This guide provides a detailed plan to improve your English language pronunciation. Often, learners feel like proper pronunciation is the least necessary skill, which might be true initially. Yet, as you advance and start communicating in English more, pronunciation becomes increasingly significant. This article will guide you through the importance of pronunciation, expert advice, actionable tips, and tech tools to help you speak English like a native.
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Why Pronunciation Matters
Good pronunciation is more than just a linguistic formality; it's a superpower! Imagine going for a job interview and the recruiter or hiring manager having difficulty getting what you said? Not a great first impression, right? Here are 3 main reasons why pronunciation matters.
#1. Poor pronunciation makes it hard to understand you.
Correct pronunciation ensures you're understood. As communication is the primary goal of learning languages in general, it's easier to form a connection and get along with someone if they understand what you're saying.
#2. Having good pronunciation will make you a more confident speaker
Poor pronunciation can make you self-conscious and less willing to chat with natives or feel comfortable in a group. The reverse is also true - as you think people understand and want to engage with you, you'll start feeling much more open and willing to converse.
#3. Pronunciation can affect credibility
How a person pronounces their words can significantly influence how others perceive them. Unfortunately, studies show that if you have a foreign accent, you can be perceived as less credible than native speakers. This can be due to preconceived biases and stereotypes for a given accent, regardless of how intelligible or fluent the speaker may be (sources: here, here, and here.)
9 Most Common Pronunciation Mistakes English Learners Make
#1. Confusing the "th" sound.
There are two distinct "th" sounds in English - voiced, indicated with the symbol /ð/and voiceless, indicated as /θ/.
Words with voiced "th" include 'these,' 'the,' 'there,' 'thus,' etc.
Words with voiceless 'th" include 'three', 'thunder', 'thermal', etc.
Here are 2 videos with tips on how to pronounce 'th' words correctly:
#2. Stressing individual words incorrectly
Depending on your native language, you might struggle with placing the stress on the right syllable in a word. For example, stressing DE would be wrong in the word 'develop.' Or stressing TABLE in the word 'vegetable' would also be wrong.
Listen to native speech (movies, music, YouTube) as often as possible to avoid such mistakes and develop an intuition for how stress placement works in English.
If you encounter a word you don't know how to pronounce, stop and look it up on Google.
#3. Pronouncing the Schwa:
The schwa sound is the most common vowel sound in English, occurring in about one in three vowels pronounced by native speakers. It is a weak and unstressed sound that can be spelled with any vowel letter (which is very confusing for learners!). However, language learners often mistake it with a regular vowel.
The schwa sound is often found in function words like "to," "for," "can," and "some," and it can be reduced to a "lazy" sound like a quick, unstressed "uh" in natural speech. The schwa sound is crucial for English learners to understand and use because it is the most common sound in English and can help you sound more natural.
Here are a few resources to master the schwa sound:
#4. Overemphasizing accents
Non-native speakers may try to imitate a native accent too much, which can lead to overemphasizing certain sounds. Enunciating sounds is a good practice, but overdoing it might make your speech unclear. Try to relax and speak naturally instead.
#5.Confusing the "l" and the "r"
This particular mistake is common among Asian language speakers. Some Asian languages, such as Japanese and Korean, do not distinguish between the "l" and "r" sounds in the same way that English does. The "l" and "r" sounds are similar in their place and manner of articulation, making them difficult to distinguish for non-native speakers. However, with practice and exposure to the sounds in English, learners can improve their ability to differentiate between the two sounds and use them correctly.
Here are a few resources to achieve that:
- A video on "R" and "L" sounds in American English by Rachel's English
- A video guide on the "R" and "L" sounds by Learn English with Papa Teach Me
#6. Pronouncing the Short "i"
The short "i" sound is one of the most common vowel sounds in English. It is an unstressed sound in such English words as "sit," "big," and "win."
Here are two video tutorials on how to get it right:
#7. Confusing the "w" and the "v"
The confusion between the "w" and "v" sounds is a common pronunciation pitfall, especially among speakers of languages whose sounds are not differentiated, such as in some European languages like German and Polish. The issue arises because the mouth positioning for these sounds is somewhat similar but different, leading to mispronunciations that can affect comprehensibility and sometimes even change the meaning of words. Common mistakes include saying "wery" instead of "very" or "vine" instead of "wine."
Here are a few resources to practice these sounds:
#8. Pronouncing the Magic "e":
The concept of the "Magic 'e'" or "Silent 'e'" is a unique feature in English pronunciation that often confuses non-native speakers. The "Magic 'e'" is an "e" at the end of a word that changes the pronunciation of the vowel in the syllable before it, usually making it a long vowel sound. For example, in the word pair "hat" and "hate," the presence of the "Magic 'e'" in "hate" changes the "a" from a short vowel sound to a long vowel sound.
- "cap" vs. "cape"
- "hop" vs. "hope"
- "bit" vs. "bite"
Here is a video guide by Shaw English Online to master magic "e."
#9. Pronouncing Silent Letters
Silent consonants are a common feature in English spelling. Still, they can be a significant hurdle for non-native speakers when it comes to pronunciation. These are consonants that appear in the written form of a word but are not pronounced when speaking the word. For example, the "k" in "knee" or the "w" in "wrist" are silent. Mispronouncing these silent consonants can lead to misunderstandings and can make an accent more noticeable.
- "Knee" (the "k" is silent)
- "Wrist" (the "w" is silent)
- "Doubt" (the "b" is silent)
Here are a few video tutorials for you:
Five exercises and activities to improve pronunciation
#1. Listen and Repeat
Listening to native speakers and mimicking their pronunciation can be one of the most effective ways to reduce your accent and improve pronunciation. This exercise helps you tune your ear and practice the correct pronunciation of words.
1. Choose a podcast or YouTube video featuring native English speakers.
2. Listen to a sentence and pause the playback.
3. Repeat the sentence, trying to mimic the pronunciation as closely as possible.
4. Play back the next sentence and repeat.
#2. Tongue Twisters
Tongue twisters are sequences of sounds or words that are tricky to pronounce quickly and correctly. They're excellent for practicing specific sounds and improving diction.
1. Choose a tongue twister focusing on a sound you find challenging (e.g., "She sells sea shells by the sea shore").
2. Say the tongue twister slowly at first.
3. Gradually increase your speed as you become more comfortable.
4. Aim for clarity and accuracy over speed.
Here is a list 100 most common English tongue twisters as a reference
3. Read out loud with enunciation
Enunciating means exaggerating the sound or pronouncing it slowly and deliberately. This exercise takes as little as 5 minutes but can turbocharge your pronunciation. TV anchors use this exercise to improve their diction.
1. Find a book or blog article
2. Read every word slowly with enunciation (half a page is more than enough)
3. Do it daily for 3-5 minutes
Here is a quick TikTok tutorial I recorded
#4. Phonetic Exercises
Phonetic exercises focus on individual sounds rather than whole words, helping you master the building blocks of the language.
1. Identify a problematic sound (e.g., the "th" sound).
2. Use a mirror to check your tongue and lip placement. If you don't know the tongue and lip placement, go to YouTube and find a video tutorial.
3. Repeat the sound multiple times, focusing on correct mouth positioning.
4. Integrate the sound into simple words and then sentences.
#5. Record and Playback
Recording yourself can provide insights into your pronunciation that you might not notice otherwise. It allows you to identify areas for improvement and track your progress over time.
1. Choose a text or a list of words you want to practice.
2. Record yourself reading the text or words.
3. Play back the recording and listen for mistakes or areas for improvement.
4. Make corrections and record again for comparison.
Social media channels to follow for communication, pronunciation, and accent-reduction advice
I recommend following at least these three channels.
Rachel's English is your online American English pronunciation resource. All videos have closed captioning to help non-native speakers understand. New videos are added every week!
Learn about the specific mouth positions for each sound with the Sounds: How-To playlist. Spend time with the Words that Reduce playlist to improve your listening comprehension. And watch the videos in the American English in Real Life playlist for fun and to see how native speakers really talk.
Hadar is a non-native speaker who helps international English speakers find freedom, confidence, and power when they speak. Hadar publishes weekly tips on pronunciation, fluency, learning strategies, mindset, and more so you can finally speak English with joy and confidence.
English is my fourth language, and I have been through the journey you're on right now. I share uncommon and secret tips and strategies for language learners you won't find anywhere. I also share my journey of building Heylama as the next unicorn EdTech startup!
Apps that can help with improving pronunciation
Here are three apps to help you practice speaking and overcome the speaking barrier.
Heylama mobile app is a practice-first language learning app. You learn by doing.
- Go through exciting quests to get into Harvard, become the world's president, or negotiate with evil AI and rescue hostages.
- Or practice your conversation skills with Anka AI - your personal conversation tutor available 24/7. You can have a casual chat or get help with grammar or vocabulary.
- Finally, get help from human coaches for anything AI tutors can't help you - set learning goals, get cheered for your progress, and get answers to your most challenging questions!
italki is an online language learning platform that connects language learners with native speakers and certified teachers for one-on-one lessons via video chat. The platform offers a wide range of languages. It allows users to schedule classes based on availability, making it a flexible option for language learning. In addition to formal lessons, italki provides a community feature where learners can engage in language exchanges, ask questions, and share resources.
Preply is an online educational platform that connects students with private tutors for various subjects, including languages, academic courses, and professional skills. The platform allows users to find tutors based on multiple criteria, such as expertise, rates, and reviews. Lessons are conducted via Preply's video conferencing tool, offering a seamless learning experience. Preply aims to provide personalized, one-on-one instruction that can be tailored to meet individual learning goals and schedules.
In summary, mastering English pronunciation is not just a linguistic formality but a crucial skill that impacts your confidence, credibility, and overall communication. This comprehensive guide has laid out the significance of proper pronunciation, common pitfalls, and a variety of strategies and resources to help you improve. From understanding the 'Magic "e"' to tackling silent consonants, the article provides actionable tips and exercises, including tongue twisters and tech tools like Heylama. Whether you're a beginner or an advanced learner, these insights and exercises are designed to help you speak English more naturally and effectively. Follow the recommended social media channels and apps to continue your journey towards flawless English pronunciation.