One of the most important aspects of learning English is pronunciation. Without clear pronunciation, it is difficult to make yourself understood. First, we recommend that you start by learning individual sounds. After that, focus on the music of the language. This next statement might surprise you; Pronouncing every word correctly leads to poor pronunciation! Good pronunciation comes from stressing the right words, this is because English is a time-stressed language. In other words, some words, mainly the content words, receive more focus, whereas other words such as function words are less important.
Ok, here’s how you can improve your pronunciation;
Like we said in the first paragraph, start with learning individual sounds. These are what we call phonemes.
A phoneme is a speech sound. It’s the smallest unit of sound that helps distinguish one word from another. It is generally agreed that there are approximately 44 sounds in English, with some variations depending on accent and articulation. The 44 English phonemes are represented by the 26 letters of the alphabet individually and in combination.
To help you practise minimal sounds you can use minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are words in which only one sound changes.
For example, pop – pep – pip – pap, here only the vowels sounds have changed.
Using minimal pairs helps you to isolate a sound to really focus on the small changes in sounds between vowels
The next thing you can do is learn pairs of consonants that are voiced and voiceless and practice through minimal pairs.
For example, f / v the ‘f’ sound is voiceless and the ‘v’ voiced. You will be able to recognise the difference between voiced and voiceless by placing a finger on your throat. Voiced sounds vibrate, and they sound much stronger whereas voiceless sounds do not vibrate and sound softer.
These pairs include:
b voiced / p voiceless
z voiced / s voiceless
d voiced / t voiceless
Take a look at this PDF on more minimal pairs (source: www.learningfundamentals.com)
To improve your pronunciation, you need to learn the difference between pure vowels and diphthongs such as the ‘oi’ sound in ‘boy’ or ‘aee’ sound in ‘tray’.
Here are some rules concerning pronunciation;
English is considered a stressed language while many other languages are considered syllabic. In other languages, such as French or Italian, each syllable receives equal importance (there is stress, but each syllable has its own length).
English pronunciation focuses on specific stressed words while quickly gliding over the other, non-stressed, words.
The words that are stressed are considered content words such as, nouns e.g. kitchen, Peter, (most) principal verbs e.g. visit, construct, adjectives e.g. beautiful, interesting, adverbs e.g. often, carefully
Non-stressed words are considered function words such as determiners e.g. the, a, auxiliary verbs e.g. am, were, prepositions e.g. before, of, conjunctions e.g. but, and, pronouns e.g. they, she.
Here is an exercise you can do that will help you to quickly improve your pronunciation.
Get a notebook and write down 3 sentences, or take a few examples sentences from a book or an article online.
First underline the stressed words (nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs) then read the sentences aloud and focus on stressing the underlined words and gliding over the non-stressed words.(determiners, auxiliary verbs, prepositions, conjunctions and pronouns).
By doing this exercise you will be surprised at how quickly your pronunciation improves! This is because you are learning and training yourself to focus on the stressed words and almost mute or silence the non-stressed words and syllables.
The next time you listen to native speakers, focus on how they stress certain words and begin to copy this.
Here is a quick recap on improving your pronunciation.
- Remember that non-stressed words and syllables are often ‘swallowed’ in English. (You can practice this with the simple exercise we mentioned above).
- Always focus on pronouncing the stressed words well, non-stressed words can be glided over or pronounced softly.
- Don’t focus on pronouncing each word. Focus on the stressed words in each sentence.