For learners of English, perfecting the pronunciation of English sounds can be quite challenging. Although we normally rely on spellings for pronunciation, often in English, spellings only make it harder. That is because, unlike many other languages, English letters tend to have multiple sounds also called as phonemes associated with them. What’s more, English has borrowed words from a lot of other languages like Russian, German, Spanish etc., and spellings may reflect the origin of the word or phrase.
Let’s take a look at this sentence for instance:
English can be weird. It can be understood through tough thorough thought, though.
How do you pronounce ‘ough’ in the last five words? The answer is that each one is pronounced differently! Isn’t this confusing?
This popular ‘meme’ (a funny piece of text, picture or video that spreads on the internet) about English pronunciation may make you laugh and also wonder why English pronunciation is so difficult to master. You may be wondering about the secret to good pronunciation skills. You may even be wondering if you’ll ever be able to learn the pronunciation in English correctly.
It’s natural for someone who is learning English as an additional language to ask these questions. But, fear not! Here are some fun and easy ways to help you master the features of English pronunciation, without getting bogged down.
1. Say it out loud
If you haven’t already tried this, now is a good time to start. It isn’t enough to think in your head how to pronounce a new word. Learning pronunciation is all about making your brain and your mouth coordinate. Every time you say a new word, you’re teaching your mouth to move in a new way, which means your teeth, your lips, your tongue, the muscles in your mouth are moving in a completely new manner.
For example, to say the /w/ sound, which comes in the word ‘win’, form a tight circle with puckered lips brought out and away from your face as if you’re going to blow a kiss. Your lips should form a tight ‘O’. With your lips in this position, produce a sound while holding the back of your tongue towards the roof of your mouth. If you touch your throat with the palm of your hand, you should feel your vocal cords vibrating.
Although this sounds super complicated, it actually isn’t when you say it aloud. BBC’s The Sounds of English is an amazing page that provides video lessons on how to pronounce English sounds the right way. You could also download the free pronunciation app ‘Sounds Right’ by the British Council.
Learning how to pronounce sounds is somewhat like learning how to write by hand. It’s a physical process and the more we practice, the better we get at it. As so many physical changes happen when we produce a sound, it is essential to say it out loud and practice until you get it absolutely right.
Songs are a great way to learn pronunciation, which is also why we’re taught nursery rhymes in kindergarten. Several studies have shown that singing enhances memory and brain power. It also relieves stress. Moreover, it is a good way to improve your vocabulary, grammar, and listening too. So, if you want to sound like a fluent speaker of English, you can begin by singing like one!
Start by finding the lyrics of the song you want to sing. Listen to the song more than once to catch the tune. There are hundreds of catchy numbers in various genres like melody, country, pop, rock, jazz to choose from. These are easily accessible on the internet. Feel free to pick your favourite artist or song. It would be a good idea to choose slower songs first and then gradually speed things up.
You may not be able to sing everything right the very first time but learning pronunciation is a time-consuming process. So, just ‘Shake it off’ and give it another try. The goal here is to not sing faster, but clearer.
Singing songs will allow you to get comfortable with new sounds and the rhythm of the language. Once you feel more confident, you can even try singing ‘karaoke’ where a recording of the music is played with no words, so that you can sing the words yourselves. So, get ready to rock the stage and get your pronunciation on point.
3. Twist it up
Unable to pronounce certain sounds like /r/ , /w/ or /l/?
An incredibly fun way to overcome this difficulty is by practicing tongue twisters every day. They are enjoyable and they make learning interesting and effortless.
Try saying this now: “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
Did you pronounce /w/ and /ch/ sounds correctly? How fast can you say this without getting the words mixed up?
Hundreds of popular tongue twisters can be found online for free. Find the ones that are relevant to your problem sounds. If you have a partner to practice this with, turn it into a game and get ready to laugh your heart out for the next half an hour. Remember, practice makes perfect. So, don’t give up until you can say it like a pro!
Learning pronunciation is not just about saying sounds and words right. It’s also about getting these other very important pronunciation features right.
- Word stress: The way a syllable is pronounced with greater force than other syllables in a word.
E.g., In the word ‘electricity’, there are five syllables and we stress on the third syllable ‘tris’ /el-ec-TRIS-i-ti/. You can understand more about word stress by looking a word up in an online dictionary, like the Cambridge, Oxford or Longman dictionaries online.
- Sentence stress: The way a word is pronounced with greater force than other words in a sentence which often changes the meaning that’s conveyed.
E.g., In this sentence ‘Nick hates chocolate’, if we stress on Nick, the meaning is that it’s not Mark or Shaun who hates chocolate but Nick. If we stress on the word chocolate, it means he hates chocolate, not ice cream or anything else.
- Intonation: The sound changes produced by the rise and fall of the voice when speaking. Usually when fluent speakers talk, they use intonation to convey the meaning they want.
E.g., Let’s look at the word ‘Really?’ used as a question.
When the tone of our voice goes up, it sounds like we’re surprised.
When the tone of our voice goes down, it sounds like we’re doubtful.
- Connected speech: The way in which sounds get linked, added or dropped in spoken English.
E.g., I want to go to the park.
Want and to in this sentence get scrunched up together to become ‘wanna’.
I’m going to the park
In this statement, going and to is said like ‘gowing’, with an additional /w/ sound.
- Weak forms: In connected speech, fluent speakers emphasise only certain words. The non-essential words get reduced and become weak sounds, in order to convey more meaning in less time.
E.g., Pencil and pen
In this phrase, the word and gets reduced to just ‘n’, making it ‘Pencil n pen’. However, remember that this would not happen in formal speech or writing.
- Chunking: Dividing speech into chunks of smaller information and pausing appropriately so that listeners understand us clearly and don’t get overwhelmed with information.
E.g., It rained yesterday but only for five minutes.
In this sentence, there are two ideas. The first one is that it rained yesterday. The second one is it rained only for five minutes. In order to let the listener know the first idea is over and that we’re moving on to the next idea, we take short pause after yesterday.
It rained yesterday / but only for five minutes
Similarly, when speaking multiple sentences, we take a longer pause at the end of each sentence to alert the listener that we’re moving on to the next sentence. This is similar to using a full stop at the end of a sentence when writing. This helps you to make your speech more clear and easily understood.
- Contractions: The shortened form of a word or group of words in conversational English.
E.g., In this sentence, I have got to leave tomorrow, I and have get contracted to become I’ve. They are pronounced slightly differently when spoken, and not just like a combination of two words.
Few more examples of contractions are
He is – He’s
I am – I’m
She has – She’s
We would – We’d
The first key step is to listen carefully and notice the different features of pronunciation described above. Once you can hear them, the next step is to try and produce them. So try to actively listen to the experts, analyse their speech, and imitate them. You can do so by watching movies, listening to podcasts, news or other sources. A good place to start is the British Council’s LearnEnglish website, which has a series of podcasts for learners of English, just like you.
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Another way in which you can practise your speaking skills and learn how to speak without being too fast, too slow, mechanical, quiet, or high pitched is by doing role-plays. Sounding natural when trying to incorporate all the aspects of pronunciation can be tricky. Therefore, role playing or pretending to be someone else in a different situation can make the learning process easier. Role playing has been used as a learning tool for over a hundred years. It allows us to explore a variety of scenarios without having to actually be in that situation.
You can find a friend who is also learning English and role-play a situation like phoning a travel agent to find out about a holiday, or role-play an important client meeting at work. If you want it to be more challenging, you can pretend to be the host of your favourite Talk show. Some popular talk show hosts are Graham Norton, Ellen Degeneres and Jimmy Fallon.
You can also watch influential videos from TED Talks, a website where expert speakers talk on education, business, science, tech, creativity, and so much more. These videos come with transcripts or subtitles which will easily allow you to follow them. If you don’t understand something, you can pause and repeat at your own convenience. This can not only improve your pronunciation skills but also your presentation skills.
All in all, role-play helps in elevating your pronunciation skills but be sure to watch your tone, pace of speech, volume, and try to sound natural and conversational.
6. Record, Listen, Repeat
This is one of the best ways to self-check and correct your pronunciation. Every phone comes with a built-in audio recorder these days you can make use of this.
Even though we listen to ourselves talk every day, only when we record ourselves and play it back, do we understand how different we actually sound. Choose a situation, for example, making a presentation about a topic, record what you say and listen to it later. By doing so, you become your own teacher and correct your own mistakes. Although this might feel a bit weird at first, this can be a very enlightening experience and probably one of the fastest ways to repair our habitual errors.
I hope these tips will help you master the art of English pronunciation. This may seem strange and mysterious at first but remember, it can be understood through tough thorough thought, though!