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When people don't know how to pronounce a word in English, they can look it up in the dictionary. However, lots of proper nouns usually can't be found, for example, English names.

Here are my questions:

  • When people want to read some English texts out loud, what do they usually do when they get a proper noun that they don't know how to pronounce? Are there any general rules of thumb for such a situation?
  • Are the students in English-speaking countries required to read English texts out loud in elementary school? And how are they told to deal with the problem I mentioned above?
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    Is there a particular name that you had a problem with? – Alenanno Oct 8 '11 at 17:21
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    The one piece of advice I always heard was that if you're not sure how to pronounce a word, read it LOUD. Confidence, imitated or real, is often an effective substitute for correctness. :-) – Fraser Orr Oct 8 '11 at 22:54
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    Since Houston Street, New York is pronounced differently from Houston, Texas; Cairo, Illinois is pronounced differently from Cairo, Egypt; and President Roosevelt pronounced his name differently from the other President Roosevelt ... do the best you can and don't worry about making mistakes. – Peter Shor Jan 4 '15 at 5:10
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The general rule of thumb is to read it as you would any other word, i.e., follow normal rules of pronunciation. It'll work most of the time, and when you're off, you'll be told the correct, "unorthodox" pronunciation.

I can't speak for all Americans; however, in my elementary school we did read texts aloud, but rarely. And I don't remember specifically being taught how to pronounce unfamiliar proper nouns.

I say don't worry about it too much--if it's unfamiliar to you, it's likely to be unfamiliar to many others. In this case, no one will fault you for not knowing how to pronounce the word; as you said, it can't be looked up in a dictionary.

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Even native speakers make plenty of mistakes when reading aloud, and not just for proper nouns. Sometimes people exchange a word for another that looks similar. Other times they encounter a word they don't know and guess at the pronunciation.

Reading aloud is common when kids are learning to read, but after 3rd or 4th grade, it's much more common to read silently.

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  • It's also used as a way to tell where people are from sometimes, when you're talking about placenames. Anyone from around here (Seattle) is going to pronounce places like Sequim, Puyallup and Des Moines differently than someone who's not a local. Basically, no one thinks that you're making a mistake when you pronounce a proper name differently; there are just too many variations, and English spelling/pronunciation guidelines just aren't helpful for non-English names. – James Moore Jun 15 '12 at 16:47

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