Pronouncing names correctly, whether they be first names or surnames, is something most of us are understandably concerned about. This is especially the case if you’re in a situation in which you’re with people with surnames which aren’t familiar to you, like being in front of a class of people learning English. It can be tricky, because other languages often have different pronunciations of letters. And, from experience, our knowledge of those differences can vary.
A common example is Spanish names with J, such as José. The classic mistake is to pronounce the J exactly as it’s normally pronounced in English, as in juice or jam. But you might know that in Spanish, it’s usually more like the letter h in English. So, being very culturally sensitive, you pronounce the J like an H, but then, it’s not exactly as simple as that, is it? It’s a little more strongly pronounced, a little throatier than in English, and the o is more emphasised. But then if we try to pronounce it exactly as a Spanish speaker would, it’s embarrassing. Why is that?
I think it’s partly fear of making a mistake in front of the person we’re referring to, so we don’t go all the way to trying to pronounce it correctly. It feels safer to just half-ass it, and pronounce it in a mild, inoffensive way. And I think that fear comes from not wanting to pronounce words too much like they’re pronounced in another language, because it contains sounds we’re not used to. The problem is that we learn the sounds of language as infants, and those sounds are locked into our brains as children. And there are some sounds which English doesn’t have, like the precise pronunciation of j in Spanish, or the rolled r‘s you find in Spanish and French. So when we try to pronounce them, it doesn’t feel natural. This is made trickier by the fact that we have similar sounds in English, and our instinct is to gravitate towards those sounds instead, like an h, or a non-rolled r.
Of course this also causes issues for people learning English. The Spanish alphabet, for example, features both the letters b and v, but they’re pronounced as b. And as the v sound doesn’t exist in Spanish, Spanish speakers will tend to pronounce both letters as v. French and Italian speakers have difficult pronouncing the letter h at the beginning of words. It’s not used that in way in either language, with it being silent when used at the beginning of a word (something that rarely happens in Italian). So very often they won’t pronounce the h, or sometimes add an h sound to a word beginning with a vowel. Some Japanese speakers have trouble with l and r, because neither sound exists in the language, but there is a sound somewhere in between the two.
It’s easy to think that languages which use the Roman alphabet are all made up of the same sounds. But not only do they all have different sounds, they don’t all share the same letters, with some having a few more or fewer than English. In terms of sounds, for example, here’s the set of English phonemes. And here’s the French one. And even when languages share sounds, they can be used differently. One sound that’s common to many languages, and is the most common phoneme in English, is the schwa /ə/. It’s a vowel sound, and basically sounds like “uh.” Think of the word capital, and the difference between the sounds of the two a‘s. The first is stressed and has the /æ/ sound you associate with the letter. The second a though, is not stressed, and we use the schwa. It’s very often used for unstressed vowels, but this is not a feature of many other languages, so many non-native speakers will pronounce both a‘s as though they’re both emphasised. This is also because many other languages don’t have the convention English has of only one syllable in a word being stressed. Two words we have no problem with can cause a lot of trouble for learners: desert and dessert. We instinctively know that the first syllable in the former word is emphasised, and the second syllable in the latter, and use the /e/ and /ə/ sounds accordingly. But for someone not used to those conventions, it’s not obvious how the words should be pronounced, and whether or not they should sound different at all.
All that might sound dispiriting, and seem to suggest that we’re always going to have communication problems. But really, pronunciation isn’t that important. What’s important is that people understand you. Say you’re in a restaurant, and you say Who’d like dessert? At worst, you provide a laugh for your friends, but they’ll all understand you. Because you’re in a restaurant. In fact, English is so commonly spoken by non-native speakers (there about three times more non-native speakers than native speakers), that we native speakers don’t tend to really notice variations in pronunciation. If someone says they’re going to the ‘ospital, what’s really wrong with that? It’s comprehensible, so why not? It’s difficult to draw a line between a mispronunciation, and a difference in pronunciation based on accent. Even within English, a simple word like car can be pronounced in at least 3 or 4 distinct ways by native speakers from different countries.
The only times one needs to be careful is when dealing with minimal pairs, pairs of words which differ only slightly in sound. Ship and sheep, for example, are tricky for speakers of Romance languages who tend to pronounce ship with a long vowel sound, identical to sheep, while some will make the opposite mistake. Which is usually ok in context, but you really need to be careful when asking about your sheets in a hotel.
So whether you’re trying to perfect your pronunciation in English or another language, close enough is usually ok. In fact, people will usually appreciate you making an effort to speak their language (though there’s always one who’ll correct anything). So just go for it!