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My own students often ask me the difference between accent and pronunciation.
To show the difference between these two things, I want to start with a couple of stories.
Many years ago, when I was teaching in London, I had a class full of different nationalities. One day, my students wanted to discuss pronunciation and accent. They asked me to pick out their personal problems.
One very loud and charming Italian boy, Fleris, asked me to choose him first.
“Okay, Fleris,” I replied. “Like many Italians, you add ‘a’ to the ends of words. You do it all the time.”
“What?” said Fleris, “no-a, I don’t-a!”
Year later, when teaching in Asia, I asked a class of beginners to let me know if they had an English name they wanted me to use.
One Chinese boy put up his hand and told me that he would like to be called “Royce”.
“That’s a lovely name,” I said. “Is that R-O-Y-C-E, as in Rolls Royce?”
“No,” he answered, “L-O-U-I-S.”
Let’s begin with pronunciation. Pronunciation refers to saying each part of a word correctly. When Louis told me that his name was “Royce”, that was an error in pronunciation. (Ironically, many Asians choose English names because foreigners find their original names hard to pronounce!)
If we look at the phonetics, we can see that Royce and Louis are quite different:
(By the way, you do not need to know phonetics to learn good pronunciation - we’ll discuss this later in the article.)
But what about Fleris? He added ‘a’ onto the ends of words. It doesn’t seem like a pronunciation problem. It’s just the way that he speaks.
In fact, accent refers to the overall way in which your speech sounds. It includes:
- Where you place the stress on each word
- Where you place the stress on each sentence
- Subtle differences in vowel sounds
- Adding sounds (like Fleris)
- Having difficulty making certain sounds (especially if they are not used in your mother tongue)
Your accent is heavily influenced by your mother tongue and the area where you grew up.
Look back at the list of the bullet points above. The last bullet point is where your accent may cause pronunciation problems.
For example, if there is no ‘th’ sound in your language, you may find it difficult to pronounce the two ‘th’ sounds in English.
You may even find it difficult to hear the difference between the two ‘th’ sounds or between the ‘th’ sounds and ‘t’ or ‘d’.
Note that many pronunciation mistakes simply come from not knowing how to pronounce a new word. For example, many learners pronounce the B in debt or doubt when they first read these words.
In a case like this, the pronunciation error is due to lack of English knowledge and not your mother tongue.
Do I need to have a British or American accent to speak good English?
No! As we have seen, your accent only becomes an issue when it affects your pronunciation.
So let’s stop worrying about accent and focus on pronunciation instead.
How important is good pronunciation?
When I started learning Chinese, two things surprised me.
The first was that the words are so short - many words are single syllables.
The second was that each vowel can have four tones (and an extra “neutral” one) - a concept that we do not have in English.
Thus, ‘ma’ could mean horse, mother, numb or to curse, depending on which tone you use.
It is easy to see that pronunciation is incredibly important when speaking Chinese - you don’t want to call someone’s mother a horse! But what about English?
There’s good news! Pronunciation in English is much less important for comprehension.
Take the word ‘important’, for example. Many Malay speakers miss the ‘t’ and pronounce it “importan”.
But everyone can still understand. Nobody is going to confuse “importan” for another word.
However, the more pronunciation errors you make, the harder it is for people to understand you.
When Louis told me his name was Royce, he made three pronunciation errors (R for L, ‘oy’ for ‘ou’, one vowel sound instead of two).
So we can say that you do not need to have perfect pronunciation. There is margin for error. But it is worth some hard work to improve and make fewer mistakes.
How do you know your pronunciation mistakes?
In my first example, Fleris was unaware that he added ‘a’ to words (no-a, I don’t-a!).
This is true for many learners. So how can you find out which words you are mispronouncing?
The first step is to find out the common pronunciation mistakes in English made by speakers of your mother tongue.
Next, you could try minimal pair exercises to find which vowel or consonant sounds cause you difficulty.
A minimal pair exercise is where you pronounce two words containing similar, but different sounds. Examples are ship/sheep and three/tree. Even better, record yourself saying these words and make sure you can say each one differently.
Finally, if you are working with a private teacher, or have access to an English tutor, you could simply ask them to identify your common pronunciation mistakes.
Remember when I said my class asked me to do this? Asking questions and being curious about things is always a good habit when learning English.
What about enunciation?
Let’s introduce one more technical word. Enunciation sounds very similar to pronunciation, and it is.
Whereas pronunciation means producing sounds correctly, enunciation means producing sounds clearly. In many ways, enunciation is more important than pronunciation.
Let’s take this example: I am going to go to the store and get some bread.
Some ‘lazy’ native speakers might say it like this: “I’mma goto th’ store ‘n’ gessome bread.” This is bad enunciation.
In some ways, English learners can have better enunciation because they learn and practise word sounds. Their goal is to communicate accurately, whereas native speakers don’t think about that.
This is why activities where you record yourself are so important. And now you have a wider goal: not only to speak correctly, but to speak clearly, too.
Here are some ways to improve your pronunciation and speak more clearly
Google Pronunciation Tool
When you learn English, you will come across many unusual words, such as ‘yacht’ (a large, private boat). Let’s imagine that you read the word ‘yacht’ for the first time and you want to know how to pronounce it.
You could look in the dictionary for the phonetic spelling, but you may not know the phonetic alphabet.
A better solution is to use the Google pronunciation tool. To use this tool, simply type “pronounce + [word]” into Google. For example, when I type “pronounce yacht”, I get the following:
Note the following features that we see:
- American and British pronunciation
- Slow or fast pronunciation
- Audio clip
- What the word “sounds like” (instead of the phonetic spelling)
- A short animation of the mouth saying the word
Expect Good Pronunciation to Feel Different or Weird
Many of my students struggle with the ‘th’ sounds in English. When I show them how to make the voiceless ‘th’ sound (teeth, bath, thing), I tell them to bite gently on the tongue and force air out the mouth.
At this point of the class, the students often laugh. Bite your tongue? It sounds strange. It feels weird! Yet, if you want to pronounce English correctly, you need to use your mouth in ways that are different from your mother tongue.
As the English idiom goes, you need to step out of your comfort zone.
Pay attention to what is happening inside your mouth. Look for short videos that show the tongue position inside the mouth for different sounds. An example for the two ‘th’ sounds is here.
Learn to Listen for Sounds
Often, when you listen, you find yourself listening for main ideas. Then, you might listen for details of what the speaker is saying.
To improve your pronunciation, you need to add one more layer to your listening. You need to learn to listen to individual sounds.
For example, perhaps you have read the word ‘doubtful’ and you assume that you should pronounce the B. When you hear someone saying this word aloud, it is a chance to recognise that the B is silent and correct yourself.
How can you train yourself to listen at this “third level”? The answer is by listening to audio clips or podcasts and repeating what the speaker says, recording yourself if possible.
When you carry out this exercise, you are training yourself to focus on individual sounds.
Learn Good Enunciation with TED Talks
If you are unfamiliar with TED Talks, you can read our guide on learning English with TED Talks.
TED Talks are videos of short talks on many fascinating topics. The speakers are trained to speak clearly when they present (and many are non-native speakers!). Hence, they provide a great model for you to follow.
When you watch a TED talk, think about how the speaker pauses in different places in a sentence. Think about how the speaker speaks in chunks. Think about how the speaker uses stress to emphasise certain important words.
You can use the transcript feature to read the text of the talk. Try to give the talk yourself, using the same stress and intonation as the original speaker. Your goal in this exercise is to speak clearly.
Record Yourself As Much As Possible
This tip repeats and reinforces the other tips. To improve your pronunciation, practise, practise, practise and record, record, record.
The process of focusing on sounds, recording yourself and playing it back will help you to gain a deeper understanding of how English pronunciation works.
You should make it a regular part of your English workout, if better pronunciation is your goal.
Your Accent Is Part of Who You Are
As a final note, don’t aim to speak English “without an accent”. It’s not necessary and your accent is part of who you are.
Many native English speakers will tell you that they love the sound of Italian accents or that French accents sound romantic! Every accent is different and interesting.
So, instead of losing a part of who you are, focus on improving your pronunciation and enunciation. This is your path to better English.