An ice cap seems to have spread over the fiery heat that led Leicester City to win the Premier League last summer. Their poor performance this year has even led to the sacking of the manager who led them to fame and glory. What better moment to reflect on the curiosity of silent letters in the English language than this?
Pronounced ‘Lester’, the letters ice in the middle of it remain inexplicably silent. Guaranteed to ambush any foreigner, this example is typical of many that no one who learns English – whether as a first or second language – can fail to be exasperated by.
Think of the irritating ‘gh’ that is silent in though and eight, but then, just to be difficult, makes an ‘f’ sound in laugh and cough;
Think of the ‘k’ in know and knife;
the ‘l’ in would and half;
the ‘b’ in climb and thumb;
the ‘h’ in hour and honest;
the ‘w’ in write and wrong;
while the w and the h take turns to remain silent in the question words who and what.
There’s no point in pretending that these are not a nuisance – especially for learners whose own language has a much more rational spelling system.
The best way of dealing with these silent letters is not to play them down but to be honest about how inconvenient – even how absurd – they are. Encourage students to keep a list of examples they come across. Referring back to this will help them remember the spelling.
After a while, write up a list of examples that they have met and ask them to identify the silent letters in each.
With more advanced students, see how many different letters of the alphabet they can find that occur as silent letters.
Learning English, they will soon discover that there are silent letters everywhere – though not many will be more outrageous than the ice in Leicester!