If you’ve spent more time learning English by reading or listening to audiobooks and videos than speaking, you may have a basic grasp of the words. But when it’s time to say them out loud, you struggle with the pronunciation.
By dedicating some of the time you spend on your English lessons to word pronunciation, you can get better. So, what are some things you can do to pronounce English words more easily?
Today, we’re going to look at these seven steps to help you improve your English pronunciation:
1. Break down big words into syllables
Every word in the English language is made up of syllables. A syllable is a pronunciation unit with a vowel that may also have consonants. If you need a refresher, a vowel is A, E, I, O, or U. A consonant is any sound you make that is not a vowel sound.
A good example of a word with two syllables is “mascot.” You’d pronounce it like this: “mas-cot.” The word “attention” is three syllables: “at-tent-tion.”
Most English words are about two syllables, maybe three. These are everyday words that are easy to read and speak.
When you encounter bigger words you’re struggling with, remember that you can always simplify them by breaking them down into syllables.
Let’s say the word you’re having a hard time with is “incomprehensible.” This is a big word that means impossible to understand. It’s also six syllables: “in-com-pre-hen-si-ble.”
Rather than trying to pronounce the whole word all at once, try speaking the syllables first. “In,” is very easy to say, as is “com,” “pre,” and so on. Once you put all six syllables together, keep repeating the word. It will go from sounding choppy and unnatural as you speak it syllable by syllable to its own full-fledged word.
2. Learn when to stress words and sounds
Besides how you pronounce words, the way you stress or emphasize them matters when speaking natural English.
Intonation is the rise and fall of your tone of voice when speaking. For example, when you ask a “yes” or “no” question, you should raise your tone somewhat at the end of your question.
When it comes to pronouncing words, sometimes it makes a difference if you put the emphasis on a certain syllable within that word. I’ll use the word “present” to show you how stressing words works.
If you stress the first syllable in present – “PRE sent” – you’re referring to a gift you bought for someone. When you stress the second syllable “pre SENT”, you mean you’re giving or making something known, such as presenting a report to your colleagues.
Stress isn’t only important with syllables, but also with whole words. Within a sentence, some words are stressed and some are unstressed in English.
So, how can you be sure which words to stress? You need to know the difference between function and content words.
Function words are those you use for everyday grammar. They include pronouns, conjunctions, articles, prepositions, and auxiliary verbs like have, be, and do.
Content words are adverbs, adjectives, verbs, and nouns. Adverbs are for describing the when, where, and how of something and adjectives for the thing, place, person, or object. A verb is a state or action and a noun is a thing, place, or person.
When determining whether to stress function or content words, it’s usually content words.
Let’s take a look at a sentence: “The fish listened intently to what the frogs had to say.”
In that sentence, the function words are “the” and “to.” The content words are “fish,” “listened,” “intently,” “what,” “frogs,” and “say.”
Knowing when you’re reading a function word versus a content word will help your pronunciation sound more natural.
3. Choose one accent and stick with it
Another part of improving your English pronunciation is selecting one accent and using it going forward.
There are different accents around the world. You likely have an accent from your home country, but now you’re trying to switch to an English accent when you speak. Between British and North American accents, the differences are huge. Even regionally within North America, different areas pronounce words differently.
How do you choose one accent? When I teach English, I personally focus on standard North American English, which is less dialect-driven. That said, if you plan on moving to a certain region within the US or the UK that you know has a heavy accent and dialect, I recommend getting familiar with that accent. You’ll acclimate better and feel more comfortable speaking with others.
Whichever accent and dialect you decide suits you best, make sure that you’re ready to stick with it for the long haul. Suddenly switching accents after years of speaking one can be like learning English all over again in some regards.
4. Listen to English audiobooks and talk with the speakers
If you don’t know how to cook something, you look up a recipe. If you’re not sure how to beat a level in a video game, you watch a walkthrough. Why should learning English be any different?
When a word comes up in which the pronunciation eludes you, write it down. You may have several such words where you just aren’t sure how to say them. Keep a record of all these troublesome words.
You can look up the word in a dictionary such to find out how it’s pronounced.
But keep in mind that you need to learn how it’s pronounced within a sentence as well. And this comes with exposure to authentic content and practice.
You can do this by exposing yourself to authentic content and listening to fluent and native English speakers. You have countless ways of doing so. Watch an educational video or a TED talk on YouTube and turn the captions on. You could also listen to a podcast.
It’s important to listen to any video or recording at least once without the transcript. But it’s also essential that you listen to it a second time with captions or transcripts in front of you, because sometimes you can’t recognize a word audibly. That’s especially the case if certain words are new to your vocabulary.
As you listen and watch along, keep an ear out for the intonation and stressing each English speaker uses in their sentences. Try to figure out what their accent is if you want a fun extra challenge. Are they from Canada? The UK? Australia?
After a bit of listening, talk along with the speaker, using the transcript so you know what to say. Did you pronounce all the words correctly? Did you stress a function word instead of a content word?
You will make mistakes, but that’s okay. Keep practicing and your pronunciation will continue to come together.
5. Record yourself speaking to find pronunciation weaknesses
Few people like hearing the sound of their voice recorded and played back, but that’s what we recommend you do next. Recording yourself speaking is an invaluable tool in bettering your English pronunciation, so it’s something you want to make into a regular habit.
You can record yourself saying whatever you want, just make sure you’re speaking for at least a minute. Perhaps you have a conversation in English with a friend and you get their permission to record (please don’t record without a person’s consent!). You could take a chapter out of a book you’re reading, speak it aloud, and record that. You can even record yourself reading a transcript of a video, or simply answering a question like, “What did you last weekend?” or, “What’s your favorite city and why?”
There’s no need to go out and buy a pricey audio recorder when your smartphone will do just fine.
When you’re done recording, listen to yourself and focus on the words. Did you misuse a word? Mispronounce it? Stress it incorrectly? As I said before, these things will happen, and that’s okay.
When speaking with friends and family in English, you can ask them to point out if you make mistakes in your pronunciation. Listening to your recordings will also help you find those mistakes more easily. Whatever errors you made, write them down.
6. Join Oxford Language Club Course
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