of the tongue against the
upper front teeth. English /r/ has no flap, but is a single movement of the
Another difficulty lies in the fact that the British English /r/ is not always
pronounced. When a word like four /fɔ: / is used before another word
beginning with a consonant, it is pronounced /fɔ:/ like four coffees
/fɔ: ̍kɒfi:z/, but when it is used before another word beginning with a
vowel, it is pronounced /fɔ:r/ like four eggs /fɔ:r ̍egz/.
(iv) In English, /h/ occurs in initial and medial positions, but not finally,
e.g. horse, behalf. In Arabic, /h/ occurs in all positions, e.g. ‫ وجه‬،‫ فهم‬،‫هتف‬.
(v) When /l/ is used at the beginning of a word, like leaf /li:f/, it is
pronounced slightly differently from when it is used at the end of a
word, like all /ɔ:l/. These are called ‘clear’ and ‘dark’ /l/ respectively. In
Arabic, dark /l/ is used when followed by consonants-/s/, /d/, /t/, /z/, /r/,
and /l/. The ‘clear’ and ‘dark’ /l/ distribution is the same as English.
(vi)In English, the regular past tense inflection ending in a voiced
consonant is /d/:
Love /lʌv/ becomes /lʌvd/, but when the verb ends in a voiceless
consonant, the past tense inflection also becomes voiceless:
Work /wɔ:k/ becomes worked /wɔ:kt/
Arab students tend to use the voiced form, especially when they see the
written word, and this often also prompts them to insert an intrusive
vowel: worked /wɔ: kt/ becomes /wɔ: kid/.
(vii) In English /s/ and /z/ are alveolar, whereas in Arabic their
counterparts are dental.
(viii) In English /n/ is alveolar, but in Arabic it is dental.