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We all know that English is not an easy language to learn. It can even prove to be difficult and confusing for students who have a background of two or more languages!

For many students, however, it is the pronunciation that causes most of the problems.

It is evident that there are some very common pronunciation issues that people face when learning English as a second language. This isn’t such a bad thing, as it means we know exactly which areas to target to make these difficulties easier to overcome.

One prominent obstacle can be silent letters.

I hear you asking:

  • Why are there silent letters in English?
  • What use are they if we don’t pronounce them?
  • Why aren’t the words spelt like they are spoken?
  • What are the rules for silent letters in English?

These are all very good questions!

You may think that silent letters can’t be all that important if they’re not pronounced, but as a matter of fact, they make a HUGE difference to the meaning of words, and sometimes, they even have the power to change their pronunciation!

If you look into the history of this language, you will see that about 90% of English used to be phonemic (this means that the words sounded the same as they looked). There were hardly any silent letters at all, but this soon began to change around the 15th century. Many words from other languages were introduced into English, to make it look more Latin or French. This caused problems as the new words didn’t follow the same rules of grammar as English! That is why, even though the spelling was already fixed for those words, some letters became silent.

The Latin alphabet was also adapted into the English language, and so there are only 26 letters to represent approximately 41 different significant sounds. For this reason, an attempt to use combinations of letters to represent sounds was introduced, thus ensuring that all the major sounds in English were covered.

This does make silent letters quite interesting, as you can see the history of each word in the way it is spelt, and track its origins!

As time passed, pronunciation continued to change, but the old spelling was preserved by the printing press, which came to England around the Middle English period. That’s why there are words that end in a silent ‘e’, or have other silent letters in the middle, such as ‘fright’.

Now, modern day English is only 40% phonemic!

  • WRITE          
  • KNEE
  • KNOCK         
  • LAMB            
  • WRIST          
  • HALF
  • PLUMBER               
  • PSYCHOLOGY                   
  • AISLE            

Now I bet you’re thinking – “I hate spelling! This will make learning English even harder!” I can assure you; it’s not that bad, really.

As I mentioned before, around 60% of English words contain silent letters, so it is important to know how to spot them, when they can be pronounced and when they cannot. It could also cause problems if you are trying to find a word in a dictionary by the ‘sound’ of it, and not realising that it has a silent letter in it!

Let’s use the word ‘knowledge’ as an example, if you didn’t know how to spell this word, you might look under the letter ‘N’ in a dictionary!

Don’t worry too much, there is (sort of) a ‘solution’ ….there are some rules that explain which letters are supposed to be silent, before and after certain letters (the only ‘minor’ issue about this is that, like all English rules – there are usually some exceptions!).

Once you start practising these rules and use any new vocabulary that you learn, it will become easier to remember which letters are silent in some words, and in which words they are supposed to be pronounced.

Silent letters are not there to confuse you, even though you may think so! Identifying and understanding them will undoubtedly improve your spelling, speaking and writing skills, as well as boost your confidence!

Helpful uses of silent letters:

  • They can be beneficial for readers, when having to distinguish between homophones (these are words that have the same sound, but different definitions and different spelling). Some examples of homophones are know/no, knot/not, their/there/they’re, band, banned and to/too/two. 
  • Silent letters can change the pronunciation of words, even though they are silent! For example, sin/sign, grim/grime, cop/cope, and rat/rate. So it is very beneficial to know where they are and when they are used, as they’ll help you to work out the meaning of the word!
  • The letter ‘H’, when pronounced alone, should sound like ‘aitch’, but when used at the start of most words beginning with H, it uses its pronounced sound (e.g. hotel, house, ham), BUT it is usually silent in words that are of French origin such as hour, honest, heir, and honour.
  • If Etymology (the origin of words) interests you, then you’ll find learning silent letters very fascinating, as they provide so much information about the history of words!
  • The magic ‘e’ is another one of course! If you add ‘e’ at the end of words with short vowel sounds, it elongates the sound of the vowel, some examples would be: tap/tape, mat/mate, rid/ride, con/cone and fin/fine.

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Mary Jane

Mary Jane Go has been teaching English for over 13 years. She believes that it is very important to learn English and learn it by heart. For her, it's always the right time for a dance party and that hanging out with friends is indispensable.

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