When inner sight gets in the way

I have a quick question regarding pronunciation (and more).

Problem: Czech students often struggle to pronounce the /v/ and /w/ sounds correctly. More precisely, they tend to use them interchangeably, i.e. sometimes they pronounce village as [ˈwɪlɪdʒ] and window as [ˈvɪndəʊ].


Background: It’s not really surprising as in Czech, the /w/ sound is not present at all – at least at the beginning of a word. Although we do have words beginning with w, those are vocabulary items borrowed from other languages, such as English or German (Windows > [ˈvɪndous], BMW > [be:emˈve:]), which, as you can judge by my phonetic transcription, are pronounced with the /v/ sound rather than the /w/ sound.

By no means do I think the problem above is unique to speakers of my mother tongue. Naturally, most L2 struggle to get all the novel sounds right. However, earlier today, something happened which made me ponder this issue in more depth. I was talking to my students so fast that at one point, I failed to round my lips to make the correct /w/ sound and I produced the /v/ sound instead. I realized it immediately and managed to correct myself before the word actually came out of my mouth, but it happened in my head (?) anyway.

Interpretation: My train of thought is this: 1) We don’t have the /w/ sound in Czech and there’s no distinction between w and v in terms of pronunciation, that’s why /v/ sometimes gets in the way. 2) As someone who started learning English back in the late 1980s, as late as at the age of 14, I *saw* most words before I *heard* them. Thus, perhaps, when speaking, I still use my inner sight to some extent. So, when I say window, I probably visualize the word for a fleeting moment before I make a conscious effort to produce the correct sound. In other words, what I have to say is not consistent with ‘what I see’. By the same token, as native speakers of English usually *hear* the language before they *see* it written down, there’s no such collision between the spoken and the written form of a word. So village is simply [ˈvɪlɪdʒ] and window is plain [ˈwɪndəʊ] because that’s how the sounds are ingrained in their aural minds. They might face a problem when writing the words down, but that’s another issue….

Question: What I’d like to ask now is not whether non-native speakers of English face a similar problem (I suspect they do), but I’m curious to know if native speakers ever experience the discrepancy I described (in very layman’s terms).

About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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6 Responses to When inner sight gets in the way

  1. Garo speakers learning English have problems with/l/ and /r/ and also /p/ and /f/. So ‘fail’ would sound like/pel/ and ‘still’ would sound like/stIr/.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Adi Rajan says:

    Most Indian languages lack both /v/ and /w/ sounds. Instead, they have a sound in between – /ʋ/ which involves pushing your lips out a bit and grazing them lightly. English is my first language. I only learnt to speak Hindi fluently in the last decade. I find myself using /ʋ/ instead of /v/ when I code switch rapidly between the two languages, (and especially when I code switch between three languages – 2 Indian and English). I have caught myself doing this with ‘we’, ‘where’ and ‘would’. However, I also make similar errors in Hindi while code switching so I might use /w/ instead of /ʋ/ which sounds really odd.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For us native speakers, there are tons of words we read but rarely here, and we still argue over the pronunciation. One that apparently is not arguable but I was shocked by was the word “row,” as in “There was a row in parliament.” I had always thought it was pronounced /roʊ/ but was surprised when I used it as such and was corrected with /rɑʊ/, which to me just sounds funny.

    I’m not sure if this was the experience you were looking for. If you are interested in things like this, I recommend the short podcast “That’s What They Say” http://michiganradio.org/programs/thats-what-they-say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for the link, Anthony. By the way, your example reminded me of another word I find tricky and that is *bow* (the movement) vs *bow* (and arrow).


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