All posts by Andrew Weiler

Key English pronunciation problems for different languages

Every language is different in sound to every other. Some are very different and some not so. Each person from any language can completely master the pronunciation of English, as long as become aware of the differences and work to eliminate them. Becoming aware of them is the first step.

Once you do that, you then need to learn what it is you have to do and keep doing to eliminate a difference. You can read more about that here.....

In this post I will bring to your attention one key difference from the following languages. As well as that, I will talk a little about what you need to do in your mouth to start to approximate to the English version. Sometimes you have to do the thing before you can actually hear it!

If you cast your eyes down the list, you will see that sometimes you may have the same problem as a speaker of another language.

Once you have worked at a sound and got a measure of success, scroll to the bottom and read what I suggest you do next.

Mandarin Chinese

What is typically said
- nam 

What needs to be said
- name

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "a" in this word sounds like "ay" as the first letter in Alphabet
  • find difference between /nam/ and "A" ( important first step) as you say them. It starts here.
  • then work to retain that difference in this word.

Vietnamese

What is typically said
- pa

What needs to be said
- pat

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "t" in this word sounds similar to "t" in "to"
  • listen AND watch yourself say "to". Watch your tongue, feel where it goes and what it does as you say "to".  Stick at it till you can feel/hear difference. 
  • then go back to "pat", say it see if you can do the same thing with your tongue AND hear the it as well.

Russian

What is typically said
- vet

What needs to be said
- wet

Comments & Suggestions


  • the sound "w" does not occur in Russian
  • see if you can hear difference
  • listen AND watch yourself say "wet". You will notice that your bottom lip curls over your bottom teeth and your top teeth rest on them as you say it
  • When we say it in English, our lips come forward, as if to kiss someone. That's where you need to start that word.
  • you need to listen for the different sound not just watch your lips

Spanish

What is typically said
- lob

What needs to be said
- love

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "v" in this word is said using top teeth so we get a different kind of sound
  • listen and see if you can hear difference here
  • Feel AND watch yourself say "love" as you normally say it. Feel your top teeth, see where they go and what they do as you say it.
  • Have a go now and force your teeth to rest on your lips before you finish the sound
  • there is one other key difference between the 2 sounds. With English speakers you will feel a soft vibration when you rest your hands on the sides of their throat, as they say it. 

Arabic

What is typically said
- pit

What needs to be said
- pet

Comments & Suggestions


  • the letter "e" in this word is quite different to "i"
  • listen, can you hear the difference in this sound file?
  • Hearing the difference is critical (in others and yourself)
  • Say "i" and feel in your mouth where the sound comes from. Up? Back? Front? Mid?
  • Now work the sound up in your mouth. Now down at the same time as relaxing the back of your throat where the sound comes from - might feel like its more open. Listen now. Different sound?

As in mastering any skill, there are further steps that need to be taken to ensure mastery. Once you can master the problem in one area, you need to then see if you can do same thing with the same sound in different words, longer words, words having that sound in phrases, in sentences and then in natural speech. 

Once you can do all that, all the time remaining sensitive to falling back into old ways, you maximise the chances of making permanent improvements to your speech.

Read this free ebook to gain a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to master pronunciation. The Four Steps to Master Pronunciation in Any Language is an easy read, one that can help you gain a better understanding of exactly what you need to do.

How to choose your language coach

Have you ever wondered what would be that one question you could ask a prospective language coach that would show you that this person is exactly who you are looking for? Well if you have, or you think such a question would be useful, I am going to tell you it here.

The reality is that at more advanced levels of English, what you need from your English language coach is not just more English. If that is all you are getting, expect your learning to take a LONG time. You, in fact, I suggest need someone who can do far more than that. So let's quickly look at what else you need and why. Once you understand that, then I believe the question you need to ask will become more clear.

I would like to make a few key observations here about what you need understand about learning English.

We have to learn by ourselves
The first key one is that there is a big difference between formal learning, of the kind we do in most classes, with text books or in online courses and what we do when we learn as we are using the language. Let's call that informal learning.

With formal learning, we are being led towards something that someone else decides we need to learn. With informal learning, we decide what we learn and we do it usually without the help of anyone else.

You may be surprised to know that once we are close to native like, most of the language we learned through informal means. Of course there are many things that can be learned formally. However, there are literally millions of things in a language we have to learn by ourselves before we can master it. These things can relate to, for example, finer uses of the language, like conveying subtleties of meaning. These are conveyed by tone, by inflexions, by pauses, by facial expressions, by turn of phrase and so on.  A native speaker can say the same thing in MANY ways. To get to that level, we have to master the language. Mastery requires us to learn much about the nature and character of the English language.  Not really possible to do that in a formal way.

Continue reading

Why Your Memory is Not the Problem

Your memory is not the problem. Your memory is appearing to fail you because the way you are using it is not suitable for learning languages. There are some of you who have trouble with memorising words (etc). Then there are some of you who might have a real good "memory" and can remember the words ( etc ) you are learning but then, you don't use them when you need them. Sound familiar?

I will give you a number of scenarios here for you to consider. Read them and see what you think.

1. What infant ever memorises new words in the way we may be use to?

2. Would you ever have to memorise something that a close friend or family member told you about another close friend or family member?

3. When you read a newspaper article or book, watch a movie, read an interesting post on social media, do you set about memorising it so you can tell someone else about it?

If you answered 2 & 3 in the way that 99.9% of people would answer it, you will recognise that your memory is just fine. Put together with question 1, you may understand ( maybe relunctantly! 🙂 ) that our memory can work fine without memorisation. Let's call this way, for now, natural learning (A).

The vast majority of people who have learned languages formally would have been taught in ways that emphasise memorisation (B) not the other way, A. When people learn languages, informally, that is "on the street" then they are learning the natural way. Seldom do these people spend time on memorisation.

In fact unless a person moves from A to B at some stage, they are destined to only get to a certain level. Without learning to improve as you are using the language, your level will hit a plateau from which it will struggle to improve. This happens because the learner keeps looking for help ( in the past from the teacher or a book), rather than recognising that improvement can happen through better noticing how s/he and others use English.

It is possible to "formally" learn languages in ways that emphasise what I would call "natural learning" 

Trust Yourself to Learn Languages Effectively

One of the least recognised qualities that effective language learners need to develop if they are to ever to get to the more advanced levels is trust. I am here talking about learning to trust ourselves, our perceptions and our abilities. Without developing this, I am afraid that continued development will just not happen.

Trust is not something you can turn on or off at will. If we don't trust our perceptions, etc there are reasons for that. One way of checking whether you are one of these people is to answer the following questions truthfully:

  • Do you look for approval in your speech before you "know" you have improved?
  • Do you have trouble recognising improvements in your speech?

If you answered yes for either of these questions, there is a good likelihood that your perceptions are not guiding you. That is a recipe for very slow progress, one that will come to a premature end.

For such people, my suggestion would be to work just as hard on learning to trust yourself as you are learning English. I say this because I have seen people like this have difficulty bringing what they learn into their speech.

Value of Coaching

Any English learner who wants to get to a native speaker level can in theory do it by themselves. However as most people don't, it means that something else is needed. Elite performers in every area turn to coaches to ensure they are doing everything possible AND stop doing things that hold them back.

There is no reason why English language learners are any different. Turning to a skilled coach who understands not just English but the learning process is the surest way to learn a language to the highest level. The secret is to find someone who does that, not only gets you to work on your English but also works with you on the way you are learning.

The vast majority of teachers and coaches work on your English. There is a BIG difference between this and what I talked about in the previous paragraph. When they work on your English, this means your English may improve in the areas they work with you.

Whereas when a coach gets you to work on your English and works on the way you are learning, this means you are learning to improve your English and the way you learn. This is what needs to happen if you are to get to the highest levels. To get to these levels there are so many tiny changes and refinements that have to be made at every level that the only way you can do this is in your own time, as as you are using the language.

Over the years, I’ve met many people who desperately want to be successful but who are ultimately unwilling to invest in themselves. They think, "I can do this by myself. I can learn this on my own."  Maybe they can, but in reality very few do.

Importance of Feedback

Feedback in learning English is important

Feedback IS understood by most people to be important but it remains one of the least understood areas in learning a language. Without feedback, how can we improve? The answer is we can't. Feedback is like water; without it, learning cannot survive for too long.

If you want to learn more effectively, then you need to learn to better recognise it and to value more what you see, hear and understand. When we learn to drive, we use our experiences to improve our skills. We learn that if we move the steering wheel too far, we turn more than we need to. We learn that the speed we drive affects how fast and how far we need to turn the steering wheel. And so on. No one can teach us all the variations. We have to learn them by ourselves through watching and feeling. All that we see and feel is feedback.

Learning a language is similar, in that no one can teach us all there is to know in a language. We have to learn it ourselves by becoming more and more observant. In every area of language, we are talking about different kinds of feedback. In the area of pronunciation, our awareness at different times has to stretch to many areas, including:

  • how we say each each sound in a word
  • how we link the sounds together within a word
  • how we link words together
  • what rhythm do we use to tie a stream of words together 
  • how we express meaning in the tones we use

When we come to an awareness about how we speak, we then have to relate that to how others speak. If we discern differences, we then have to change how we speak in some way and then see if the changes have brought us closer or further away.

Each and every aspect of what I just talked about requires that we recognise the information that comes to us. The information we get is feedback.

Others can also consciously give us feedback, like a teacher. Sometimes our friends and family give us feedback, some of which we welcome and some of which we may not! 🙂 Sometimes they give us feedback without even noticing they do...like with a smile, a raised eyebrow or a grimace.

If you are having difficulty in improving, it can be because you are either not looking for OR  recognising the feedback you are getting. Getting some professional feedback can sometimes act to change that and put you on a quite different road, a road where you start to open your eyes and ears more. That can make all the difference.


How to Improve English Pronunciation

The key challenge of how to improve English pronunciation is something that each learner faces and needs to master. Even if you just want to be understood, the challenge is there. Of course, the better you want your pronunciation to be, the bigger will be the task. Most people struggle to get really good pronunciation. This can be because the way they approach learning the pronunciation is not really effective. Learning pronunciation is all to do with learning skills, not knowledge. You need to be able to know how to improve it, not just know about it.

English pronunciation has its own unique demands. When your first language lacks some of the core features of the English system, then the problem will be more demanding. For example, generally Vietnamese people seem to struggle the most, as the Vietnamese language lacks final consonants and has a tonal quality which is quite different to English. Having said that there are some Vietnamese people who manage this as well as anyone else. Which all goes to show that once you know how to learn the skills, nothing can stop you.

Then, there are people from languages that are not that dissimilar to English (in terms of sounds) but they can still struggle to make themselves understood. So if you are going about learning pronunciation in unsuitable ways, than no matter how much you need to learn, you can still struggle badly.

So what is an effective way to learn English pronunciation skills. For the purposes of this article I will bring it down to the 4 basic steps. If you master these steps, then you will know how to improve your pronunciation, to the level you want.

I have seen advanced language learners spend a lot of time working on their pronunciation with little improvement. That won't be your experience when you try what I suggest below.  It is important to keep it simple and not be distracted by the next new thing as you work on a strategy. If we bring the learning right down to the basics, then following these 4 steps will enable you to get to any level you want.

Step 1. Listen and become aware of what sound an English speakers makes, that you               don't make.

Step 2: Say what you believe approximates to what you hear them say.

Step 3: Listen carefully to what you are saying and recognise any difference between                 the two

Step 4: Return to step 2 and continue until Step 3 gives you no difference.

It seems simple, but what goes wrong is that so many people don't spend enough time and energy on Step 1. Instead they try to work at what they think English sounds like. Or what a book/recording/teacher tells them it sounds like. That will never work.

4 Steps to Master Your Pronunciation

There may be a place for someone to guide you in these 4 steps for a time so that you can become more attentive and sensitive. But ultimately, until you start to rely on yourself for the four steps, your progress will be limited.

For further elaboration into these four steps, check out this free ebook The Four Steps to Master Pronunciation.

Your listening is a key factor
Improving English pronunciation is all about improving, deepening, widening and sensitising what you can hear. For people whose hearing has become desensitised or very "narrow", there may be a need to work in various ways so that they can become more attentive to what they are hearing. One way to "stretch" your hearing is to listen to other languages you are not familiar with. Don't worry about the meaning, just focus on the sounds and work to hear what you can. Play with the new sounds and combinations in your mouth.

As your whole attention is on the sounds ( as you can't understand it! ? ), you are likely to hear more than you do when some of your attention is on the meaning. Try this when you are driving or have a little time to spare and see how you go. 

To help your vocal apparatus relax and become more supple, there are various physical exercises that can be of help here. I have provided a few below for you to work on.

Becoming aware of your mouth,

  • Run your tongue all over your mouth, becoming aware of
    - the contours of your mouth,
    - especially around the top teeth, noticing a small ridge behind them
    - the various textures in your mouth
    - your teeth, especially the ones in the front.
  • By doing this you are making yourself aware of the some of the key elements we use to create sounds. If we have little awareness of these elements then making required changes in what we say can be more difficult.
  • check
    Say a vowel sound normally and then change the shape of your mouth as you say it.  Notice how the vowel sound changes. For example, make an "ah" sound, as in /car/. Make it go long and flat with no discernible changes in tone or pitch. Then, once you have done that, change the shape of your mouth. Hear what happens. Keep going until you have explored all possible shapes to your mouth. You will be amazed by how you can change the sound you make.Then pay careful attention to how the air you are sending out changes where it hits your mouth (or where the sound appears to come from in your mouth) as the shape of your mouth changes.
  • check
    Now try that for different vowel sounds, repeating the same process.
  • check
    This exercise helps you to realise the importance of the shape of your mouth and can give you increased sensitivity to the sounds you make.

Other factors that need to be considered

Remember that pronunciation IS a skill. So as with any skill, using it is a fundamental need. Studying a skill will not. 

Speak as much English as you can

There are different elements to mastery of a skill apart from what I have mentioned, a key one is to use the skill you are learning. Without using a skill sufficiently and in different "environments", mastery will be difficult to impossible to reach.

Make sure you stay engaged in what you do.

A critical element is to be fully engaged in using that skill. If you find your attention wavering, it is time to do something different.  Engaged means that you want to do more. You don't have to push yourself. That way you will learn more. If you think about the areas where you have some skills, you will realise I am sure that in those areas you spent quality time. Time you enjoyed and were fully engaged in. That is the kind of energy you need to find in improving your pronunciation

Improving your pronunciation in English IS fully achievable, to any level you desire, as long as you follow the steps mentioned above, you find ways that enable you to stay fully engaged in the process of improvement and you get plenty of chance to use it!

All of this you can do for yourself. However if you find little progress or it is too slow for your liking, then a guide or English coach can be of great help here. The function of this person is to not only to help you to improve your English pronunciation but also to help you become better at doing what is required. That way you can learn to keep improving. Without learning effective ways of improving pronunciation, you will only go so far and no further.