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As an English teacher, I have noticed that some students have weird strategies for pronunciation problems.
For example, I have known many students who simply avoid words with difficult pronunciation. A good example is “crisps”. Some students simply say “potato chips” instead, even when using British English.
The ‘th’ sounds are difficult for many students. So, they simply substitute other sounds, such as ‘t’ or ‘d’ in place. Thus, instead of ‘thirty’, they say ‘dirty’. Instead of ‘three’, they say ‘tree’.
Yet other students mumble or speak very softly when giving a presentation, because of worry over their pronunciation.
And then there are students who do not even realise that they make pronunciation errors:
Teacher: “Marco, you keep adding an ‘ah’ sound to your words.”
Marco: “No-ah, I don’t-ah!”
None of these “strategies” are going to help you pronounce English correctly.
But don’t worry! The strategies below will help you do just that.
Finding your weak areas
The first step is finding your weak areas. At a basic level, this means identifying problem sounds. The tool that we can use to address this is called minimal pairs.
Using minimal pairs
Minimal pairs are sounds that are similar, but different, such as sheep and ship or tree and three. By using words which only differ by one sound, we can focus very clearly on that one sound.
As with all pronunciation practice, you will need to record yourself.
Listen to minimal pairs and record yourself pronouncing the difference. Use your recording to correct yourself.
Before continuing, you should note that pronunciation is heavily influenced by your native language. Hence, you may wish to search for “English minimal pairs for Spanish speakers” or “English minimal pairs for Greek speakers” or so on.
Pronunciation is not just sounds
If you think of pronunciation simply as individual sounds, you are missing the point!
To speak naturally, you need to know how sounds work together in a word or in a sentence. Let’s see some examples.
One feature of English is ‘connected speech’. Basically, if the last sound of one word is the same as the first sound of the next word, the two words sound like one.
For example, “I want to go” sounds like “I wanto go”. The two ‘t’ sounds are connected.
In fact, if one word ends in a vowel and the next begins with a consonant (or vice versa), the words are also connected.
Hence “I want to go” actually sounds like “Iwantogo”. That is, we say all four words together as if it were one.
If you do not do this in your native language (such as Chinese), it may seem strange or even uncomfortable to do this. Nevertheless, to have good pronunciation, you need to step out of your comfort zone.
English is a stress-timed language, which means that rhythm and stress are important.
For example, let’s examine the words desert and dessert.
The word desert is stressed on the first syllable. This means that the first part of the word is spoken slightly louder and longer:
On the other hand, the word dessert is stressed on the second syllable:
Test yourself with this sentence, and record yourself to check:
George ate his dessert in the desert.
The third concept is something called sentence stress. Don’t worry! It’s simpler than it sounds.
It just means that you need to stress – make louder and longer – some words in a sentence. Which words? The important ones!
For example, try saying the following sentence slowly and with stress on the important words in bold.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
Can you see how that makes a difference?
Pausing and chunking
We speak in chunks (pieces) of text, which gives English speech the correct rhythm. Try saying these two sentences, pausing at the dots. Record yourself, if possible.
The rain ▪ in Spain ▪ falls mainly ▪ on the plain.
The ▪ rain in ▪ Spain falls ▪ mainly on the ▪ plain.
You should find that the first sentence sounds more natural. Why? Because we pause after a chunk of ‘meaning’. The rain has a meaning, but The does not have a meaning. In Spain has a meaning, but rain in does not have a meaning.
So, your English will sound better if you speak in short chunks where each chunk has a clear meaning.
Exercises to improve your pronunciation
Now that you understand what is involved in improving pronunciation, it is time to find some exercises and strategies to improve.
Once again, note that most strategies require you to record yourself.
You will not improve simply by watching YouTube videos.
Basic recording strategy
Find something that you can read aloud, such as the Shakespeare script we saw earlier. Record yourself with a microphone and listen to yourself.
Yes, it can be weird or uncomfortable hearing your own voice! But it is something you need to do in order to improve.
Pay special attention to your weak areas (e.g. the ‘th’ sounds, pausing in the correct place…) and note where improvement is needed.
Make a second recording to improve.
Note, that you don’t need a fancy or expensive microphone. The microphone on your phone or laptop will be perfectly fine.
Shadowing refers to the technique of speaking just after someone else - like a shadow.
This helps you with pace, word stress, sentence stress and chunking. It is good to do this with a slow or medium paced speaker.
To make it easier, listen once without shadowing, then try shadowing the second time you listen.
Note: here is an extended guide to shadowing, and we also have a guide on the best podcasts to improve your English pronunciation.
With this activity, you will aim to make our pronunciation as natural and fluent as possible.
For this activity, you need to choose a podcast with a transcript.
Step 1: Listen to the audio at least once first.
Step 2: Open up the transcript and record yourself speaking it aloud. Feel free to imitate the original speaker’s pace and style.
Step 3: Play it back, comparing it to the original recording. How did you do? Give yourself a rating out of 10.
Recommended media: Podcasts, TED Talks, or YouTube videos. Choose a listening clip that is not too long and only has one person speaking.
An alternative method is to use the transcript to record yourself first, before you listen to the podcast.
As you record, try to imagine how a native speaker would say the text. What words would they stress? What sounds would be connected?
Unusual exercises to improve your pronunciation
If some of these exercises seem a little dry, check out this video from Hadar at Accent’s Way. It has three fun and interesting exercises that even involve putting a wine cork in your mouth!
Set a schedule and stick to it!
The final step is to lay out a plan… and stick to it.
Having a scheduled routine is absolutely the best way to improve your pronunciation (or anything else!).
For example, if you set aside one hour per day for English study, allocate 20 minutes for pronunciation practice.
Or if you set aside two hours for English, allocate 30 minutes for pronunciation practice.
The actual length of time is not so important. The key thing is to stick to a routine.
Do this, and I promise you that you will improve steadily.