Students and Pronunciation Difficulties

All languages utilise a finite and limited set of sounds to convey meaning. Phonology is the ‘branch of linguistics that deals with the sound systems of a language’ (Cook, 2008, p.67). While adapting Communicative approaches in modern ESL teaching, producing the correct sounds of English takes a priority and especially in my teaching context. The students are 6-12 grade school teachers of Science, Math, ICT, and English in Al Ain region, in the United Arab Emirates. They are called in this government-sponsored programme in order to develop their English levels to cope with the changes in curricula they teach as they are now more English focused and based. The students are assessed by official IELTS (International English Language Testing System) results. All teachers are males, aged between 30-60, and have got Arabic as their native language (a small number have French as their second language – teachers from Tunisia.)

When it comes to sound systems, we can find many differences between English and Arabic. English ‘has 22 vowels and diphthongs to 24 consonants, Arabic has only eight vowels (three short, three long, and two diphthongs) to 32 consonants’ (Swan and Smith, 2001, p.196).

In tables 1 and 2, the shaded phonemes have equivalent or near equivalents in Arabic, and according to Swan and Smith, there should not be any difficulty in producing or perceiving these sounds:


The differences between Arabic and English reflect in the students’ pronunciation as they have difficulties and struggle in producing rather a good number of consonants and vowels. The most significant struggle in my classes is with the vowels (the short vowels /ə/ and /e/) and the consonants (/T/ and / ð/).

Many factors contribute to the problematic pronunciation of the above mentioned sounds. The predominant factor is the absence of the target-sound from learners’ first language. In this case, they are schwa / ə / and /e/ in Arabic Language. Thus, learners try to substitute it with a similar sound found in the first language.

As for the voiceless and voiced dental fricatives /T/ and / ð /, there is a tendency, especially in Egyptian students, to substitute the sounds with /s/ and /z/ respectively. Despite the presence of these sounds in Standard Arabic sound system, they do not exist anymore in the Egyptian Arabic accent. Therefore most utterances that include these sounds end up with errors like: this / ð Is/ and think / θ INk/. This is mainly due to Negative Input in which the students have already been exposed to in their schooldays.