Proper pronunciation is important.
Along with intonation, pronunciation is one of the key aspects of language production that helps others comprehend precisely what you are trying to say. You can forget the occasional word or flub a grammatical structure or two, but if your speaking partner can’t figure out what words you’re attempting to pronounce, you might as well be speaking gibberish.
Most language learners already know this. Often, learners will work with teachers and tutors continually over time to resolve pronunciation issues both large and small. With outside aid, drilling out these mistakes is usually just a question of time and deliberate practice.
Occasionally, however, you will want to learn how to pronounce words correctly between tutoring or tandem sessions, when no one is around to help you.
Instead of giving up or guessing blindly, which could lead to mistakes or fossilized errors, there are a number of free web-based resources that can help you pronounce words correctly, even without a native right beside you.
The following are five free online tools that will help you nail proper pronunciation in a pinch.
Our first tool is a smartphone app known as HiNative, from the makers of foreign language text correction hub Lang-8. HiNative, available for free for both iPhone and Android, is an app that allows you to submit language-related questions to native speakers, and receive answers and feedback directly.
For pronunciation help in particular, HiNative provides two set question formulas that you can use: “How do you say this?” and “Does this sound natural?”. After you submit your question (with or without an accompanying audio recording), natives can reply back, either in text or via an audio recording of their own. The “How Do You Say This?” is particularly good for learning new target language phrases and simultaneously receiving recordings of that phrase pronounced by natives, while the “Does this sound natural?” option helps you get native feedback to fine tune your own pronunciation.
HiNative’s services are available for dozens of languages at the time of this writing, though the size and responsiveness of the native speaker community will vary according to language.
Our second tool is a website known as Forvo.com. Forvo is a community-based audio pronunciation guide, that allows native speakers to submit audio files of themselves pronouncing specific words. As a learner, you can freely access the entire database of recordings in all languages, and even submit requests for recordings of words that have not yet been submitted to the site. In addition, all recordings are tagged with the nationality and gender of the person speaking, so that you can choose the pronunciation that best suits your chosen dialect or speaking style.
3. Google Translate
With our third resource, we move out of the realm of natural pronunciation guides (recordings produced by human beings) and move into the realm of artificial, text-to-speech pronunciation guides. These resources are best for when you have no native speakers around to help you, nor the time to wait for audio submissions from HiNative or Forvo.
The most widely-known resource with a decent text-to-speech (TTS) pronunciation option for many languages is Google Translate.
To access this feature, simply head to Google Translate’s main page and select “Detect Language” above the left-hand side text window. Then, type in the word you need pronounced (or translated, then pronounced). Then choose your target language from the language drop-down menu above the right-hand text window. Once the gray window displays the translated result, you will see a speaker icon displayed underneath that result. Click that icon (labeled “Listen”) and Google’s computer voice will pronounce the word or phrase.
Since these recordings are produced by computers and not human native speakers, they will, in most cases, not be perfect. Nevertheless, in the absence of a native to help you, they can be incredibly useful. At the very least, these recordings can serve as reliable models of pronunciation that you can lean on until you can double-check your pronunciation with an actual person.
When using Google Translate, note that the “Listen” text-to-speech option is not available in all of Google Translate’s languages, and the quality of the audio can vary greatly from one language to the next.
4. SitePal TTS
Another, more robust text-to-speech resource is that provided by SitePal TTS. On its face, SitePal’s text-to-speech service is very similar to Google’s; you simply input target language text into the widget, and it will output a computerized voice pronouncing that text aloud. SitePal, however, excels in that it has several additional options that Google does not.
Most notably, SitePal has a wider range of voices available for a wider range of languages, allowing you to zero-in on a pronunciation that aligns with your chosen dialect, your gender, or even the timbre of your own voice. You can also alter the voice by changing its pitch or speed, or adding a number of other effects.
5. IPA Transcription
In the absence of native speakers or even computer-generated pronunciations, there is one last tool that will allow you to learn to pronounce a word quickly and accurately: the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA.
The idea behind the IPA is that each of the hundreds of sounds the human vocal tract can produce is represented by one (and only one) written symbol. The result is a complex and extensive alphabet that takes some time to learn, but dramatically speeds up one’s ability to pronounce a language accurately once acquired.
No language is written natively in the IPA, so as a learner, you’ll need to rely on what are called IPA transcriptions. These are either texts or audio recordings that have been converted into IPA symbols, turning something like this:
The man reads the newspaper
[ðə mæn ridz ðə ˈnuzˌpeɪpər]
Any learner who has mastered the IPA will be able to turn the below IPA text into a well-pronounced, spoken English sentence very quickly, without any help from native speakers. And the best part is that the IPA works for all spoken languages.
The only caveat is that IPA transcriptions are often specific to certain dialects, accents, and even individual styles of speaking. The above transcription of “The man reads the newspaper”, for example, corresponds to a general American accent, while a transcription of a British person reading the same sentence could be [ðə mæn riːdz ðə ˈnjuːzˌpeɪpə].
IPA transcriptions are found in many language resources, including online and printed dictionaries, pronunciation guides, and learner texts. The presence or absence of IPA will vary from resource to resource and language to language, but Wiktionary is a reliable general resource to start with. Additionally, a Google search for “IPA converter” and your target language may direct you to resources that help you convert regular target language text into the correct IPA symbols (like the one from EasyPronunciation.com, shown in the above image)
Learning proper pronunciation can be difficult even with a helpful native speaker by your side. Take that source of feeback out of the equation, and determining which of a dozen possible pronunciations of a word is the correct one can often seem impossible. Written language, with its spelling conventions, exceptions, and unspoken rules can be quite unreliable, after all.
Fortunately, if you ever find yourself in such a scenario, there are a number of resources you can lean on that will help you perfect your pronunciation even without a native model close by.
Firstly, apps like HiNative and Forvo allow you to access native recordings of words and phrases, reducing your need to actually be where natives are. Secondly, in the absence of those asynchronous pronunciation aids, text-to-speech resources like Google Translate and SitePal TTS will give you stopgap solutions provided by state-of-the-art computer programs. And lastly, if all of the above are unavailable to you, you can rely on the International Phonetic Alphabet, a tool that can help you nail proper pronunciation instantly, using only the aid of written symbols on a page.
Think of these not as separate tools, but as part of a grander pronunciation toolbox. Use them to inform your pronunciation when you’re alone, so that you can verify them when you’re out on the town with your speaking partners. Since they’re web- and mobile-based, you can keep them handy at all times, so that proper pronunciation is never too far beyond your reach.