How to Improve English Pronunciation in 8 Easy Steps
So you want to work on improving your pronunciation of English words. Let’s be honest: compared with most other languages, English is difficult to pronounce. And unlike most other languages, you can’t always tell what a word should sound like just by looking at it. However, don’t worry! If you want to sound like a native English speaker, there is hope for you. These eight steps will help you perfect your English pronunciation.
Last Updated June 2020
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1. Observe and imitate native English speakers
Believe it or not, your ears are an important tool to help you sound like a native English speaker. Listening to people speak is one of the most important things you can do to improve your English pronunciation. Just as babies learn from listening to their parents speak, you learn from listening to people around you speak.
Ears are a little bit like muscles. When you listen to someone speaking English, you are working out your ear muscles. They get to practice hearing the unfamiliar sounds that English speakers make. The better you get at hearing certain sounds, the easier you can make them yourself. This is an essential step in language learning.
Here are some ways to practice any time:
- Sing along to your favorite English-language pop songs.
- Pause the show you’re watching, and try to repeat what you heard the actors say.
- Record yourself speaking English, and listen for ways to improve.
- Practice in front of the mirror to see how your mouth moves when you make certain sounds.
- Find tongue twisters with sounds that give your trouble, and practice by saying them aloud. It’s fun!
2. Decide which kind of English is right for you
When you practice listening to English speakers, listen for accents. People speak English all over the world, and every region has a slightly different way of speaking English. Can you tell where people are from by listening to them talk? Do you want to sound like you’re from England, the United States, Canada, Australia, Pakistan, or somewhere else?
Every English-speaking country pronounces some words a little differently. They also use different types of inflection for making statements or asking questions. There are even differences in how lax the vowels are from one place to another. Pay close attention to accents and pronunciations of people who speak the kind of English you wish to adopt.
For these reasons, you have to pick which kind of English is right for you before you start working on your pronunciation. Once you’ve selected a region, you might even look into different accents you wish to practice. For example, in the United States, the Texas accent and the Minnesota accent are very different. In England, people who belong to different social classes have different accents. Deciding which accent you prefer will help you refine your goals. If you think American English is right for you, check out this article on how to learn American English and master the American accent on Udemy.
3. Write things down
Keep a notebook to record any English pronunciation problems you have. This will make a good practice guide. You can also use it to ask others how they would say a particular word. You can turn it into a game: write down the words that give you trouble, and cross out the ones you’ve mastered. The proof of how you are progressing will be right in front of you.
Keeping a notebook of hard-to-pronounce words has another use: it’s a good way to see patterns. You might find that the long ‘o’ sound gives you trouble. Or maybe a certain group of consonants is tough for you. Perhaps you struggle with telling the difference between the voiced and unvoiced ‘th’. Knowing where you need help the most allows you to focus your learning. If you also want to improve your English grammar, check out this article on English grammar 101.
4. Learn how to pronounce vowels correctly
It’s usually possible to tell how a consonant will sound in English, but vowel sounds are a bit more tricky. The same vowel can sound different in different words. And it’s possible to make the same sounds with different vowels. This can be very confusing! But don’t worry: here are some tips to help you pronounce vowels correctly.
English has lax and tense vowels. These vowels are sometimes called long and short vowels. Lax vowels are long, and your jaw moves while you’re making a law vowel sound. Tense vowels are shorter, and your jaw stays still when you’re making a tense vowel sound.
Each word has one stressed syllable. The other syllables get reduced. That means that they are less pronounced than the stressed syllable. For example, look at and listen to the words ca-NA-ry and the word CAN-ne-ry
Pay attention to the syllables that are not stressed in each word. Do you notice anything? The unstressed syllables all sound almost the same, like uh. That uh sound is called the schwa.
In many words in English, unstressed a and o sounds are schwas. For example, banana is pronounced buh-NA-nuh; potato is pronounced puh-TAY-tow
Rules around pronouncing vowels in English can seem very complicated and confusing. Don’t worry! You can learn them without trying by listening to English-language music and podcasts and by watching English-language movies and shows.
Vowel sounds can be a challenge to English learners because you can’t always tell what they’re supposed to sound like just by looking at them. That’s why it’s important to practice. Make sure that you pick which kind of English you want to speak before you start working on vowel sounds. Different countries pronounce vowels differently, and you want to make sure you learn the correct pronunciation! If spelling gives you trouble, check out this article on spelling rules.
5. Move your mouth right to create lax vowel sounds
Have you noticed that English vowel sounds tend to be looooong? That’s because many English vowels are lax. The sound of the vowel changes as it’s being made. Making sure your vowel sounds are lax will help you improve your English pronunciation.
Here’s an example of the same sound (may) made using lax vowels and tense vowels:
When your vowels are lax, your jaw and your mouth keep moving when you pronounce the vowels. This changes the sound of the vowel as you make it. English is full of these sounds, and learning to relax your jaw when you’re speaking English will help you sound more natural.
Here are some examples of English words that use lax vowels: todAY, bAby, cOAt, and mOUntain.
In any language, there are two types of vowels: tense and lax. If you want to find out which type of vowel your native language uses, simply put your hands over your jaw and feel how it moves when you’re speaking. Does your jaw stay still while you’re making vowel sounds? Then your language uses tense vowels. Does your jaw move at any point while you’re making vowel sounds? Then your language uses lax vowels.
If your native language doesn’t use lax vowels, then you might find them difficult to say at first. But don’t worry! You’ll get used to it. To practice, stand in front of a mirror, and place your hands on your jaw. Find a short word that has a lax vowel. Many people find that it’s easiest to start with the ‘ay’ sound. Watch your mouth, and feel your jaw as you say the word.
6. Learn how to find and use word stress
Word stress is what we call the emphasis we place on a certain syllable of a word. For example, in the word banana, the middle syllable is stressed: ba-NA-na.
Word stress is an important part of English pronunciation. Having this information is a big help in pronouncing words that are long or scary-looking, such as isosceles (i-SO-sce-les) or Episcopalian (e-pis-co-PA-li-an).
When you’re creating a list or flashcards of English vocabulary, it’s a good idea to mark where the stress is on each word. Doing this will help you learn the pronunciation at the same time as the meaning of new words.
One of the hardest things about learning English pronunciation is figuring out where the stress is on words, but don’t worry! You can do it. Here are some tips that can help:
- If a noun or an adjective is two syllables long, the stress will almost always be on the first syllable. Airplane, silly, bookstore, and website all follow this rule.
- Nouns and adjectives that come from other languages don’t always follow that rule. Examples include hotel and garage.
- If a verb is two syllables long, the stress will almost always be on the last syllable. Present, defend, perfect all follow this rule.
- Some two-syllable words change meaning depending on where the stress is. Present and perfect follow this rule. PRE-sent can mean a gift, or it can be an adjective describing someone who is here. But pre-SENT is a verb that means “to introduce” or “to give.” Another example is the word perfect. PER-fect is an adjective that means “without flaws.” Per-FECT is a verb that means “to make perfect.”
- Many words longer than two syllables are stressed on the third-to-last syllable. Some examples of such words are CA-na-da, Ca-NA-di-an, BAR-be-cue, and TE-le-phone.
Word stress is one of the things that makes English a difficult language to learn. There are rules, but there are also a lot of exceptions. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you say a word incorrectly at first. A lot of native English speakers can’t pronounce many long, tough words. If you say a word wrong, add it to your vocabulary list or your flashcards, and mark where the stress is. Then review it along with the rest of your vocabulary until you’re comfortable pronouncing it. You can do this!
7. Use inflection like a native speaker
Inflection is what your voice does while you’re speaking. By using inflection, you show that you’re asking a question, or making a statement, or dozens of other things. It’s amazing how much you can say just by using inflection! Every language uses inflection. Your English-speaking skills will improve if you pay attention to what your voice is doing while you’re speaking. These tips will help you use inflection like a native speaker:
Listen and learn. Listen to English podcasts, TV shows, and movies. Pay close attention to how speakers are using their voices. What does it sound like when someone is asking a question? What do you notice about the voice of an angry person? Record yourself imitating the speakers’ inflection. Play the recording back and compare it with the native speaker.
Pick a short, simple sentence. For example, Maya is from Dallas. Now practice saying it in as many ways as you can. Start by saying Maya is from Dallas as a statement and as a question. Then try saying Maya is from Dallas as if you don’t think it’s true, as if you’re surprised, and as if you’re trying to convince someone that it’s true.
When you start working on inflection, it’s going to feel fake. You might think that you sound like you’re pretending. Don’t worry! It’s normal to feel this way at first. You’re used to using inflection, but not in the way a native English speaker would. The more you practice, the more you’ll get used to it.
Remember, before you start practicing inflection, pick one kind of English. British English inflection sounds very different from American English inflection. The same goes for Canadian English, Indian and Pakistani English, and Australian English. Online English tends to be American English. Pick which kind of English you want to speak.
Once you start practicing inflection, you’ll be amazed at how much people communicate without using actual words. English language learners sometimes ignore inflection because it is non-verbal, but this is a mistake. If you want to sound like a native speaker, correct inflection is as important as correct pronunciation.
8. Be ready to laugh at yourself
If you are like most language learners, you probably think that speaking is the scariest part. A lot of English learners worry that others will laugh at them if they mispronounce a word. It’s also very frustrating when people don’t understand what you’re saying. Don’t let these things stop you! Here are some tips to help you be more comfortable when speaking English:
Practice in a low-pressure setting. If you don’t feel ready to practice with people yet, start by yourself. Listen to TV shows, podcasts, and movies. Pause the show, and repeat what you hear. Record yourself repeating what you hear the actors say, and replay the recording. Compare the recording of your voice with the sound of native English speakers. Pay attention to where you sound different.
Get silly! Practice speaking in front of a mirror. Make faces to match your inflection. Don’t be afraid to exaggerate your sounds. Pretend that you’re an actor practicing for a part.
Practice conversation with people you trust. If you ask native English speakers, encourage them to correct your pronunciation by repeating the words you say incorrectly.
As you practice your lax vowels, place your hands over your jaw. Pay attention to how much your jaw moves when you use lax vowels. If your jaw is not moving, try relaxing it.
If you already live in an English-speaking country, turn errands into practice sessions. For example, you can set a goal of speaking English to at least three strangers while you’re out. If you’re nervous, it’s helpful to think about what you will say before you leave the house. Even if you’re just asking “What time is it?” to three people, you’re making progress!
English pronunciation can sometimes be challenging. With these tips and tricks, you’ll sound like a native speaker in no time! If you’d like to work on your everyday English, check out this article on conversational English.
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