I’ll never forget the day my first-year university Spanish teacher informed me that I spoke Spanish with a French accent. She said it nonchalantly, a passing comment, a curiosity. For her, I suppose it was. For me, not so much.
You see, languages have always come quite naturally to me. And up until this point, I had felt extremely confident in class. I understood everything the teacher said. I found the expressions and grammar easy. I participated lots and helped my friends out too.
And do you know what the worst part was? French isn’t even my first language. English is. I learned French as a second language at school and on a high school exchange.
It made me feel a bit embarrassed at the time, but you know what? Even with a French accent, I still spoke better Spanish than most of my classmates. It didn’t cause communication problems. And, as my ear adjusted to the new language and I practiced more, the French accent disappeared, and my pronunciation began to improve.
What’s my point? Well, even with a French accent, my pronunciation was still arguably good. Of course, this depends on your definition of good pronunciation…
What is Good Pronunciation?
For many language learners, good pronunciation is synonymous with speaking like a native speaker. But, in my opinion, that’s neither here nor there. When it comes to English pronunciation, the most important thing is speaking clearly, and, that you can be understood, of course.
How Important is it to Sound like a Native Speaker?
Well, it depends… There are lots of different English accents, as well as, lots of varieties of international English these days. But I suppose, the most important question to consider is:
Who do you need to communicate with?
Native speakers? Other non-native speakers? Both?
If you’re living in an English speaking country, speaking like a native may be your end goal so you can integrate fully. But if you’re not, perhaps it’s not such a big deal.
It’s actually a topic of discussion which is becoming more prevalent in the English teaching community. In this article, Dr. Jennifer Jenkins explores the differences between learning English as a Foreign Language and English as Lingua Franca (a living spoken language). In it, she shares some interesting insights from her studies about which features of pronunciation are considered essential (and, unimportant) when it comes to being understood. Take a look at the essential ones below.
The 4 key aspects of Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core are:
- All the consonants are important except for ‘th’ sounds as in ‘thin’ and ‘this’.
- Consonant clusters are important at the beginning and in the middle of words. For example, the cluster in the word ‘string’ cannot be simplified to ‘sting’ or ‘tring’ and remain intelligible.
- The contrast between long and short vowels is important. For example, the difference between the vowel sounds in ‘sit’ and seat’.
- Nuclear (or tonic) stress is also essential. This is the stress on the most important word (or syllable) in a group of words. For example, there is a difference in meaning between ‘My son uses a computer’ which is a neutral statement of fact and ‘My SON uses a computer’, where there is an added meaning (such as that another person known to the speaker and listener does not use a computer).
These 4 elements are a good departure point for thinking about pronunciation. But how can you practically work towards perfecting your English accent? Read on for 5 tips to take your English pronunciation to the next level.
5 Tips to Improve Your English Pronunciation and Speak With Confidence
1. Identify Similarities and Differences between Sounds in English and your First Language
I mentioned this in my last blog post on English pronunciation but I’ll say it again. If you’re not already, become acquainted with the 44 different sounds in the English phonemic chart. And, while you do, consider the similarities and differences between your first language and English. Are there equivalent sounds in your native language? Are there any sounds which are completely new, different or challenging?
You’ll find lots of useful resources online. Try an interactive phonemic chart like this one by Cambridge English or this one by Macmillan English. And, if you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic check out BBC English’s “The Sounds of English” - a treasure trove of English pronunciation resources with loads of videos, quizzes and, activities.
2. Listen More
Listening is an important life skill and will get you far, not just in relationships, but also when it comes to improving pronunciation. The more you listen to English, the better you will become at not only understanding spoken English but also the more familiar you will become with appropriate pitch, intonation, stress and, sounds.
Listening activities are excellent models for pronunciation. If you’re in the mood, pause that listening activity and repeat out loud. This will help your rhythm and intonation and make your English sound more natural and fluent.
Looking for a different way to practice listening? Another great way to fully engage your ear is transcription. It’s simple. Choose a recording appropriate to your level, listen carefully and write out exactly what you hear. To do this, you’ll need to focus in on specific sounds and connected speech.
Of course, you can always listen to music and podcasts in English or watch TV shows and movies. The best way to motivate yourself is by finding ways to practice that you enjoy and incorporating them into your daily routine.
After a more traditional approach? Try some listening activities designed specifically with English learners in mind like 6 Minute English on BBC Learning or the Listening Skills Practice section on the British Council’s LearnEnglish website.
3. Pay Attention to Your Mouth
When we speak our first language, we don’t think about how we move our mouths to make sounds. But when we learn a second language, this can be a really helpful tool to improve pronunciation. Learning how to make new sounds involves learning how to move your mouth, lips and, tongue in a conscious way.
This detailed guide on pronunciation explains the correct positioning of tongue and teeth for the different phonemic sounds. And, don’t forget to check out those videos I mentioned on “Sounds of English” before. If you’re feeling extra observant, try and pay attention to what your teacher, English speaking friends or colleagues do with their mouths when they speak.
4. Break Words Down: Syllables and Stress
Remember how you learned to read out loud when you were a child? Little by little, sounding out the different syllables of each word? This same technique can be applied to improving your English pronunciation.
Of course, English isn’t written phonetically so this technique isn’t foolproof when reading from a text. However, breaking words down into individual sounds and then piecing them back together can help you when you’re having difficulty pronouncing a specific word.
Pay attention to long and short vowel sounds in particular. When you feel like you’ve got the separate sounds down, take a moment to practice putting the stress on the right part of the word. Not sure where the stress goes? Check the phonemic transcription in an online dictionary or listen to an audio clip and repeat the pronunciation.
5. Put Your Speaking Skills to Practice
This might not seem like the most insightful tip but the best way to hone your speaking skills is simply to practice. Try and practice speaking in English every single day. I cannot stress this enough.
Don’t have anyone to practice way? Talk to yourself out loud. Describe what you’re doing or what you need to do. Imagine what you would say in different scenarios.
Check your progress by recording and listening to yourself. You can do this with your phone - with or without video. The advantage to using video is you can also see what you’re doing with your mouth and concentrate on the position of your lips, teeth and, tongue as necessary. This might make you feel a little self-conscious at first, but it can help you zone in on problem areas and at a later date you can refer back to it and see how far you’ve come.
What have you been doing to improve your pronunciation lately? Which of these tips are you planning to try out? Leave us a comment below and let us know.