The French never care what they do, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.
— Professor Henry Higgins (in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady)
For Americans, Esperanto pronunciation is easier to learn than that of French or many other languages, but that doesn’t mean it’s trivial. (Just ask William Shatner.) We need to practice and to listen to good examples of spoken language. Thanks to Esperanto radio and podcasts, doing that is easier now than it’s ever been. But nothing beats a well-taught class for learning and mastering the spoken form of any language.
For beginning students, the most important thing is understanding and being understood. Duncan Charters’s hilariously accurate comedy routine mimicking various national accents in Esperanto isn’t just funny; it demonstrates that even heavily accented Esperanto isn’t necessarily hard to understand. Students should know the ideal they’re aiming for, but they shouldn’t get too discouraged if they don’t achieve instant perfection.
At the outset, it’s best to concentrate on sounds that are most confusing to the listener or most difficult for the speaker.
For English speakers, that means among other things remembering to pronounce vowels consistently. In English we tend to reduce vowels in unaccented syllables to vague “uh” or “ih” sounds, as in “Esp-uh-ran-to.” If your students can correctly pronounce the name of the language itself, they’re already on the right track. One useful exercise is to write out English phrases and sentences in Esperanto letters and then pronounce them as they would sound in Esperanto — English with an Esperanto accent. This is likely to entertain your students as well as getting them used to the sounds as they ought to be.
Certain letters and letter combinations tend to be mispronounced, and a few others are unfamiliar and hence hard to say. A common but relatively minor mistake is to pronounce O like the English long O, which would be spelled “oŭ” in Esperanto (as it’s sometimes spelled when transliterating Chinese names, for example). If students have trouble hearing the difference, it might help to use the example of “or” and “ower.” (English normally uses a pure O before the letter R.)
Somewhat more serious is a tendency, especially among those who speak or have studied Spanish, to pronounce E so that it sounds almost like the diphthong EJ. This can sometimes lead to confusion, and it’s worth emphasizing that the Esperanto E is actually very much like the E in the English word “bet.”
The diphthongs AJ, EJ, OJ, and AŬ give American English speakers no trouble because those sounds are common in English, but UJ and EŬ are unfamiliar. Try having students say “aj, oj, uj” or “taj, toj, tuj” to see the pattern with different initial vowels. Similarly let them practice “aŭ, eŭ” or “aŭ, oŭ, eŭ.”
Of the consonants, Ĥ is probably best learned by imitation. If all else fails, a forceful K or H will probably be understood. The Esperanto R can also be difficult for many and harder in certain locations (at the start of a word, for example, or following T or D). Using an English R isn’t ideal but it’s understandable.
Most beginning Esperanto courses skip over the subtle differences between the pronunciations of P, T, and K in English and in Esperanto. In English these stops are usually but not always “aspirated” — that is, followed with something like a short “H” sound. To speakers of many other languages this difference is noticeable, but it’s unlikely to interfere with understanding, and in some cases might even help distinguish the sounds from their voiced counterparts B, D, and G.
The consonant combinations that give English speakers the most trouble are KN and SC at the start of words. (Later in the word is fine; we don’t have any trouble saying “MacNab” or “fists.”) One simple trick that helps, especially if the word ends in a vowel, is to pretend to attach the initial K or S to the previous word — for example saying “las ciuro” or “lak nabo” in place of “la sciuro” or “la knabo.”
For more advice on teaching pronunciation, see how it’s done for other languages with sounds like Esperanto’s.
Finally, a follow-up to the last column: Russ Williams notes two good online resources I didn’t mention:
La Reta Vortaro isn’t a substitute for an English-Esperanto or Esperanto-English dictionary, but it is a very good free alternative to the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro. While it isn’t as complete, it’s excellent for routine use. As a bonus, it has vocabulary lists by subject matter. I remember the address http://reta-vortaro.de by thinking “reta-vortaro.de Esperanto.”
You can download a free 12-lesson introductory course, in more than 20 languages, from http://kurso.com.br. It’s an interactive program that runs on Windows and Linux (but unfortunately not on Mac OS).