English lesson Teacher shows how to pronounce the sounds. Voice Acting

What English Sounds Like to Non English Speakers

If you’ve been speaking English all your life, it might be hard to realize you have an accent. But people who learn English as a second language or who have heard it in the movies have interesting insight into what English sounds like. 

Even a native English speaker trying to mimic another English speaker’s accent from another country or region can be an eye-opener to what English sounds like to non English speakers.

You notice this when you travel abroad, such as Canadian on vacation in the UK, or an American visiting Ireland.

So what does English sound like to non-English speakers? Let’s look a little closer at the origin of the English language, what English sounds like to non English speakers, and which languages struggle the most with English pronunciation.

The Origin of English

If you time-traveled to about the year 500 BCE in the British Isles, you’d barely recognize English as English. English developed and redeveloped itself over time through invasions from outside Britain, cultural exchanges with others, and importing language through colonization.

Look at the languages that influenced the creation of English as we know it today:

  • Celtic: Remnants of the Celtic migrations remain in some grammar.
  • Latin: English is not a Latin-based language. However, the Roman occupation left behind several Latin influences. Words that evolved from Latin include noon, camp, and anchor.
  • Anglo-Saxon: English is a Germanic language. Anglo-Saxon tribes brought their Germanic languages and grammar from Central Europe. Words you might recognize include be, strong, and water.Old Norse: Viking invasions brought in over 2000 new words from Old Norse. The Vikings added words like give, husband, egg, and knife to the language.
  • Anglo-Norman Old French: After the Norman Invasion, English adopted a large number of French words, including mirage, facade, and encore.
  • European languages: As the Renaissance spread, so did influences from French, Latin, Greek (such as democracy), and Italian (such as fiasco). 
  • Shakespeare: Shakespeare invented at least 1700 words in his plays and poems. Some words we attribute to Shakespeare include fashionable, dwindle, and lonely.
  • Colonization and Cultural Exchanges: Colonization and cultural exchanges imported words from around the globe, including jungle (Hindi), assassin (Persian), candy (Arabic), lackey (Turkish), caddy (Malay), and kayak (American English).

Several pronunciation changes happened to English in The Great Vowel Shift between 1400 and 1700. The long vowels of Middle English changed along with some consonant sounds (especially those which became silent). Experts disagree on why the changes happened, but it is a combination of the following:

  • Londoners trying to distinguish their speech from the immigrants who moved to the area after the Black Death
  • Borrowing French words
  • Unintentionally hypercorrecting the pronunciation of French words or hypercorrecting to make the words sound less French 

What Does English Sound Like to Non-English Speakers?

What does English sound like? The sounds that stand out in English often depend on which sounds are unfamiliar to you and unlike your own native tongue.

Some sound elements of English that non-native English speakers note include:

  • Slurred or garbled sounds
  • Harsh “r”s
  • Overuse of “s,” sh,” and “ch” sounds
  • Interesting rhythms
  • Melodic and sharp quality (British English)
  • Different voice inflections
  • Disjointedness, abruptness, and aggressiveness
  • The “ing” word ending
  • Lack of clear consonant sounds at the beginning and end of words
  • Too much vowel reduction and not enough phonemic distinction
  • Overemphasis on the beginning of the word and underemphasis on the ending
  • Choppy and disconnected sounds
  • Open, round, and rolling vowels
  • Soft consonants
  • Flat sounds

Some non-native voice actors trying to imitate English pronunciation joke that all the harsh “r”s make English speakers (especially those from the U.S.) sound like pirates. Others say that all the “s” sounds make English speakers sound like talking snakes. 

Which Language Speakers Struggle Most With Spoken English?

The language speakers who tend to struggle the most with understanding English pronunciation or reproducing the sounds are those languages that exclude the same sounds as English does.

If a voice actor is trying to imitate English pronunciation and doesn’t have the sound in their language, it can be difficult to hear it or pronounce it, especially as an adult learner. On the other hand, if an English-speaking voice talent is trying to imitate another accent, they can pay special attention to the sounds that non-natives find most difficult.

Let’s look at some of the more difficult sounds to hear or say in English for speakers of various languages:

The “TH” Sound

Both the fricative and unvoiced “th” sounds are tricky, and speakers of languages without the sound end up replacing it with sounds like “f,” “s,” “d,” or “z.” Some languages without the “th” sound include:

  • French
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Mandarin
  • Persian
  • Russian

The “W” and “V” Sounds

The “w” sound is an oral rather than nasal consonant. Languages that lack a “w” sound tend to replace the “w” sound with a “v” sound. Some languages that pronounce “w” differently from English include:

  • Dutch
  • German 
  • Kokborok
  • Polish
  • Turkmen

The “B” and “V” Sounds

In some other languages, the “v” sound is an “f”, “b,” or “y” sound instead. Some languages that pronounce “v” differently than in English include:

  • Galician
  • Indonesian
  • Several native American languages, including Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw
  • Spanish

The “R” Sound

The “r” sound seems simple enough, but there are various ways to pronounce it in other languages, which is why the “r” sound in English is so noteworthy. It’s even a different sound between American and British English. Some languages with different “r” sounds than English include:

  • Albanian
  • Arabic
  • Catalan
  • Danish
  • Dutch
  • French
  • Galician
  • German
  • Haitian
  • Hebrew
  • Hopi
  • Indonesian
  • Italian
  • Japanese
  • Leonese
  • Malay
  • Mandarin
  • Maori
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Spanish
  • Swedish
  • Turkish
  • Venetian

Final Thoughts on How English Sounds to Non English Speakers

What does English sound like to non-English speakers? If you’ve spoken English all your life, you may not realize how different the sound is from other languages. Even languages that share common grammar or roots with English have a very different way of pronouncing consonants and vowels that can make English pronunciation difficult to master or understand.

Looking for the ideal English accent? Check out our exhaustive list of English voice over talent today!

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  • Avatar for Thomas
    July 8, 2023, 9:01 pm

    Thank you (or should I say dank you?) for the informative article. I heard some of these differences, especially the American English slurring of sounds from a Spanish professor of mine. In Spanish essentially all letter are pronounced sharply and clearly with only one sound per vowel. I can now see why English is so vexing for ESL learners.