Monday, 6 August 2012

English Pronunciation: The Letter H


Here's a quick guide for general ESL students and teachers and some specific help for Italian speakers learning English.


(photo: culturemap.com)

"Help!" I hear you say, "I can't pronounce the letter H!"

Don't worry, you're not alone. But why is it so important to pronounce /h/ correctly? 

Well, if you forget the letter 'h' at the beginning of words, it often becomes a completely different word. For example, if you forget the 'h' in 'hotter' it becomes 'otter' and unfortunately an 'otter' ("lontra") is a little furry mammal that lives in rivers! So you see, forgetting the 'h' can cause a lot of confusion.

Other commonly confused pairs include:
  • Hair and Air (capelli e aria) 
  • Hear and Ear (sentire e orrechio) 
Adding a 'huh' sound before the vowels make all the difference.


"You called?"
So, how do you make this sound? 

Trust me, you'll be able to make this sound correctly with a bit of practice. It may not be in your native language, but you produce make this sound all the time without even thinking about it.

Making the /h/ sound involves aspiration. Now, this sounds very technically but these four simple illustrations show that you can produce this sound easily.
  • Imagine the times when you've breathed steam  ("hoh!") onto your glasses to clean them.
  • Imagine Father Christmas (Babbo Natale) crying, "ho! ho! ho!" or laughing "ha! ha! ha!"
  • Imagine a pregnant woman going into labour and being told to breathe
                hoh...     hoh....     hoh...
  • Do you remember the times when you've drunk a cup of tea and suddenly realized it's too hot. What do you do? You make a sort of rapid 'hoh! hoh! hoh! sound as you try to cool it down in your mouth non?

So, the 'hoh' sound in all of these illustrations are examples of the aspiration you need to produce /h/ 

See? Easy peasy!


Now, sometimes you may panic about the letter 'h' and add an 'h' where it's not needed.
Then a sentence like, "I'm twenty years old" becomes "I'm twenty years hold" (ho venti anni tenere!)

So be careful and remember, if there is no 'h,' then don't aspirate. In the word 'old' for example, the 'o' is exactly the same as the 'o' in say 'olivo' or 'oregano.' 
  
For many learners (and Italian speakers), there is often confusion between angry (arrabiata) and hungry (fame). 'Hungry' needs the aspiration (the 'huh' sound) to differentiate it from 'angry.' 

Remember the vowel sounds in angry and hungry are different

[ae]ngry, [ae] as in apple (or the a's in 'anatra')

h[u]ngry, [u] as in u(The vowel sound is like the "uh?" sound people make when they don't understand)


Finally, here are two cute videos from Sesame Street which demonstrate the letter 'H'
{http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=alEz1TWLJXU} and
{http://www.mefeedia.com/video/31768543}

For more help, click on the link for the British Council's interactive pronunciation guide [http://goo.gl/rR3oGwhere you can hear all the sounds to practice and repeat. 




I hope this was helpful for you whether you're a student or an ESL teacher. Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts or any questions for me.

7 comments:

  1. This is such a well written post! You're a born teacher :-) MashAllah

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    Replies
    1. Aww thanks so much! I'm considering translating it into Italian but that'll take me such a long time cos it'll test my skills haha! x

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    2. if you'd like to translate it, no worries I can help you correcting it! just send me a comment in io-musulmana.italiana and i'll give you my provate email in sha Allah. good job my dear! may Allah ta'ala reward you ameen
      cinzia amatullah

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  2. hi sarita:) here's an updated version of the italian translation now with a list of the words with a silent H and the pairs of words with and without an H:
    http://www.hello-mynameis.it/Random/Entries/2013/10/31_La_Pronuncia_della_Lettera_H....html

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  3. How useful! I was always sweetly amused by my Italian boyfriends confusion between angry and hungry :)

    Lovely blog by the way - thoroughly enjoyed perusing your posts.

    Mo

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  4. Just wondering if there is a software that can help to detect when the letter h is pronounced or not. This will be most helpful.

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