6 top pronunciation tips
TIP #1: LEARN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN “HAVING AN ACCENT” AND “A GOOD PRONUNCIATION”
If you think about it, having an accent is not that relevant when it comes to speaking English. After all, most speakers of English were not born in English-speaking countries and a majority of the English-speaking population worldwide is made up of non-native speakers who employ a wide variety of regional and local accents. Many non-native fluent speakers of English acquired the local accent they first came across when they moved to an English-speaking country, whereas others have never left their home countries yet speak fluent English. Your accent (that is, the “way of saying words that shows what country, region or social class someone comes from”, according to Macmillan Dictionary) is something you will acquire over time and it will vary depending on how, where and with whom you speak English.
Pronunciation, however, is an entirely different matter. Pronunciation IS one aspect of English that you can actually acquire through study and regular practice. It is related to how individual sounds are produced and connected to other sounds. Important aspects of pronunciation are individual sounds, word stress, intonation and connected speech. Many studies have shown that improving your pronunciation can have a direct, immediate and extremely positive impact on both your fluency (that is, your ability to speak English well) and your comprehension (or your ability to understand what other speakers are saying). Once you start paying attention to your own pronunciation and pay attention to how others speak the language, you will quickly begin to better understand what others are saying.
TIP #2: LEARN THE INTERNATIONAL PHONETIC ALPHABET (IPA) AND USE A PHONEMIC CHART
Yeap, it is boring. And it does look kind of weird with all those little meaningless symbols that probably mean nothing to you. But learning the IPA or International Phonemic Alphabet can be an invaluable help in your efforts to improve your English pronunciation. It will help you differentiate individual sounds better. You will be able to identify long and short vowels, diphthongs and consonants that you find difficult, such as the /ʃ/, /ɵ/, /ʧ/ or /ʤ/ sounds that might be more challenging for Spanish speakers. Being familiar with the IPA will help you identify the correct pronunciation of an unknown word right away. Both Adrian Underhill’s and Mark Hancock’s phonemic charts will help you to better understand the different sounds of English and the relationship between them.
TIP #3: PAY ATTENTION TO THE “MUSIC”
English is a stress-timed language (unlike Spanish or Italian, which are syllable-timed). This means that English has a special “musicality” to it. The different between long and short vowels, stressed and unstressed syllables, becomes more important than in other languages. Non-native speakers often get the feeling that native speakers speak “too fast” or that they “swallow the words”. That is not the case. In English, we shrink and we link sounds and words differently. Syllables can become longer or shorter and changes in intonation can often affect meaning. In English we cut words and connect them, as Rachel Smith explains in her video. Remember the difference between stressed or “content” words and unstressed or “function” words. Learning to spot the difference between long and short, stressed and unstressed is key to improving your comprehension and your fluency. The more English you listen to on a daily basis, the more familiar you will become with features like stress, rhythm and intonation.
TIP #4: IMITATE! IMITATE! IMITATE!
Imitating a native speaker’s pronunciation can be one of the fastest ways to improve your pronunciation. There are plenty of ways you can do this. For example, choose a short extract from your textbook that you are already familiar with, as this means you will not have to worry about meaning, just sounds. Play the recording and repeat exactly what you hear. Look at yourself in the mirror. Pay attention to how your face and mouth move. Can you see the sounds? Remember you do not need to speak fast, but you will need to pay attention both to individual sounds and to the connections between sounds and words.
TIP #5: RECORD YOURSELF
Listening to one’s own voice can be a bit embarrassing at first even in your own native language, but you should see this as a great opportunity to improve while nobody’s looking! You do not even need to buy a recorder. Most smart phones work great as recording devices. Compare your recording to the original one. Do you sound the same? Different? Why? Analyze your speech. Identify any “problem areas”. Are there any sounds that you find more difficult than others? Do some consonant clusters give you trouble? (For example, many Spanish speakers have problems with words like “asks” or “crisps”). Note down these problems and do everything in your hand to work on them.
TIP #6: PRACTICE, PRACTICE AND… PRACTICE!
Working on your pronunciation can feel frustrating at times, but the simple truth is your pronunciation will not improve miraculously just by speaking bad English and making the same mistakes over and over again. You MUST practice every day, even if it’s only for 10 or 15 minutes. Practice with a purpose. Choose five or six sentences that you have learnt in class and work with them. Once you feel confident enough with individual sounds, linking words, stress, intonation and connected speech, try to set a time to read out loud every day. Start with audio books and graded readers. Play the CD and repeat what you hear. Do not read out loud for more than 10 minutes per day. Reading out loud requires a lot of effort and you can quickly become tired or hearing your own voice.
Remember: English is not a school subject. English is and should be part of your daily life.