Many students learning English are puzzled by the connection between English spelling and English pronunciation. They look at words with similar spelling patterns like rough (pronounced like "ruff") and cough (pronounced like "coff") and wonder if they will ever be able to figure out how to pronounce American English words!
Many native speakers, too, complain about the seeming irregularity of English spelling. There have been various movements that have tried to reform English spelling, but to date none have been successful.
What is it about English spelling that makes it appear so confusing? Before answering that question, it is important to understand what the words are representing. In alphabetic languages like English, the letters and letter combinations represent the sounds of the language. Some languages, like French, have standardized these representations so that there appear to be fewer irregularities than we have in English.
However, English spelling gives us not only information about the sounds and pronunciation of the words, but also the history. English has been a remarkably adaptable language, and English speakers have incorporated words and pronunciation from many languages. English words like "phone" or "photo", for example, show us with the "ph" spelling of the /f/ sound that they are words derived from Greek. Other unusual spelling patterns have their roots in the history of English.
So what does this all mean for English language learners? Well, first of all, you don't have to go out and study the history of the English language in depth, but developing a curiosity about English words can really help. English spelling is not as irregular and unusual as many people think it is. Knowing a bit about the history of some English words can help you begin to see the pattern behind American spelling and American English pronunciation.
We use words to tell the stories of our world and lives. Words have their own stories to tell us about the development of our languages.
Mary Gillespie, ESL Teacher and Owner of the Online ESL Tutoring Service At Home with English, PronouncePro American English Pronunciation http://www.pronouncepro.com/ Writing Staff.