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I'm teaching a French girl English (I'm not a qualified teacher, I'm more of a language assistant, I'm an English native, I'm at university at the moment). She is having trouble with pronouncing words with 'gh', such as 'through' and 'borough'. I explained that in some words, the 'gh' sounds like an 'f' such as in 'rough' but in others it isn't and it's silent. I can't find a rule to teach her so she can follow unfortunately. Also for words with 'gn', sometimes the 'g' is pronounced, such as 'iGnore' or 'siGnature' but not in words such as 'campaign' or 'sign'. I've searched online that when the 'gn' is between syllables, it is pronounced, but it is silent at the start of a word, such as 'gnat', and at the end, such as 'foreign'. Is this correct? I've been using Wikipedia for this information. I'm realising how hard English pronunciation is for other speakers and saying 'you just have to keep reading to get used to it' can only get me so far!

Any help or tips for pronouncing these sounds and their etymology (and why they have or have not changed) which is suitable for a 16 year old girl would be greatly appreciated.

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(I have some experience with this type of work, but not enough to necessarily know best practices.) Using this webpage as an example, the general rules that are taught are:

  • gn is consistently /n/ when it begins a word. As per this ELL.SE post, it is pronounced /gn/ if it appears at a syllable boundary, but not if what follows is a suffix.

  • gh at the end of a word is /f/.

Obviously, the rule for gh is inconsistent and particularly problematic, and even a child by third grade will know exceptions like high and though. As a native speaker, I did not even even internalize the rule to read gh as /f/ well (if at all), and for a long period, my instinct when seeing Hough or plough in a text was to (incorrectly) subvocalize them to rhyme with though. With gh, I would possibly work with rimes. I imagine that it would at least help with borough/thorough or high/nigh/sigh, even if it would not work as well with -ough.

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  • For a moment, I thought you were saying that plough is pronounced with an f sound. You meant that the gh is silent as in though but the vowel is different, right? (Sorry, I am not a native speaker.) – Carsten S Sep 27 '20 at 10:41
  • @CarstenS: Yup. (I learned the word with the American spelling, which disadvantaged me when I read books written with British spelling.) But I meant to say that according to such teaching materials, I should have at least mispronounced "plough" with /f/, rather than assuming that it rhymed with "though." – Maroon Sep 27 '20 at 16:38
  • What you say about gn generalizes to kn also (knife, gnome, acknowledge, ignoble); this is due to a relatively recent development in English phonotactics. – OmarL Oct 6 '20 at 11:55
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I would recommend for an exercise of building up word meaningful word combinations of "gn" and "gh" using the student's own effort and make a conscious effort to remember how every word is pronounced. That way it would be much more useful to internalize the patterns than to memorize rules(Memorizing rules, in my own experience makes the conversation and writing a bit mechanical or robotic and it slows you down but by this method it would be fine). For a start here's an example "A companion of ours did sign with one of their signatures a letter that has been stuck up in a high bough in a foreign land"(translated to French, some English words have Romance roots "A companion of ours did sign with one of their signatures a letter that has been stuck up in a high bough in a foreign land" ). And I recommend to teach vocabulary for your student "An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language". Try reading it with her(it is in English) and that might give her a feel of a connection between the "words" of Romance languages and also English.

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