I know many language learners that really struggle with their English pronunciation.
Perhaps they’ve been learning for years, they can read complex English texts, and they can watch Netflix and YouTube videos and understand them… but when they speak with a native speaker, the other person can barely understand them.
Pronunciation is the bane of many language learners’ existence.
If you’re not used to it, speaking English can feel like having a mouth full of cotton. And if people don’t understand you, you might second-guess your language skills. It could even make you hesitant to speak.
Luckily, there are some things you can do about it. Here, I’ll give you some ideas for how to improve your English pronunciation.
What is the difference between pronunciation and accent?
First, let’s get clear what we’re talking about. “Pronunciation” means something similar to “accent” but they are not exactly the same.
Pronunciation: Pronunciation is how you articulate a word. It involves how you shape your mouth, how the tongue moves, whether a sound is “voiced”, placement, and so on.
Accent: An accent is an entire manner of speaking that differs from region to region. Certainly, different accents pronounce words in different ways. But an accent is more than simply different pronunciation. It includes using different vocabulary, preferring some grammatical styles over others, and so on.
So, while a person with an English accent would pronounce “car” differently from a person from the United States, they would also differ on what they would call the back part of the car (“boot” vs. “trunk”), what goes in the car (“gas” vs. “petrol”), they might prefer different grammar (“Did you get the newspaper?” vs. “Have you got the newspaper?”), and so on.
So an accent includes pronunciation, but there is more to it than that.
Is pronunciation important?
Yes. And no.
There’s no “right” way to speak English
First, it’s important to realise that there is no “right” accent, and often no “right” way to pronounce a word.
Sometimes we talk about English (and teachers may teach it) as if it’s one thing, when actually there are hundreds of ways to speak English. And they’re all “right”.
Alastair speaks with a classy English accent. I am from the west coast of Canada, and I pronounce lots of words differently from Alastair. English is spoken natively in countries like Nigeria, Jamaica, and India, and native English speakers from each of these places will speak differently. And each of these ways of speaking English is “right”.
So the first thing you should realise is that there is not really a “correct” way to pronounce words.
That’s a bit of a relief, right?
But you have to be understood
Having said that, to speak English with someone, you must be understood.
That means you have to be able to pronounce words close enough to how your conversation partner is expecting them to sound. If you’re too far from what they are expecting, they will not understand you.
So pronunciation is important. Not in the sense that there’s a “right” way to pronounce something, but in the sense that you need to say the words close enough to what other people will understand.
To get good at pronunciation, practise it
Practising pronunciation should be part of your English learning plan.
If there are many “right” ways to speak English, what accent should you aim for?
My advice: pick an accent that you like and is relatively “standard”, like the standard British accent, a standard North American accent, a standard Australian accent, or another one.
Then aim to pronounce close enough to that. The more standard you sound, the better you will be understood by others.
How can you improve your English pronunciation?
Great, so now you know which accent you’re aiming for, here are some ideas for how you can improve your English pronunciation.
1. Learn to listen
Being able to pronounce words correctly requires that you can first hear the differences between various types of pronunciation. For example, you need to be able to distinguish a “ch” sound from a “sh” sound, and a “l” from an “r”. These can be tricky depending on what your native language is.
Get better at hearing the difference by listening to lots of native english speakers. Podcasts are great for that. You’ll find more ideas for listening activities in our guide on how to create your own English immersion course.
2. Practise moving your mouth differently
A huge part of pronunciation is making the muscles in your mouth work differently than they’re used to. Your lips, tongue, throat, and jaw are all involved in making the sounds.
I remember when I was learning French, I would sometimes notice that my mouth felt sore from speaking in French all day. That’s a good thing: my muscles were working differently than they were used to—and they were getting stronger!
Here are some tips for practising moving your mouth differently:
- Watch yourself pronouncing words using a mirror. This will allow you to notice how your mouth is moving and help you correct yourself.
- Think about your mouth. In English we usually use a more open mouth position, as opposed to a closed mouth position that many languages use. Also think about how you’re using the tongue.
- Watch videos that explain pronunciation. This one by Georgie Harding is great, but remember that she’s speaking with an Australian accent. Here’s another one on American English. These can help you think more carefully about your mouth mechanics.
- Do tongue twisters. These are great for getting your mouth to practise making sounds. You don’t need to do them quickly, just go slowly and carefully pronounce each word.
3. Use podcasts
Podcasts are fantastic for learning English in general and are great when it comes to practising your English pronunciation. Listening to native speakers gives you a bit of a guide that you can use for your own pronunciation.
Here’s how I’d suggest that you use podcasts to improve your pronunciation.
- First, listen to the podcast. Get a sense of what it means, first off. Follow along with a transcript to make sure that you catch every word. You can’t pronounce a word unless you know what the word is!
- Next, underline words you don’t know. Find the words you’re unfamiliar with and underline them. Try looking through a list of key vocabulary words, if there is one.
- Listen to the podcast again. This time, listen carefully to how those words are pronounced and practise saying them yourself. Listen and repeat. This will help train the muscles in your mouth.
- Next, use the transcript to read out the words without the audio. That way, you can practise on your own.
Another way you can use a podcast to practise pronunciation is to do shadowing.
We’ve written a whole guide on shadowing, which explains exactly how to do it properly. Basically, shadowing just means repeating the words right after you hear it, almost at the same time, like a shadow or an echo.
It’s really effective for practising the physical aspects of fluency like pronunciation, rhythm, pitch, tones, and developing muscle memory in your mouth. We love it.
You can shadow any audio text from native speakers, but the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast is a great choice, especially if you’re aiming for a British English accent.
Check it out in action.
5. Record yourself
One of the best ways to correct your English pronunciation is to listen to native speakers and compare your pronunciation to them.
But often it’s hard to really hear ourselves properly when we’re speaking because we’re busy thinking about what to say and how to say it.
That’s why it can be really helpful to record yourself speaking. That way you can go back and listen to hear where you get stuck or where your pronunciation was significantly different from a native speaker.
Here are some ideas for how to record yourself:
- Record yourself shadowing a podcast. Then, play it back at the same time as the podcast. Take note of what words or sounds you pronounced differently. Practice those sounds.
- Record yourself pronouncing sounds you find difficult. Then listen to a native English speaker saying them. What is the difference?
Recording yourself is also great for showing your progress: look back months later and see how much better you are after all your practise. Try even using a video recording to see the way that your mouth moves.
You don’t need any special tools to do this; the microphone and voice memo app on your phone will work great. The important thing is that you get into the habit of recording yourself speaking and then adjusting your pronunciation.
6. Practise speaking
One of the best ways to practise your pronunciation is actually just to speak. Speaking should be an essential part of your English immersion course. Ideally, you can find some natives to speak with so that you can have constant exposure to the accent you’re aiming for as well as instant feedback on whether you’re being understood, but even speaking with non-natives is better than not speaking at all.
Here are some resources to help you find a speaking partner:
You can also practise with tutors, like those found on:
Do your best
Finally, remember that you don’t have to be perfect at pronunciation. Most of us do not need to sound like a native-English speaker. Your goal is probably just to be understood easily. If you can get close enough to be understood, you’ve won.
Also remember that even native English speakers have trouble understanding other native English speakers with very strong accents. In Canada, people from rural Newfoundland have notoriously strong accents that others often have difficulty understanding. Some Scottish accents are similarly challenging to understand.
So, if you’re going to travel to different places, some difficulty being understood is probably normal. Don’t get discouraged if people don’t understand you. Instead, remember that there’s not really a “right” way to speak English.
Most of all, keep trying!