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Lesson Transcript

Gabriella: Hi, I’m Gabriella.
Gina: And I’m Gina. Cracking the English Writing System.
Gabriella: In this lesson, we will speak a little about the English writing system – about the characters that make up English words, and how they are pronounced.
Gina: As we learned last lesson, the English language uses the Latin, or Roman alphabet.
Gabriella: That’s right, the ABCs. It’s a very common alphabet and is used by many languages throughout Europe and further afield. Even in countries that use entirely different alphabets, Roman letters are still frequently seen so everyone will be familiar with it to some degree.
Gina: The alphabet is broken down into 21 consonants and 5 vowels. Each of these 26 letters has both an upper case, and a lower case form.
Gabriella: And it is from these letters that every English word is made.
Gina: That’s right. There are no markers and no diacritics that dictate pronunciation. Just the 26 letters. There are no tones either, like there are in Chinese, for example.
Gabriella: So you’d think that English pronunciation would be pretty straightforward, right? That each letter has its own sound and you simply say that sound?
Gina: Well, you’d think so… but it’s not the case.
Gabriella: No, it isn’t. With some languages as the sounds in their alphabet are uniform and never change, you can spell words easily by listening to them and writing down what you hear.
Gina: These are called phonemic languages.
Gabriella: And although you can sometimes do this with English, there are always words and sounds that don’t follow the phonemic rules that do exist in English.
Gina: As this series and your English learning progresses, you will find that English has a lot of rules and a lot of exceptions to every rule!
Gabriella: Yeah, and that’s a result of its origins, and how it was influenced by so many different foreign languages. I’ll give you an example of how the pronunciation rules can change. Pay close attention to the verb in these sentences.
Gina: Okay. A verb is a word that describes an action, such as “talk” or “listen”.
Gabriella: Sentence 1 – “I read a book.” Sentence 2 – “Yesterday, I read a book”.
Gina: So that was the present tense and past tense of the verb “to read”.
Gabriella: Exactly. “Read” [present] and “read” [past]. They sound different right? But they are spelt in the same way.
Gina: Ah, that’s tricky.
Gabriella: It is! So you can sometimes spell a word correctly from the sound, but not always.
Gina: There are also a lot of words in English that have silent letters – letters that can’t be heard at all when they are pronounced.
Gabriella: A good example of this is the word “night”. When it refers to the end of the day when it is dark, the sun goes down and we sleep, it is spelt as…
Gina: N-I-G-H-T. But, when we are talking about a soldier or a man that has the title of Sir, it is spelt...
Gabriella: K-N-I-G-H-T. The “K” is silent, but it’s still there and needed.
Gina: Also, there are a lot of words with double letters where you can’t hear that there are two.
Gabriella: That’s right. As a native speaker, I always get embarrassed that I can’t spell “embarrassed” right.
Gina: Ah, that’s “E-M-B-A-R-R-A-S-S-E-D” right? Double “r” and double “s”.
Gabriella: That’s right. I always try and spell it with a double “b” too!
Gina: There are also a lot of spelling differences between different types of English, aren’t there?
Gabriella: There are! British English and American English have several differences, but they follow a couple of general rules, usually.
Gina: Let’s hear a bit more about that.
Gabriella: In American English, there are a lot of “u’s” missing from words.
Gina: That’s right. In British English, we spell colour as “C-O-L-O-U-R”, but Americans spell it as “C-O-L-O-R”.
Gabriella: It’s the same in other words such as “honour” – British English has a “u” and American English doesn’t.
Gina: In these cases though, the pronunciation is the same between the two types of English, isn’t it?
Gabriella: That’s right. But, in other words there are pronunciation differences. Gina, what is a word you might use for a health supplement in pill form?
Gina: Vitamin [British pronunciation]
Gabriella: You can hear that there is a “ih” there, right? In America they would say “Vitamin” [American pronunciation] and there, the “i” sounds like a ai dipthong sound.
Gina: The difference in spelling and pronunciation between the countries can be difficult for non-natives to grasp.
Gabriella: I hate to make things more complicated…
Gina: …but you’re going to anyway, aren’t you?
Gabriella: Of course! Not only do different countries pronounce things differently, but different regions within the same country do. Britain has many, many different accents and dialects. With most accents, you can guess which city someone is from purely from how they speak, without needing to ask.
Gina: Yeah, they really are that distinct. I love that variation, although I can see why non-native speakers would hate it!
Gabriella: I hate it sometimes, as there are some accents I struggle with!
Gina: (laughs) At least everyone spells things the same within the UK, right?
Gabriella: Formal and informal English is always spelt the same, but you may see people updating their Facebook or Twitter, or sending emails to friends with many different deliberate spelling mistakes and abbreviations, and these can be quite unique to different regions.
Gina: But for most things, spell check is your best friend, right?
Gabriella: It is! The only reason I ever spell “embarrassed” correctly, is because my computer auto-corrects it for me.
Gina: You have to love computers! Ok, that’s all we have time for on this lesson.
Gabriella: I hope you've learned a little about English pronunciation and spelling. Once you get used to it, even the unusual spellings become easy to remember and figure out.


Gina: Ok, everyone. That’s all for this lesson.
Gabriella: Thank you for listening, everyone. See you next time!