26 Sep 5 quick ways to improve your pronunciation
You think your pronunciation is pretty good. You’ve just taken some English classes. Your teacher understands you. And then…
“Sorry, what was that?”
How many times does this happen to you when you’re speaking in real life? Your vocabulary might be extensive but if your pronunciation isn’t up to scratch, it might still be difficult for people to understand you.
Learning to enunciate English words properly can be one of the trickiest parts of learning English.
For English learners, you will probably have to learn many completely new sounds compared with your native tongue. Vowels can be especially difficult as their sound and the spelling might be completely at odds.
Words like ‘tough’, ‘cough’ and ‘dough’ are all pronounced differently, whereas ‘so’, ‘sew’ and ‘sow’ are all done the same.
Far out! This would drive me batty!
So that’s why we have these 5 tips to help you pronounce English words better.
1. Learn to listen.
As a child, I learnt to listen to the sounds before I could create them. Similarly, when you’re learning a new language like English, you need to slow down and listen before you learn how to speak. Some sounds can be hard to differentiate when you’re listening but by actively listening you can start to catch the words based on the context even if you can’t quite catch the word. Was the other person saying ship or sheep? Well, by the context you could probably gather the actual word. When it’s your turn to speak though, the difference can easily get lost.
There are many useful guides to help you along but sometimes depending on where the material came from, you might end up with a very strong American English accent when you’re trying to sound more like a Melburnian.
A quick way to improve your listening skills is to get out and about with the locals. Eavesdrop at any train or tram stop and see if you can figure out what is being said.
G'day mate! Where ya going? Yeah, no worries, get off at Flinder's Street and change for a tram to the Docklands.
You might not catch all of that, especially if you’re unfamiliar with an Australian English accent but over time, you’ll get more bits and pieces.
2. Notice how your jaw and lips move.
When you speak, you move your lips, tongue and jaw. How you move them affects how you pronounce a word.
One way of correcting your lip movement is to notice the differences between you and an English speaker you’d like to mimic. Probably a bit weird if you had a mirror with you everywhere you go but when you’re at home using a mirror is an easy way to check your lip movement compared with a native speaker.
How can you catch native English speakers lip movements? Movies and TV shows are great so you can slow down, pause and replay but take it to the next level.
Watch a show without the sound on and see if you can mimic the movements of the jaw and lips.
Typically the jaw is in 3 regions; relaxed (closed), mid open and open.
It’ll be relaxed for the schwa sound, denoted as /ə/ and you can find on the back of so many Australian words, like brother /ˈbrʌðə/ and sailor /ˈseɪlə/ or in the middle and the end like photographer /fəˈtɒɡrəfə/ or commitment /kəˈmɪtm(ə)nt/.
There are guides and pictures online that will help you learn how to move your mouth.
3. Great pronunciation relies on your tongue.
The main difference between red and lead is with your tongue. Your tongue moves a lot when you are making sounds. You do it without thinking. Say the following and see if you can recognise the different ways your tongue is moving.
Do you wanna get some coffee after class or do you have other plans?
To improve your English pronunciation, it’s a good idea to check what your tongue is doing.
Some difficult sounds for non-native English speakers to make are the letters ‘L’ and ‘R,’ and the sound ‘TH’. Getting it right is all in the tongue!
- To make the ‘L’ sound, your tongue should touch the back of your front teeth and the top of your mouth, just behind your teeth along the alveolar ridge. Say the word “lead.” Can you feel where your tongue touches in your mouth?
- To make the ‘R’ sound, your tongue should not touch the top of your mouth. Pull your tongue back to the middle of your mouth, near where it naturally rests if you weren’t saying ‘up’. As you say the sound, your lips should be a little rounded. Say the word “red” a few times. You should feel air blowing between your tongue and the top of your mouth as you speak. You should also feel your lips get a little rounder when you make the sound.
- Now for the ‘TH’ sound. To make this sound, put your tongue between your top and bottom teeth. Your tongue should stick out a just a bit between your teeth, and as you push air out of your mouth, let some air escape between your tongue and teeth—that’s what makes the sound. Say the word “thank you.” Make sure you push your tongue between your teeth.
Now that you know where to put your tongue, can you hear and feel the difference?
4. Stress sounds and words.
English is a stressed language which means some words and sounds are more important than others. For example, the word ‘container’ /kənˈteɪnə/ is pronounced with a stress in the middle, so it sounds like: ‘Kn-TAY-nah.’
Nouns and verbs with the same spelling often have different syllables stressed. For example, the word ‘insult’ can be said ‘in-SULT’ as the verb to insult someone or it can be said ‘IN-sult’ which is the thing you actually said.
Typically, two-syllable nouns are stressed on the first syllable, whereas two-syllable verbs are stressed on the second syllable.
It’s more of a guide than a rule because I’ve heard plenty of Aussie’s say ‘re-SEARCH’ and ‘RE-search’ as the verb. It just depends who you talk to. Most people couldn’t tell you the rules because they learnt from the sounds.
Inside a sentence or more accurately a phrase, some words carry more weight to emphasise meaning or to convey a more subtle meaning. Practise this sentence and stress the word you feel needs it: “I didn’t steal your red boots”. If you stressed ‘I’ then you’re implying someone else stole them. If you stressed ‘steal’ for example, you’re highlighting that you were just borrowing them.
It’s not always this complicated though. Just look out for the content words.
5. Record your pronunciation.
One way to tell if all your practice is working is to record yourself with a camera. Using a camera is better than just recording the sound so you can see how you speak and not only hear it.
Recording on your smartphone is great because you can easily keep your own video journal as you progress [pro-GRESS]. If you’re copying from the TV or an online video, recording yourself mimicking the speakers is a great way to fine-tune your pronunciation. A couple of phrases should do to get the stress and pronunciation aligned. If you do it with a friend as well, it’s a great way to help each other along.
If it’s not the same, ask yourself some questions: Am I pushing my tongue the right way? Are my lips curled/shaped like the actor’s?
Pronunciation is a key part of learning English and if you follow these 5 tips, you’ll be able to speak more like a native in no time.