In the years of working on American English pronunciation with clients from all over the world, we see certain words come up again and again that are simply DIFFICULT to pronounce well. Americans have their own lists of “Most Mispronounced Words” (e.g. “expresso” for “espresso”) but the words here are uniquely problematic for many non-natives.
Test yourself to see how you do! Record each word, then play the mp3 at the end and compare your results. Good luck!
1. Accent. Surprise! Most people say “AEK – sint”, but it’s “sent”, not “sint”. Unusual in that both syllables have full vowels (instead of a schwa).
2. Collateral. The brisk combination of L, R and unreleased T make this a tongue-twister, especially for Asian speakers. Saying it fast won’t help, sorry.
3. Colleague. With both French and Latin roots, most pronounce it closer to their native style. It’s not koLEEG. It’s KAHleeg.
4. Decision. The voiceless S followed by the voiced ZH (voicing = vocal fold vibration) in quick succession will make you decide to pull your hair out.
5. Forty. One of the most annoying of all. The OR is very intense and it needs to fly straight into the flapped intervocalic T. Serious tongue acrobatics required.
6. Harvard. Difficult to get accepted there, and difficult to pronounce– for anyone who has trouble with R’s. If you are French, you may have the H giving you grief as well.
7. Horror. Two consecutive R-colored vowels make this word feel like its name.
8. Iron. Say it like “I earn” or “I yearn” and put the stress on the “I”. As though you are bragging: “I earn more than my cat earns!”
9. Liberty. One of many super-tricky words containing a unstressed syllable with R followed by the flapped intervocalic T … keep reading.
10. Literally. Dreadful for non-natives. The middle of this word has a quick succession of very short syllables including, again, R and the flapped T.
11. Monitoring. More R and flapped T problems. I hate saying this word!
12. Months. With its tricky succession of three consonants (N, TH, S), most non-natives opt to drop the S. But when Americans speak quickly, they don’t usually pronounce the TH at all. Easier to do, and you get to keep the plural that way.
13. Murderer. This one’s a killer. Three ER’s in a row. Tongue acrobatics again.
14. Owl. Cute animal, sinister pronunciation. Something about going from the big round OW to the L that is very elusive. Try OW+ “wool” (if you can even say “wool” – another tough one). Slow-motion practice highly recommended.
15. Party. A classic. Without a good R and T it can sound like “potty” (a child’s word for “toilet”). “I’m going to the party”…careful 🙂
16. Robot. Two long vowels without a schwa; an unusual word. It’s ROUbaht.
17. Sheet. A fave to avoid, for the obvious reason. Stretch the EE and you’ll be fine! Same with “beach” 🙂
18. Squirrel. Can make blood come out of the mouth, trying to get this one. SKWERL. Front of the mouth to the back of the mouth to the front of the mouth back to the back of the mouth and then back to the front.
19. Theater. Should be THEEuhder. The “uh” or schwa sound in the middle needs to be very quick and is barely perceptible.
20. Thorough. Looks like “though” and “through” and contains strange vowels and odd spelling. Try it like this: THERrou.
21. Threaten. Yes, it does. To pronounce it with an authentic American accent, you need to “stop” the T without an explosion, delete the E and slide into the N. It’s like “kitten” and “Manhattan”, if that helps.
22. Variety. Tough for many Spanish and Asian speakers. The R, the flapped T, and weird vowels: vuh/RAI/uh/dee. Saying it fast won’t help.
23. Won’t. Nightmare of all nightmares. Non-natives usually pronounce it like “want”, which can end up in an opposite meaning. The O needs to be very long, despite the speed with which you must race through it, to hit the NT ending effectively.
24. Work. Not “walk”. Get the R. Otherwise you will be telling someone on a Monday morning that you’re “going to walk”, and they will be envious.
25. World. The last word here, but truly one of the worst of all. It’s all slidey and slippery with W, R, and an L wedged in between. Try for “whirl” first and then use your ear to lock that in while you ram into the D!