Commonly Mispronounced English Sounds

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Commonly Mispronounced English Sounds

Pronunciation Problems in India

English has been acknowledged and used as a ‘Lingua franca,’ all over the world for several decades now. Most English-speaking countries can attribute their familiarity with the language, to the British empire and its ambitions to keep extending its dominion. In India as well, natives had to learn the language to comprehend and communicate with the British rulers. This attempt was given a boost by the establishment of “English-medium” schools, and the wheel was set into motion to cast India into an English mould.

As a result of that start, today, India boasts the largest English-speaking population. Having said that, it must be categorically stated that Indian English varies greatly in its grammatical, colloquial and phonetic usage, from the way it’s employed by “native” speakers. This article will restrict itself to discussing the phonetic aspect, with regards to phonemes that Indians at large, (irrespective of regional influences), find difficult to articulate.

The distortion of Phonetic sounds can, in general, be attributed to FLI (First Language Influence) or MTI (Mother Tongue Influence), which results in the substitution of an English phoneme with the closest Indian equivalent.

Let’s consider some commonly mispronounced Consonant and Vowel sounds:


T/D: Native speakers produce the /t/ and the /d/ sounds by raising the front or the tip of the tongue to the alveolar ridge. However, Indians use retroflex plosive sounds to substitute both of those, resulting in a [t] and a [d]. As the name itself suggests, these sounds are created by curling the tongue backwards, touching the tip to the center of the hard palate and then flexing it outward with a rush of air. Both the [t] and the [d] sounds are exclusive to the Indian Sub-continent.

/r/: The /r/ sound, commonly pronounced as a retroflex by Americans, is trilled by Indians. This is done by placing the tongue flat against the alveolar ridge and vibrating it. This phoneme also exists in languages like Spanish and Italian.

Unvoiced Plosives - /p/, /k/ and /t/: Having already discussed the /t/, let’s look at the other two. The /p/ and the /k/ sounds exist in Hindi both as aspirated and unaspirated sounds, however, there is a phonemic distinction between the two. Without the benefit of this distinction in English, it’s reduced by Indians to an unaspirated, voiceless plosive.

Dental Sounds - /θ/ /ð/: All native Indian languages lack dental fricatives. As a result, the /θ/ is produced by pressing the front portion of the tongue to the back of the upper teeth and releasing it with a rush of air (plosive), to create a voiceless, dental plosive /th/. The voiced dental /ð/ is produced in a similar manner but with less force, resulting in the creation of a voiced dental plosive.

/v/ & /w/ sounds: The labio-dental /v/ is another phoneme that doesn’t exist in most Indian native languages. This results in the overuse of the bilabial /w/. Therefore, ‘Visa’ is commonly pronounced /wi:za:/. There are, however, certain parts of the subcontinent where Urdu is spoken (primarily in Sindh area, both in India and Pakistan). Here people have the habit of changing /w/ to /v/ and vice versa (as in /ven/ for ‘when’ and /waIp?r/ for ‘viper’).


Minimal pair swap - /e/, / æ /: In several parts of India, particularly in the north, natives tend to swap the /e/ with the / æ /, thus distorting words considerably (‘set is pronounced /sæt/ and ‘any’ is pronounced /æni:/).

Shortening of Diphthongs to monophthongs: General Indian English has long monophthongs, /e:/ and /o:/, instead of standard, glided diphthongs /eI/ & /?u/.

No distinction between / ? /, / ? / and /3:/: In Indian English, all of three vowel sounds mentioned are realized as / ? /.

In spite of the existence of these glaring differences, Indians for the most part are happy with, and often proud of, their English-speaking abilities. The dramatic rise in the number of Call-centers though, have created the need to correct pronunciation and neutralize vernacular sounds to ease the communication process between native speakers and Indians.

Methods of Correction: Three methods that work well in the correction of sounds include:

1. Sound drills: Since the mouth/tongue needs to relearn correct ways to articulate different sounds, drilling works well. Either the 10 beat sound drill or 3x3 choral drilling can be used (the teacher gets the entire class to repeat the sound thrice, followed by three students/trainees who say the sound individually).

2. Introduction of the Phonetic alphabet/symbols: Familiarity with the Phonetic alphabet makes correction a lot easier. Students can learn to associate a word with each sound to memorize the different symbols and mispronounced words can be written phonetically to exhibit correction pronunciation. Alternately, the word could be spelled phonetically (Ex: fotoe).

3. Drawing Mouth Diagrams: This is an effective method to indicate correct placement of the tongue/teeth etc.

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