French speakers often struggle with the pronunciation of the “th” and “h” sounds when speaking English. For example, they tend to substitute a “t” or “d” for “th” (“I tink dat” rather than “I think that”) and to drop the “h” (“old” instead of “hold”) or add one (“hice” rather than “ice”). Classically, these phenomena are explained by problems of perception and mental representation of sounds, which lead to incorrect sound production.

However, French speakers of English do not produce these pronunciation errors in a systematic way. For the same word, they alternate between an accurate pronunciation (“thank”) and an inaccurate one (“tank”). This empirical observation challenges the dominant theory, says Paul John, a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Translation at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

The researcher and his team wanted to better understand why these pronunciation errors vary. They presented 50 French-speaking Quebecers with a production task—essentially an oral presentation in English—as well as two tasks involving the perception of the “th” and “h” sounds.

The results of the experiment suggest that French speakers of English develop approximate representations for new second language sounds rather than phonological representations based on distinctive features, as do native English speakers. As a result, they only manage to properly perceive and pronounce the “th” and “h” sounds some of the time. These results could have an impact on the teaching of ESL pronunciation, for example, by encouraging learners to practice their perception and production of the “th” and “h” sounds in order to better express themselves despite inaccurate representations.