As an English teacher, I always hear the same question from my students from all around the world: “How can I improve my English pronunciation?”. You see, what’s interesting about English is that some words sound different from the way they are spelled.
You may be thinking, why do English words work this way? How do you say these words correctly? Don’t worry, my friend! I will teach you the best ways to improve your English pronunciation!
Are you ready? Let’s begin!
Addressing Your Issues
The first step in learning English is to acknowledge your problems. You know that you need to focus more on improving your pronunciation if you can relate to any of the following:
You have no problems in writing and understanding English, and your vocabulary is fine. It’s just that you sound like you can’t speak fluent English.
- Your English speaking skills, particularly the way you pronounce English words, needs work and you want to improve them.
- People keep saying “Pardon?” or “Can you please say that again?” whenever you are speaking in English because they could not understand you.
- Your English vocabulary is fine, but you can’t catch up with native speakers who talk fast.
- You can write English well. But when you speak it, you slow down or stutter often with lots of “umm”s and “uhh”s.
- You have to repeat yourself many times when talking to native speakers because your accent makes it difficult for them to understand you.
- You get pretty anxious when talking in English. When in conversations with native English speakers, you can’t understand much about what they are saying and you are overly self-conscious about how I speak.
Also, let me ask you a few questions:
- Is it difficult for you to understand English-speaking people because they are talking way too fast?
- Do people find it difficult to understand you because of the way you pronounce words?
- Does someone need to write down new words and phrases for you to understand them?
- If you learn a new word, do you have a hard time remembering what it sounds like?
- Does your foreign accent make you conscious and shy when speaking English?
If your answer is YES, then you are in the right place.
Keep your reading and know the rules and tips on how to improve your English pronunciation skills!
Golden Rules in Learning Pronunciation
Let me share with you a few rules that you need to know before you start learning:
- Choose an accent that you want to focus on. American English is different from British English.
- Use an English learner’s dictionary to know the correct way to pronounce an English word so you can say it properly the first time. Avoid just guessing the sounds!
- Use the Mimic Spoken English Technique, where you listen to a native speaker talk and repeat what was said using the same sound.
- Record yourself when you are speaking so you can identify and correct yourself.
- Work with a partner. Practice minimal pair and voiced vs. unvoiced consonants.
- Always remember to emphasize syllables and words with the correct stressed sounds.
- Make sure to practice every day! For example, you can set aside 15 minutes of your day for pronunciation exercises. Make this a daily habit.
Use Your Mouth as a Muscle
Let me tell you something. I’ve received a lot of messages from people who have been trying to be fluent in English. Some of them have been trying to for many, many years but have little success in doing so.
I know exactly why this keeps happening. The reason is, most foreign English speakers don’t perceive their “mouth as a muscle”.
Let me use sports as an analogy to make you understand this. You know that to be good at soccer, you have to master the use of your leg and foot muscles. Basketball players who shoot the ball well do so because they perfected the use of their arm and wrist muscles. The same goes for fluent foreign English speakers: they mastered the use of their mouth as a muscle. You need to actively use your tongue, jaws, lips, and facial muscles to produce the correct sound for English words, phrases and sentences.
Below are some tips that can be really useful to develop muscle memory for speaking English:
Record your voice and listen carefully for any pronunciation mistakes. It is very important to hear what your speech sounds like to know what part you can improve or maintain.
Remember to pronounce the consonants and the letters at the end of words.
Until you perfect your pronunciation, it is best to speak slowly and be understood.
Observe the mouth movement of the native speakers as they talk and attempt to imitate them. Pay attention to the way they place their mouth and try to make the same shapes. Repeat what they say and try to maintain the same rhythm, intonation and word stress. You can also do this when you are watching people’s conversations on TV.
Write down all the words that are difficult for you to pronounce. It’s best if you can find a native speaker that can record these difficult words on tape. This way you can listen to these words and practice saying them during your free time.
Make it habit to read aloud in English for at least 20 minutes a day. This will greatly increase your vocabulary and strengthen the facial muscles needed to make the correct English sounds.
Listen to audio books while reading the written form of the book. This will increase your vocabulary and you can listen and read at the same time. It will be easier for you to pronounce words and irregular verbs correctly. You should also record yourself reading the same passage as the speaker from the book for comparison.
Reading tongue twisters is a fun way to strengthen the mouth and tongue muscles you use when speaking English. Here a good place for your practice: https://www.engvid.com/english-resource/50-tongue-twisters-improve-pronunciation/
You have to be patient, because changing your speech takes time. Learning a new language is a process that requires practice and commitment. Don’t be discouraged because your hard work will pay off in the end.
Establish your 30 Days Challenge. Make it a habit to do it every day, and you will complete it in no time.
Strategies for improving your English pronunciation – The Step by Step Guide
5.1 Aspects of Pronunciation
In order to improve your English pronunciation, you have to pay attention to its three main aspects listed below:
- Phonetics – this refers to how a person sounds when speaking a language.
- Word Stress – in words with two or more syllables, you have to know which part needs emphasis.
- Sentence stress – A certain word/s in sentences are pronounced louder or higher in pitch to show its importance.
Now let’s proceed to level appropriate pronunciation activities. It is very important to understand that exercises must be different for beginner-level, intermediate level and advanced level learners. Because they are at various learning points, I will share with you the activities fitting to your skills.
At this level, you have to concentrate on the basics of pronunciation. Here are some things you can do if you are a new English student.
- Focus on activities that practice syllable stress. This is going to be a challenge but not if you start early on in your English learning course. All you have to do is study multisyllabic words or words with two or more syllables and know which part the stress falls. With constant practice, you will be able to pronounce words with the correct stress sound.
- Challenge yourself with voiced and voiceless consonants. You must be able to tell apart voiced and voiceless consonants through touching your throat while saying words. Observe the difference with ‘z’ and s’ and ‘f’ and ‘v’.
- Research for English words with silent letters and make yourself familiar with them. For example, the ‘b’ in ‘bomb’ is not pronounced as it is ‘thumb’. Other words with silent letters are ‘through’, ‘half’, and ‘comb’
- As part of the previous exercise, also familiarize yourself with the influence of the last and silent letter ‘e’. “Believe” and “Alive” are two words both ending in ‘e’ but they do not sound the same.
This part right here is for English learners who have made it past through the beginners level but still has some room for improvement. Here is a list of activities you should focus on:
- You must be able to understand Minimal Pairs or the little differences in pronunciation between two words that are kind of alike. For example, “ban” and “bun”
- You may now be an intermediate learner but word stress pattern is something you have to practice continuously if you are aiming for fluency. What you should do is use short sentences and apply standard word stress patterns as you have learned when you were still a beginner.
- Now you should invest more time on exercises that will practice your One of the best techniques is to use English music. Study the lyrics and listen to how the singer stresses the word.
If you are an advanced level English learner and is still motivated to improve your English skills, I suggest that you do the following.
- Challenge yourself to more stress and intonation exercises. Change up certain word stress and understand that by doing so will actually change the meaning of a sentence.
- Start learning about register and function. The idea is to learn when and how you should modify your pronunciation based on whether the context is formal or informal.
Ok, now let’s dive in step by step strategy of improving your English pronunciation:
Step 1: Master the sound of English
The English language used in different geographical context is basically the same but you will still notice a difference in the way it sounds. The individual sounds in a word are referred to as phonemes. There are 26 letters in the alphabet but there are actually 44 sounds in the English language! Sounds mind boggling, right?
Depending on what kind of English you want to learn, read more about this below:
- British English phonemic: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/activities/phonemic-chart
- American English phonemic: http://www.onestopenglish.com/skills/pronunciation/phonemic-chart-and-app/interactive-phonemic-chart-american-english/
We produce different vowel sounds by the way we open our mouth. We produce different consonant sounds through our tongue, teeth, lips, palate, nose and vocal chords.
There are three types of vowel sounds in English namely short, long and diphthongs.
- There are word with long vowel sounds like in ‘far’, ‘beat’, ‘sword’, ‘bore’
- There are words with short vowel sounds in ‘fat’, ‘pit’, ‘ten’
- Diphthongs, on the other hand, are a combination of two vowel sounds: /ɔɪ/ as in ‘toy’, /eə/ as in ‘bear’, /ɪə/ as in ‘hear’ and /əʊ/ as in ‘dome’.
There are different ways to practice this:
- Access Master spoken English – Feeling Phonic which is available in 5 DVD and 9-tape video series. It is also available in Youtube and also published as a book.
- Take an American Accent Course if you want to master how native English speakers from the United states speak.
- Lastly, go to this website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4NVPg2kHv4
Step 2: Master word and sentence stress
Word and sentence stress is very important in pronunciation, the reason why I have been repeating the topic a few times before.
For you to understand spoken English, you need to be fully knowledgeable of word stress. Native speakers of English do not need to learn about this because they use word stress effortlessly. It is so natural for them that they are not even aware of it. However, non-native speakers who talk to native speakers without paying much attention to word stress face a couple of problems:
- They find it hard to comprehend native speakers especially those who speak too fast.
- The native speakers will not be able to understand them easily.
Below are the two basic rules about word stress:
- A word can only have one stress. If you listen to how a certain word is pronounced and you hear two points of emphasis, the other one has got to be what we can consider a “secondary stress”. However, the main stress will get a bolder emphasis.
- Stress sounds fall in vowels and not in consonants (with very few exceptions).
Other rules (exceptions can be applied):
Stress the first syllable of:
- Most two-syllable nouns (examples: CLASSmate, PORridge)
- Most two-syllable adjectives (examples: HEALthy, GIant)
Stress the last syllable of:
- Most two-syllable verbs (examples beLIEVE, reSIDE)
Stress the second-to-last syllable of:
- Words that end in -ic (examples: fanTAStic, eLECtric)
- Words ending in -sion and -tion (examples: nuTRItion, proFESsion)
Stress the third-from-last syllable of:
- Words that end in -cy, -ty, -phy and -gy (examples: arisTOCracy, unCERtainty, bibliOGraphy, scientOLogy)
- Words that end in -al (examples: pheNOmenal, BIBlical)
You can say that sentence stress is like the music of spoken English. It gives it the rhytm or the “beat”. Just like word stress, sentence stress enables people to understand what a sentence means especially if spoken too fast. While word stress falls on one syllable within a word, sentence stress falls on words that are important enough to emphasize in a sentence.
There are three types of words in a sentence:
- Content words
- Structure words
- Function words
Content words are the significant words of a sentence. They are the important words that carry the main point of the entire thought. This type of word includes the following:
- main verbs
- question words
Structure words are not as important as content words. They are just short words that complete the sentence to sound grammatically correct. If you eliminate the structure words from a sentence, you will most likely still comprehend the sentence. However, if you eliminate the content words from a sentence, the sentence will totally lose its meaning. Examples:
Function words, on the other hand, are not that important either so they are left unstressed or even reduced. Examples of which are:
- auxiliary verbs
To practice content and function word pronunciation, visit this website right here: https://www.thoughtco.com/content-or-function-word-pronunciation-4087654
Things Happen in Sentences
Depending on how the words are put together in sentences, some of them will be stressed while others are not. Aside from that, consonants become silent or sound different depending on the word. Even with a given set of rules, English learners might still have a hard time following them.
As an ESL teacher, I recommend you to subscribe to Daily English Dictation by Coach Shane.
Step 3: Habits to develop
To quickly improve your English pronunciation and your skill in spoken English, here are some of the English learning habits I share with my students:
Whenever you pick up a new word, follow this step by step rule
- Do not guess how a word is pronounces. Check the pronunciation using the English Learner’s dictionary in this website: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/
- Tick on the main vowel sound.
- Spot the weak vowel sound.
- Spot the consonant sounds.
- Count the number of syllable there are. Which is stressed? If you feel like you still need more practice with this, visit https://www.howmanysyllables.com/words/pronunciation for more information. In this website, you can search for words and know how they are broken down in syllables. It also shows how to pronounce a word.
- Say the word aloud and unhurriedly a number of times, as much as you can.
- Spell the word correctly and say it aloud a couple of times without looking at the dictionary.
5.2 Shadowing Technique – Listen and Repeat
The best way to improve your pronunciation is mimic the speech of native speaker in the right way (that we called shadowing).
Shadowing is a technique that helps you to improve not only your pronunciation but also rhythm and intonation. Shadowing mean that you practice repeating after speaker as soon as possible (i.e almost at the same time as native speaker). You don’t wait for listening the whole sentence then repeat.
Ok, here is our step by step guide that helps you to make it easier
- Pick some English audio/video material that you really like, include transcript or subtitles. I personally use “English Through Dictation” series for this practice.
- Listen the audio/video one or more times to get to know the content. You can read the transcript/subtitles for understanding overall meaning. You can translate it to your mother tongue if you want.
- Do the speech shadowing technique: Listen to the audio/video and try to imitate the native speaker. Repeat everything he/she said include voice pitch, pauses, intonation…yes EVERYTHING you can hear from her/him. You can try to talk at the same time as her/him or you can wait until he/she finish one sentence then repeat but I prefer you say it at the same time as her/him. It is not easy at the first time but after some time, you will get the better.
Trust me! Doing Speech Shadowing technique, you will improve your English pronunciation so crazy.
5.3 Train Your Ear – Improve Listening Skills
In order to improve your speaking skills, you must first know how to listen. There are many ways to do so:
- Watch a movie. If you’re a beginner, watch a film with subtitles. If you’re in for a challenge, watch something without one.
- Listen to English songs and music. Learn the lyrics to nursery rhymes, if you’re a beginner. If you want something more difficult, try popular English songs and sing along with it. Singing helps calm your nerves and allows rhythm and intonation to flow naturally. Also, you do not have to focus too much with grammar. You just have to pay attention to how you are pronouncing the lyrics.
- Listen to podcasts. Podcasts speak about different topics. Choose one that interests you.
- Listen to the radio. Try subscribing to radio commentaries or songs.
- Watch Youtube. This website is home to millions of videos, songs, documentaries, and etc. Search for the topic of your choice and enjoy the learning and fun!
Make sure to listen to these materials whenever you find the convenient time and place. There are a lot of podcasts free of charge and free audio files you can easily download in your device.
Remember: Improving your pronunciation skills go hand in hand with improving your listening skills. So you better include pronunciation activities as well as listening exercises if you want to see real results.
5.4 Record Yourself
One technique to improve your English pronunciation skills is to record yourself. You can use your phone or a tape recorder.
Does this method work?
Well, yes! It does!
By recording yourself, you will be able to spot whatever it is that you are doing wrong and correct them accordingly.
If you have a learning buddy, you can compare or evaluate each other’s recording.
Choose a sentence from a sound file for you to record. Try to match the stress, tone and pronunciation. Compare until you get it right.
Note: it is better if the voice you are using to check to check is that of a native English speaker.
A lot of English learners struggle to develop their skills in pronunciation. Fortunately, there are a number methods and techniques you can use to improve. You should remember one thing, though. You can learn the rules of English pronunciation to better your English skills. However, it is truly only through practice that you can see the results you want.
Did you have fun reading this article? I do hope you learned a lot from me!
If you have anything in mind that you would like to share, write a comment below and let us know what you think.
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I hope you achieve the results you aim for.