English is tough stuff


The link between English pronunciation and spelling is a nightmare for learners. One of the main reasons why there are so many English CLASSES is that it’s really quite difficult to learn English by yourself from a book, especially if you don’t have lots of audio back-up. You can quite quickly learn the pronunciation rules of, say, Spanish or German, and then – theoretically – you could bury your nose in a book and learn it by yourself.

You could – theoretically – do the same with English, learning the pronunciation from a dictionary, as long as your knowledge of phonetic symbols was good. But how many students have that skill?

So here’s part of a poem that illustrates the bonkers (and quite delightful) spelling anarchy that characterises the world’s number one language of internashional  communicashun.

The Chaos

Just compare heart, beard and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
So be careful how you speak –
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and could.
River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Aria, Maria and malaria,

Sea, idea, Korea, area.

You can find the complete version of the poem at http://www.unique.cc/ron/estuff.htm

You may be familiar with it already. Versions have appeared in various ELT books, including Headway.

I was surprised to find out that it was actually written by a Dutchman, Gerard Nolst Trenité, who was born in Holland in 1870.

Trenité studied classics, law and political science at the University of Utrecht.  In the 1890s, he worked as a private teacher in California, where he taught the sons of the Netherlands Consul-General. From 1901 to 1918, he worked as a schoolteacher in Haarlem and published several schoolbooks in English and French. From 1909 until his death in 1946, he wrote a column about linguistic matters for an Amsterdam newspaper.

Finally, go see Eddie Izzard talking about language, spelling and giving a riveting French lesson in an extract from a gig he did in the US. Warning: Eddie uses the ‘f’ word frequently.



16 thoughts on “English is tough stuff

  1. Of course you can use the poem in your lesson. It isn’t my poem and everything on this site is to be shared 🙂

  2. I have been using the poem in my lessons for years. I always enjoy the way my pupils start sighing and rolling their eyes when they see and hear it.

  3. Need ti resfresh….. my ENGLISH!!!!! keep in touch!!! I maight be able to trace back photo of your perferomances in Italy… interested??

  4. Great to see Eddie Izzard on here. One of my all time favourites so far…

    Great poem, thanks for sharing! I’ve been using mainly my own stuff and ideas from ‘The Inward Ear’ Poetry in the language classroom by Alan Maley and Alan Duff
    Best wishes

  5. Izzard! Magic! (He’s been running a marathon a day, BTW: http://www.comicrelief.com/donate/eddie ) In class, I frequently give the class a single word and B/S a dozen rhymes. (Whale, fail, mail, male,…). Then in pairs, they have to write a 1-paragraph story with 7 of them. It’s amazing how hard it is to ignore the spelling and concentrate on the sound.

    Anybody got more ideas?

    1. Nice one, Alan. As you’re giving them rhyming words, would you consider asking them to write a poem?

  6. This is the blind leading the blind here, Alan 😛

    But if your students are good enough to write a story from these key words, maybe they could simply try to think of sentences ending with those words, and see what happens?

    Now that we have thought of this, i’d love for one of us to try it!

    1. Alan, twitter might be the place to ask. If you write your question, I will RT it. I have about 200 ELT followers, so someone should come up with an idea.

    1. Now you see where I got the inspiration to speak other languages in my Pecha Kucha!

      But seriously, don’t you think most of what he says in French is clear? I wish he would devote himself to making accessible language teaching materials.

      1. Was he really your inspiration? You took it to another level altogether!

        Much of it is clear through body language and of course the many French words in the English language come through.

        Who needs him, I am sure you could do this yourself with a little blue eye shadow and some lash extensions. Give it a try!

  7. Pronunciation, in any language, is always hard to achieve when it is not your mother language. I’m from Malta and kids here learn English from their early days at school however pronunciation leaves much to be desired.

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