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English pronunciation is rather complicated. Rules in this regard are practically never consistent and it no doubt makes the non-native speaker of English extremely frustrated when the dictionary has to be consulted every time a new word is learned. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about doing it, however. There’s a reason why a pronunciation key is included with definitions in English dictionaries; even native speakers have to be told how to pronounce words they haven’t heard spoken before.

There are some general rules of thumb you can follow (a “rule of thumb” is a rule that is usually true but not always). For instance, there is a distinction made between the sound /ɪ/ in bit and the /i:/ beat. In Spanish, only the latter exists. When a word is spelled with “ee” or “ea” as in “bean” or “feed”, the /i:/ that you are familiar with from Spanish is typically used. This is a rule of thumb in that it is true more often than not. There are, however, exceptions. Take the word “pear” for example. It is pronounced the same as “pair”. It doesn’t rhyme with “beer”. The word “idea” is another exception. Nevertheless, even though there are exceptions, it’s true more times than it’s not. That’s why we call it a rule of thumb. All these words are pronounced with the long i: deer, feet, fear, rear, leer, lean, keen, seen, dean.

There is an additional problem for the non-native speaker. Words with “ee” and “ea” are not even pronounced consistently across borders. Meaning, what may be an exception to the general rule for a North American may not be for the British. In fact, sometimes people living in the same state pronounce differently from others who are just kilometers away. This website  includes one such example. In the US, “been” is mostly pronounced the same way as “bin”. As you will see, this is not consistent even within the borders of the US. Some pronounce “been” with the same vowel sound as in the word “bet” and still others pronounce it so that it rhymes with “seen”.

 

Tim Brust

Head of Studies

Inlingua Ciudad Real

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