Eligible, Legible, and Illegible

For Arabic speakers, the pronunciation of these 3 words can be confounding. It is a place where the Arabic vowel system and the English vowel system do not match up.

I use a multi-step approach to help sort out their sounds.

1. We establish how many syllables or beats each word has. [eligible] and [illegible] have 4; [legible] has 3.  If you talk about syllables as beats in the internal rhythm of each word, it is easier for students to hear. The two 4-syllable words [eligible, illegible], cause the most problems because they both have 4 syllables and virtually the same collection of sounds, but the stressed syllable is different, and that makes all the difference in comprehensibility.

2. We talk about vowel quality, that /I/ and /eh/ are different sounds, and we work all the time on differentiating the English vowels /iy, I, eh, ey/ as in the words [beat, bit, bet, bait].  In many Arabic dialects, these 4 sounds are all included in one general Arabic vowel, so students don’t hear them as separate and unique.

3. We work on listening discrimination for /I/ and /eh/ and also /schwa/ because it’s in all the reduced syllables of these 3 words.

4. I use spectrograms to raise awareness visually; we examine the shape of each word, and discuss what makes them different. (+/- beats, +/- energy and +/- voicing).  We note that the last two syllables of all 3 words is the same /-gible/, with reduced schwas as vowel sounds.

eligible, etc. with red marks

5. I make students say each word and I tell them what I heard. I give them time to experiment and struggle and get familiar with their pronunciations.

Giving feedback: elligible, illegible, legible

These are really tongue-twisters for Arabic speakers, so have patience, practice a bit, then let it go and return to it some other day.

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Peggy Tharpe teaches, coaches, and publishes about English pronunciation and intonation. She believes that if you understand why something is happening, you're better able to address it and change it. She teaches the "why" of pronunciation as well as the "what" and "how".