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Tongue-Twisted: 35 English Words that Are Hard to Pronounce for Non-Native Speakers

Did you know that there are at least 20 English words that are hard to pronounce even for native speakers?

Very often, the relationship between spelling and sound in English seems arbitrary and difficult to predict, and silent letters can make even the simplest English give you a hard time in the pronunciation department.

Whether your first language is Spanish, Chinese or Swahili, here are a few English words that are hard to pronounce and the main reasons why.

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English words that are hard to pronounce because they're just too long

1. Antidisestablishmentarianism

If you're a beginner in English, you are probably not going to be using a word like this in a sentence anytime soon. But just for the sake of knowledge, antidisestablishmentarianism is an extremely long word used to describe someone who opposes the disestablishment (withdrawal of state support) of a church or other religious institution, especially the Anglican Church in 19th-century England.

Example:  "I never realized that you leaned towards antidisestablishmentarianism"

2. Floccinaucinihilipilification

This word looks like it refers to some rare illness, but it is much more mundane than that: this word, which can be found in books from the 1800s onwards, is used to describe the act of regarding something as worthless or insignificant. While it still gets some use in colloquial English, don't expect to hear it every day.

Example: "I am seriously offended by your floccinaucinihilipilification of my two-week-long but decidedly profound relationship".

3.  Incomprehensibility

Long words in English are not always obscure or outdated. Some of them are actually quite common, at least for people who like to keep their vocabulary colorful and diverse.

Incomprehensibility is one of those words: it means that something is difficult and/or impossible to understand or comprehend.

Example: "The manual is too full of technical jargon, making it incomprehensible".

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English words that are hard to pronounce because they are French loanwords

French loanwords can be especially tricky for non-native English speakers, since they keep some aspects of their original pronunciation and spelling even after being adopted into the language.

Here are a few examples:

4. Faux paus /foʊ paʊ/

Faux pas is a French word commonly used in English that refers to an embarrassing mistake or a breach of etiquette.

Example: "His comment about her weight was a real faux pas".

5. Rendezvous /ron-day-voo/

A rendezvous is an appointed meeting or gathering place, usually at a specific time and place.

Example: "Your father and I used to have a secret rendezvous every Saturday at this very pub".

6. Entrepreneur /on-truh-pruh-nuh/

‘Entrepreneur’ is a French loanword widely adopted in English that describes someone who starts and manages businesses.

Example: "John is an ambitious entrepreneur with several successful companies overseas".

7. Déjà vu /day-zha-voo/

‘Déjà vu’ is a French term that expresses the sensation of having already seen or experienced something in the past.

Example: "As soon as I entered the room and smelled the roses, I got a poignant feeling of déjà vu".

8. Fait accompli /fet-a-kom-plee/

This French term describes an event or situation that has already happened and cannot be changed or reversed, even if you wanted to.

Example: "They knew their family would oppose the wedding so they got married in secret and presented them with a fait accompli".

English words that are hard to pronounce because they have silent letters.

In most languages, the occurrence of silent letters is quite regular. Take French, for example, where silent letters usually appear at the end of words. In Spanish, the letter is never pronounced unless it's part of the "CH" cluster. In English, however, silent letters are much more sporadic and difficult to predict!

Here are a few examples of words with silent letters:

Here are a few examples of words with silent letters:

Words with a silent 'S':

The English language features many words that, at some point, had a voiced 'S' in them. This 'S', however, has been dropped from pronunciation over time and is now silent.

9. Island /ai-luhnd/

10. Isle /ail/

11. Debris /dih-bree/

12. Viscount /vai-kownt/

Words with a silent 'B':

As you can see in the following examples, B is generally not pronounced when it is preceded by an M.

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13. Bomb /bohm/

14. Climb /klahym/

15. Comb /kohm/

16. Crumb /kruhm/

17. Dumb /duhm/

18. Lamb /lahm/

19. Numb /nuhm/

20. Plumber /pluhm-er/

21. Thumb /thuhm/

22. Tomb /toom

Words with a silent T

T is silent in many words because, throughout history, native English speakers have found it awkward to pronounce in certain contexts; as a result, it has become assimilated into the surrounding consonants.

In some cases, such as the word "often", both versions (the one with a T and the one without it) still coexist all across the UK.

23. Apostle /uh-pahs-uhl/

24. Castle /kahs-uhl/

25. Fasten /fahs-uhn/

26. Glisten /glihs-uhn/

27. Hustle /huhs-uhl/

28. Listen /lihs-uhn/

29. Mistletoe /mis-uhl-toh/

30. Whistle /wihs-uhl/

Miscellaneous English words that are hard to pronounce for non-native speakers

31. Colonel

Derived from Middle French, this pronunciation is /ker-nul./ What makes this word so challenging for foreigners is that it lacks a written "r," despite using this sound in pronunciation. To make things worse, the second "o" is silent, which adds to the confusion.

32. Worcestershire 

This is one of the words American English speakers mispronounce most often. Many times, they say something like /wor-cest-er-shi-er/. But the actual pronunciation of the name of this English county is /woos-ter-sheer/.

33. Mischevious

Another word commonly misspoken in American English is "mischievous." In this country, most people say /mis-chi-vee-us/- However, the correct pronunciation has a silent "ie": /mis-chuhv-us/.

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34. Chiaroscuro

The Italian word "chiaroscuro" (a technique in painting that uses light and shade to create depth) often comes across as /k-eye-uh-roh-skyu-roh/. However, the correct pronunciation is /kee-ah-roh-skooroh/.

35. Quinoa

Finally, a word from the Quechuan language (spoken in South America): quinoa. Most people say this grain as /kee-no-uh/, but the proper pronunciation is /keenwah/. Unexpected, right?

As you can see, the reasons why some English words are so hard to pronounce are varied. Whether they feature silent letters, a scary number of letters, or rare combinations of consonants, all of these words share one thing in common: they can trip up even the most experienced English speakers. However, with a little practice and patience, you'll soon be able to master them!

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At Listen & Learn we offer English pronunciation classes that can help you understand and master the complexity of English words as well as words of foreign origin that are part of the English vocabulary.

So, whether you are a beginner who's taking their first steps in the English language or an advanced speaker who wants to refine their pronunciation, our experienced teachers will guide you through the process and make it fun and enjoyable at the same time. Contact us now to book a free online lesson!