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English Pronunciation

6 years ago
Every week I have students coming to me saying that they want to speak "native." I realize many students are nervous about speaking and believe their pronunciation of the sounds of English is an obstacle to effective communication. However, what they do not understand is that there are two different things to keep in mind when dealing with spoken English.

You do not need native-like pronunciation of English sounds in order to be comfortably understood
Other aspects of pronunciation are actually more important for your listeners than the sounds you make

One of the most popular things that students say to me is that they want me to correct them as they are speaking. This is a mistake. The evidence from research into second language learning is that the long-term effect of teachers' corrections is very limited.

In the short term, a student who has just been corrected will probably be able to imitate the teacher’s pronunciation of a word immediately afterwards. However, the chances are that the next time the student needs to use the word, they will produce it incorrectly, as they had done before. And, more importantly, constant correction while learning spoken English can lead to more nervousness in the future, i.e. worrying about whether you are saying the word wrong or not.

Research also shows that there are other factors, over which the language teacher has no control, that exert a great influence over your pronunciation.

Native language, is the most important factor, and results from historical accident. Similarly, the learner's ability to imitate foreign sounds is beyond the control of the instructor.

Additionally, the length of residence in a country where the second language is spoken natively is largely beyond the instructor's control.

Finally, your concern for pronunciation accuracy is often the result of personal motivations and attitudes established well before the you ever enter the classroom.

There is good news and bad news about pronunciation. The bad news first: with very few exceptions, adult speakers of a second language will not achieve a native-like accent.

The good news: you don’t need to sound like a native speaker. What you should aim for, according to most researchers is 'to be comfortably intelligible'. What does that mean? The use of the word ‘comfortable’ is important; it refers to the comfort of the listeners, rather than the speaker (you). Comfortable intelligibility 'implies that you as a non-native speaker should not only make yourself understood to their listeners, but should not "irritate" them. This is not just a matter of pronunciation, but of general speaking habits'.

Some common sources of irritation that English speakers have reported hearing from non-native speakers include repetitive intonation; lack of clear stress patterns; excessive hesitancy; excessive self-correction; mumbling; speaking too loud, and the things that irritated people the most tended to be hesitation and self-repetition. This seems to be driven by an excessive desire to choose the precise word, rather than to get the message across.

Word Stress is essential when dealing with spoken English. Two types of stress are crucial in being understood: correct syllable within a word, and appropriate stress of words in a sentence. Syllable stress in words The key to making yourself comfortably intelligible to other people in English is to make sure you put the main stress on the correct syllable of word.

Although we have a wide variety of accents in America, for example, everyone tends to use the same pattern of word stress. So American listeners are used to understanding the different sounds - especially vowels - produced. But if a speaker changes the word stress, their listeners can have great problems in understanding what was said. Knowing how a word is stressed is essential when you use it yourself for the first time. Even if your pronunciation of the sounds is accurate, you will often be misunderstood if you place the stress on the wrong syllable.

In English it is possible to put the main stress on (more or less) any word in a sentence. Where the speaker places the main stress reflects the meaning they intend the listeners to understand.

I would advise the following:
1. Work out which sounds cause you most problems in English. Depending what your first language is, you are likely to have problems with certain sounds. For example, most French speakers have difficulties with "th"; speakers of Mandarin have difficulties with "r" or "l", and the “zh” in ‘usually’, and Arabic speakers with "p" and "b".

2. Don't forget to learn the word stress of a new word. Every English word has its own normal stress pattern. For example, the word "believe" has two syllables (be and lieve), but only the second syllable is stressed. Your dictionary should show the syllable stress by an apostrophe (') before the syllable to be stressed: ‘be’lieve’.

3. Focus on intonation because where you place the stress in a word or what word you stress entirely will effect the meaning of statement. Usually our voices go up at the end of the sentence to show a question, and down at the end to show a statement.

4. Learn to recognize spelling patterns. For example, "-tion" on the end of a word is pronounced "-shun", while "-sion" can be pronounced "-zhun". There are often many ways to pronounce a particular spelling pattern, but it certainly helps to know what the variations are

5. Don't be in a rush. If you speak too quickly, you risk skipping over some sounds, failing to pronounce them completely, or mixing them up. If you speak too slowly, you might end up sounding unnatural. But it's better to speak slowly and clearly than too quickly.

I hope these tips helped. If you would like to talk more, sign up for a trial lesson. (I always advise completing a trial before anything else).

Good luck!