October 18

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.
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    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.
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    Now try that for different vowel sounds, repeating the same process.
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    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.


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