How can I improve my pronunciation in English?

Ok. First of all ask yourself this question: What is your goal? Do you want to improve your pronunciation to sound exactly like a native English speaker or do you want to improve your pronunciation to be more understandable? There is a reason why I’m asking you to think about this. Many people who want to improve their pronunciation experience anxiety and this impedes their English fluency and their day-to-day performance in English in a social context. Subconsciously people think their foreign accent marks them as ‘outsiders’ in the eyes of the elite native English speaking group and this gives them anxiety. However, this elite group doesn’t exist anymore or at least it’s not the same as it was years ago. I will explain a bit about the history and psychology of this below:

In the 15th century, before English was used as a lingua franca, it was mainly spoken in the UK.

At the end of the 16th century, when Britain started colonizing parts of the US, Canada, Africa and Asia, English started to be used more for trade and other business. This meant that people in these countries who learnt English as a foreign language did so to fit in together with the native speakers who were running the market. One of the main characteristics that differentiated the non-native speakers from the native speaking group was that they didn’t sound native. They sounded different, not like the people who made the decisions. They sounded “dumb”. Naturally, for them speaking like a native speaker was what was going to get them accepted by the native English speaking group. These people placed great importance on improving their pronunciation so that they could sound like native speakers.

Fast-forward a few hundred years and many English learners are still thinking like this. However, the structure of the English-speaking society has changed since then. English is now the lingua franca and globalization has made it so that everyone all around the world needs to speak English for work, study, travel etc… Now, the pool of English speakers has widened. It is no longer just the people in the native-English speaking countries that speak English. Today, the Chinese are speaking English with the Russians, the Greeks with the Germans, the French with the Mexicans, the Spanish with the Italians etc… You get the picture. So  ask yourself ‘which group am I trying to belong to?’. Is there a group? ‘Is it actually what I want to do or is it a now arbitrary idea passed down from generation to generation?’. ‘Do I need to sound like a native speaker and if so a native speaker from where exactly?’. 

Nowadays, non-native speakers are interesting because they are different.They are perceived as both brave and well-educated. Unless you’re an actor practicing your accent of a specific character, getting rid of your foreign accent completely and trying to sound like a ‘New Yorker’, for example, is like wiping off your identity. 

Of course if you do want to sound exactly like an English native speaker your teacher can help you with that but it will take a while and a lot of practice…. 

What makes much more sense for most people is improving pronunciation for the sake of clarity. In today’s world, especially the business world, there is so much information being communicated that it is imperative that it is communicated in a clear way so as to avoid confusions down the line. 

Here are some ways you can improve your pronunciation for clarity:

1.- Learn to listen in different ways.

First, immerse yourself in the sound of the language. Listen to native English speakers as much as you can whether these people are your teachers, friends, actors on TV and Radio etc…

Getting an overall feeling for the sound and rhythm of the language is an important first step. 

There is even a technique developed by Alexander Arguelles called ‘shadowing’ which is based on getting used to the overall sound of the language and repeating phrases before you even know what they mean in order to learn a new language. It’s what you did as a baby when you learnt your first language!

Then, practice listening with purpose. Try listening to words and phrases in slow motion and regular speed. Observe the little nuances of each sound or combination of sounds from a place of curiosity

Developing listening skills for pronunciation is quite different to developing listening skills for understanding. You will gain this skill if you pursue it with curiosity, patience and a kind of playfulness much like that of a small child exploring the world.

You will need to do a lot of repetition and learn to listen with a specific kind of focus similar to the kind you use to deeply listen to and analyze music. To quote one of the greatest musicians of all time, Daniel Barenboim:

‘Take a few seconds of silence before the music starts. And then when the music starts, you hang on to the first note that you hear and you don’t go away thinking about other things […]. You hang on to the first note and you fly with the music until the last note’.

The same kind of focus and attachment to the sound should happen when working on your pronunciation. Try using audio or video recordings of specific sounds or words and listen to them at home. Right before you play the audio, take a few minutes of silence and when the sound starts, hang on to the first sound and observe how it modifies throughout time. Does the intonation go up or down? If you had to draw it, what would it look like? A curve of some kind maybe? How does the sound finish?

This is really a kind of training of the ear which you can also use to learn new languages, try on different accents and even listen to music you think you don’t understand.

2.- Use the phonetic alphabet

In Spanish, every letter you see on the page corresponds to a specific sound which means that if you can read it, you can pronounce it. In English,however, things are different. The English language has 26 letters in its alphabet but 44 different sounds. That is why we pronounce the ‘c’ in the word ‘cat’ differently from the ‘c’ in the word ‘dance’.

The good thing is that all this information is organized in something called the International Phonetic Alphabet which looks like this:

You will notice that this weird-looking alphabet is sometimes used in dictionaries. Well, now you know that they show you the pronunciation of the word. Ask your teacher to teach you how to use this board and you’ll be able to figure out the pronunciation of any new word you come across while reading, even if you have never heard it before

3.- Do the exercises

Developing your pronunciation is all about observation and repetition. Your teacher can help you identify exactly what you need to do with your mouth, tongue and voice in order to achieve a specific sound. Also, muscles do have memory so once you get the sound right, repeat it over and over so it becomes part of your muscle memory. Our mouths move differently in every language!

4.- Learn about minimal pairs

Minimal pairs are words that sound exactly the same except for one sound. For example, ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’ are minimal pairs. Listen to them with your super focused listening skills you gained from point one above! You might have been taught that the vowel ‘i’ in ‘ship’ is a short vowel sound and the ‘ee’ in ‘sheep is a long vowel sound. However, the terms long and short have less to do with the amount of time you spend on each vowel (even though the long sounds are technically a bit longer than the short ones) and more to do with a change or an absence of a change in the pitch of the vowel. Since it’s difficult to measure the amount of time you spend on each vowel, especially when speaking faster, I prefer to think of it in musical terms. The ‘ee’ in ‘sheep’ has two notes (your voice changes) whereas the ‘i’ in ‘ship’ has only one. Try it and you’ll see what I mean!

5.- Record yourself

There is no stricter critic than yourself so record a video of yourself saying that sound/word you’re working on and listen back. When listening back, don’t just listen to the sound but also compare your teacher’s facial and muscle movements to your own for more precision.

At Start Speaking Today we have teachers who specialize in accent reduction and who can help you improve your pronunciation. Take control of your English learning journey and send us a message if you’d like to learn more! Send us a WhatsApp Start Speaking Today

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