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How to Improve your English Pronunciation

By Dr Norman

It can be very frustrating when you try to say something in English, and all you get back is a confused look or a ‘What???’. It can be even more frustrating when you have spent time practising ‘problem’ sounds and are still not understood. Let’s get you past this point and on to clear pronunciation. Here are 4 steps you can take to improve your English pronunciation in your everyday speech.

Steps to improve your English pronunciation

Step 1: Develop your ‘ear’

An important step to take to improve your English pronunciation is to develop an ‘ear’ for the structure and the ‘music’ involved in pronunciation. Let’s start by looking at the structure underlying pronunciation.

Hearing the structure

Hearing the structure involves being able to identify and separate out the words, syllables and individual sounds. Often when we hear people speaking, one word seems to run into the next. So it is important to hear where one word ends and another word starts. This will help you with your comprehension as well as your pronunciation.

Once you can identify and separate out words in running speech, you then need to be able to identify their syllables. Some words have just one syllable, like the word ‘dog’. Other words have more than one syllable. The word ‘about’, for instance, is made up of 2 syllables (a-bout), and the word elephant comprises 3 syllables (el-e-phant). My video below allows you to hear these syllables.

And of course each word and syllable is made up of a set of sounds: the consonants and the vowels. While English has 26 letters in its alphabet, it has many more sounds. The exact number and type of sounds depends upon the accent being used. But you don’t need to worry! There are common sounds used, no matter what the accent. We can sometimes learn to hear sounds and the differences between sounds at the same time as we are learning how to pronounce them. However, extra listening practice is often needed.

While focussing on the sounds of the language is very important, it may not always give you the clarity you want.

Hearing the ‘music’

Sometimes you can pronounce all the sounds in a word correctly and still get that confused ‘what???’ from the listener. This can occur because the way that you have expressed the word, phrase or sentence does not match what the listener expects. Listeners expect words to be produced in certain ways. They expect certain vowel sounds to last a particular amount of time. They expect certain syllables to be emphasised or stressed more than others. They expect sentences and phrases to rise and fall in particular ways that match the meaning and context of the conversation. As you listen to the video below, you will hear what I mean.

So it is important to learn to hear the rhythm, beat, timing and emphasis used in English. This will help you to produce these ‘musical’ features of the language. A good ear also helps you to correct yourself – an important skill to develop when you are working on improving your pronunciation.

Of course, developing your ear is only one part of learning how to improve your English pronunciation and speak with clarity. You also need to practise the sounds and musical quality of the language.

Step 2: Improve your English pronunciation by imitating and repeating

An excellent way to start developing the structure and music of English in your own speech is by imitating and repeating sounds, words and sentences. You need good models, or examples, to imitate. Choose people who have a native level of pronunciation. Remember, English speakers come with a range of different accents. Some are very strong accents that are specific to one region. These accents can be hard even for English speakers from other places to understand! When choosing models to imitate, select people who are clear and easy to understand, and whose accents are fairly neutral, mainstream or common.

Try to imitate:

  1. the way that they pronounce their sounds at the beginning, middle and end of words;
  2. the rhythm, beat and timing you hear in their words, phrases and sentences; and
  3. the way that they transition from one word to the next.

Remember, sounds can change a bit in different words, phrases and sentences as the tongue slides from one position to the next. This is normal and happens naturally with all speakers. Record yourself, and work on sounding like your models.

While this process of imitation is very important, it still may not be sufficient to improve your English pronunciation.

Step 3: Monitor your pronunciation in everyday speech

Once you start talking with others, you are no longer imitating and no longer recording yourself. In everyday speech, you need to self-monitor. This is where your well-developed ear and your practice comes together. It involves use your heightened awareness to monitor your speech and correct it yourself on the spot. You may need to work on self-monitoring and self-correction before clear and correct pronunciation becomes automatic.

Step 4: Ask for and use feedback

Finally, make use of feedback. Ask native speakers to correct you when you speak, or ask them how to pronounce any particular words or phrases you are having difficulty with. Repeat what they say. Most people are happy to give a bit of feedback. So welcome it and use it to improve your English pronunciation.

Final points

It takes time to develop clear speech. Children take many years to fully learn the sounds of their language. You are trying to do this in a much shorter period of time using the knowledge you already have about speech production. However, your mother tongue may have significant differences in pronunciation. So practise for a short period each and every day. It is much better to do short daily practice than to do one long practice session once a week.

Finally, get a guide or teacher to help you. This can significantly speed up the process. A good teacher will help step you through the process and can give you the type of targeted practice that makes a difference. See my blog article on how to select the best teacher for you.

14th June 2016

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