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Home› How to learn English› Pronunciation›
by Tomasz P. Szynalski
© Tomasz P. Szynalski, Antimoon.com
Like all languages, English has its own unique set of sounds.Although many of the English sounds may be the same (or almost the same) as in your native language,many are different.
If you want to speak English well, you cannot pronounce English words using the sounds of your native language.If you do so, your English will be difficult to understand.For example, if your native language does not have theθ sound,you cannot just replace it witht ors.If you do, your thin will sound liketinor sin.
Therefore, you have to:
- know all theEnglish sounds
- listen to how they sound in real words and sentences
- practice your pronunciation — listen to English words and phrases, and try to repeat them as well as you can
How to practice pronouncing English words
There are two main ways in which you should practice pronouncing English words:
- “Official” practice.From time to time, sit down with the specific goal of practicing pronunciation.Play some recordings of words and phrases in your preferreddialect of English and repeat what you hear.This doesn’t have to take a long time — 10–15 minutes will do.Where to find good recordings of words and phrases? See below.
- Incidental practice.You should regularly try to pronounce English words during other activities, e.g. while watching TV, listening to an audiobook,waiting for the bus, taking a shower, reading something on the Web, etc.(Of course, before you practice a word, make sure you know how it should be pronounced;if you don’t, look it up in a dictionary.)
Tools for “official” practice
Where to get recordings for your pronunciation practice sessions?
Pronunciation training websites/software.These self-study tools generally provide the following:
- a list of English sounds, with many recorded words for each sound
- tips on how to pronounce the sounds
- recordings of “minimal pairs”: two words with similar, but different sounds, e.g.dip–deep, bed–bad
- recordings of phrases and sentences for practicing a sound (or several sounds)
- videos showing the proper position of the mouth and tongue (I have never found these anatomical details helpful, butyour mileage may vary)
These tools are not essential — you could just use a dictionary with audio recordings instead— but they can certainly be helpful. The best free pronunciation training websites areRachel’s English (American)andBBC Learning English (British).For learners of American English, there is also the Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionarywith some free pronunciation exercises.
General dictionaries.Virtually all modern software dictionaries have audio recordings of English words, and therefore can be usedfor practicing pronunciation.Among the dictionaries on DVD-ROM that Itested in 2009,the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) had the best quality of recordings for both Americanand British English. It is also the only dictionary which contains recordings of whole sentences.Among free online dictionaries, the ones with the best quality of recordings (as of 2011) seem to bethe Cambridge Dictionary and theMacmillan Dictionary.
Pronunciation dictionaries.The best one (as of 2011) is the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary byJC Wells (see my review), though it isn’tmuch better for practicing pronunciation than theLongman Dictionary of Contemporary English. In fact, most of the recordingsare the same in both dictionaries.
Tips for practicing English pronunciation
- It’s not so important to spend a lot of time practicing; it’s more important to do it regularly.In my experience, instead of practicing for three hours, it is better to practice for 10 minutes and then start again the next dayafter a good night’s sleep. You cannot rush things. Your brain needs time (and sleep) to get used to the new sounds.English-speaking children need many years to learn to pronounce all the English sounds properly. For example,one studyfound that 25% of Australian 5-year-olds did not pronounce
- When doing “official” practice with pronunciation software or a website,don’t spend too much time practicing one sound. When you find that you are no longer making any progresson a particular sound, move on to the next one, or end your practice session. You will often find thatthe sound has become easier when you come back to it the next day.
- Some English sounds take months to learn, others can be learned in a day.For example, many learners find that they can learn
ðvery quickly, as these soundsdon’t require a lot of precision — you just put your tongue between your teeth and blow.Pronouncing these sounds is largely a matter of attention: you have to make sure you don’t replace themwith
v.To take another example, when I was learning pronunciation, mastering
ŋtook no practice at all,
ʃtook about a month, while
ʊəʳtook more than a year.
- In the beginning, speak slowly, make pauses between words, and exaggerate the sounds. By “exaggeration”, I meanthat you should put in more effort than usual to pronounce the sounds especially clearly. Whenever there is a long vowellike
iː, make it especially long. Open your mouth wide for open vowels (
æ ɑː ɒ).If you have a problem with de-voicingconsonants at the end of a word (speakers of Polish, German, Russian, etc.), voicefinal
b d g v z ð ʒespecially strongly to make them really different from
p t k f s θ ʃ.
- You will need at least some talent for imitating sounds (for instance, if you can imitate people in your own language, it should be easy for you to imitate English pronunciation as well).However, if you don’t have these skills, you can achieve a lot withpersistence and a little technology.One helpful technique is to record your voice and compare it with the correct pronunciation. This way, you can see where your pronunciation is different from the original and you can gradually make it more native-like.
- Learn about the typical mistakes made by speakers of your native language.For example, Hungarian does not have the
wsound, so Hungarians often substitute it with
vwhen they speak English.In French, the letter H is silent, so French people have a tendency to pronouncehabit
/ˈhæbɪt/;or they overcorrect, and pronounce
hin those English words in which itis silent (e.g. they pronounce hour
/ˈaʊəʳ/).Scandinavian languages do not have
z, so Scandinavianstend to pronounce eyes
(same as ice) instead of
/aɪz/.This Wikipedia page hasdecent information on mistakes made by speakers of several languages.
- Find someone who speaks your native language with a British or American accent.Try to imitate the way he/she speaks your native language.It will help you see the differences between the sounds of English and your native language. It may also help youimitate the intonation more easily.(See this article and this forum topic.)
Here’s a technique for the linguists among you:study the English vowel chart and compare it withthe vowel chart for your native language. For example, here is theEnglish vowel chartnext to the Polish vowel chart:
Looking at the above charts can give you a roughidea of how English sounds are pronounced1 relative to each other and2 relative to Polish sounds. For example, it can tell you that:
- to pronounce
ʌ, you should say something between
- although dictionaries use separate symbols for the vowel in away (
ə)and in turn (
ɜ),the vowels really sound the same – you shouldn’t try to pronounce them differently
- to pronounce
æ, you need to say something between
ain English five is basically the same as the
ɪis something between
i(see, miś) and
- the English
ɔwith a hint of
All these are helpful hints that can help you get the sounds right,although of course there is no substitute for attentive listening.
- to pronounce
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