If you’re a native English speaker, then congratulations! You’ve been blessed with the inherent ability to navigate a language that is rife with counterintuitive pronunciations, which include the presence of many silent letters.
Though some languages are relatively straightforward when it comes to pronunciation — the sound of a word perfectly corresponds to how it’s spelled — there are many others that simply can’t be mastered without a lot of memorization.
So what’s a budding French speaker to do when there are nearly as many exceptions as there are rules? We’ve put together a handy guide to help you approach the hurdle of silent letters with an ounce of strategy in your back pocket.
First, Some Understanding
Before you curse the existence of silent letters, it might help to understand why they’re there. Like the human appendix, it seems kind of pointless to have them hanging around. And this, in turn, can make learners think they are unimportant to learn.
However, even when they’re not directly pronounced, silent letters can still have a subtle effect on the pronunciation of other letters. Plus, they can reveal the etymology and complex history of various words (for instance, the word “beautiful” contains “eau,” which alludes to its French origins).
Here are some examples of common silent letters in the English language that you probably take for granted every day:
Basic Tips For Mastering Silent Letters
You’ll need to approach language from multiple angles if you’re going to get it right. Listening is key when it comes to pronunciation, but you won’t be able to tell from the spoken language alone whether there are any silent letters at play. Conversely, when you read a word containing a silent letter, you’ll have no way of knowing the letter isn’t meant to be pronounced. As you practice, combine auditory and visual cues simultaneously to aid with memorization.
Avoid the temptation to pronounce silent letters on purpose in order to remember that they’re there. You’ll become accustomed to pronouncing these words incorrectly, and you might find it very difficult to reverse the habit. Cue resulting awkwardness.
Specific Tips For…Spanish
Spanish is a very easy language, phonetically speaking. Nine times out of 10, you pronounce every single letter, and each one is always pronounced the same way.
The letter “h” in Spanish is always silent.
When sandwiched between the letters “g” and “e” or “i,” the letter “u” is silent — that is, unless it has an umlaut (yes! that German thing!) over it. In that case, the “ü” must be pronounced, even in between these letters.
All in all, if you’re an English speaker, it’s mostly a matter of avoiding interference from English pronunciation rules that can sometimes overcomplicate Spanish pronunciation.
Here are some examples of silent letters in Spanish:
*This is not so much about illustrating a silent letter, but rather the fact that the umlaut over the “u” indicates that the “u” is pronounced. Without the umlaut, the “u” would be silent.
Specific Tips For…French
French is the polar opposite of Spanish, with many, many, many silent letters, as well as whole combinations of vowels and consonants disappearing into one short and sweet phoneme. There are three kinds of silent letters in French.
The first is consonants at the end of a word, and in these cases, there are six that are almost always silent: “d,” “p,” “s,” “t,” “x” and “z.”
The letter “h” can also be silent, and you see this in English words beginning with “h” that are of French origin, e.g. “hour.”
Then there is the “e muet,” a silent “e” at the end of a word that is often not pronounced.
Think of the way French people speak English and work on emulating that accent. When you hear a word for the first time, try to picture how it’s spelled to get a feel for where the silent letters go.
Here are some examples of silent letters in French:
Beaucoup (too much)
Specific Tips For…German
German doesn’t really have silent letters, so English natives need to take care not to inject silent letters where they don’t exist, particularly with certain consonant combinations that are silent in English but enunciated in German, e.g. “kn” and “ps.”
Every time you hear a combination of consonants pronounced differently than they are in English, say it out loud a couple of times to get your mouth used to making the sound.
As with French, treat the pronunciation as a baked-in component of the accent too. This will help you always pronounce it correctly!
Here are some examples of enunciated letters in German that might trip you up as a native English speaker: