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This is a Canadian ESL blog for Intermediate and Advanced Students who want to learn and improve their English. Each PAGE above contains thousands of free English lessons, tutorials and practice exercises to help you learn and improve your English grammar, reading, listening, pronunciation, speaking, writing and editing. Some of the resources are Canadian. Others are from around the world.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

10 Tips to Improve your Pronunciation

Many of you speak English well enough to get a good job, but are being left behind, and don't really understand why. 

Sometimes it is because you don't have "local experience,"  or aren't the "right fit." Other times it is because you make too many grammar mistakes such as using the wrong verb tense  when you speak. But often the problem is people simply can't understand you because of your poor pronunciation. 
The issue of accuracy versus fluency is a huge one in ESL, but I will talk about this in a different post. Today, I want to tips on how to improve your pronunciation.   

What We Expect From You     

No one in an English speaking country expects you to sound like a native speaker.  That would be both impossible and ridiculous in a multicultural country where so many people have accents.

What employers and others DO expect is  for you to speak clearly enough so that they can understand you without having to make a major effort. The issue here is not being able to pronounce things perfectly, but pronouncing your words and sentences clearly enough to be completely understood.  

Native Speakers too Polite  
One problem is that most native speakers  in Canada, the U.S. Britain,  or Australia  are too polite to tell you they can't understand you. They don't want to hurt your feelings, so they ignore the problem, and pretend to understand. 

As a teacher, I have found that even in a "safe" classroom environment students from different countries don't tell their own classmates that they don't understand them. This results in a lose lose situation for both parties. The listener doesn't find out what the speaker wants to say. The speaker doesn't realize that he or she has a pronunciation problem, and continues speaking just as badly.

Make the Effort 

Improving the way you speak is difficult, but unless you do so you will continue to find yourself missing out on opportunities that you are qualified for. 

Here are a few strategies that will help you to improve your pronunciation and other people's ability to understand you. 

Develop some awareness  

 If you want to improve, you need to be aware of what kind of problems you have.  Although some people have a good ear, most people need to focus on specific areas of their speech. Otherwise they will continue to have the same problems no matter how long they live in an English speaking country.  This means you need to analyze your specific pronunciation problems, and work on improving them by doing a lot of practice.

Open Your Mouth  
Open and move your mouth when you speak. Show your teeth. Let your tongue both your teeth and the roof of your mouth. 

Many Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, German and Russian speakers don't open their mouth when they speak English.  This makes them sound like they are mumbling and makes their English very unclear. from countries where you do not need to open your mouth very wide to make sounds, or to speak clearly. However, English has many open sounds. Opening and moving your mouth can make a HUGE difference in your pronunciation. 

Click here  and watch Barak Obama speaking. He has excellent clear speech and pronunciation. Notice the way he opens his mouth when he speaks. You can even see his tongue.

How much do YOU open YOUR mouth?  Analyze yourself in a mirror. Then, decide to officially start opening and using your mouth much more. Watch as many native speakers as you can. Imitate them.

Slow Down 

Don't speak too fast. Many  English learners think they need to speak quickly in order to sound fluent.  This  is not true. Fluency is about how comfortably you can speak  English, not how fast.  

If you speak English too fast, you are likely to eat many of your syllables, as well as use the wrong stress and intonation. This makes it very difficult for people to understand you.  These days many young people speak too fast, but that does not mean you should imitate them. Even native speakers have trouble understanding them.  Instead, remember that  effective speakers  don't speak quickly. They pause and put a LOT of stress on their syllables. 

Also, try to speak up loudly enough to be clearly heard.  Help your listeners to absorb what you are saying, instead of struggling to understand. If you have problems controlling your speed, try  to 
  • pause more, especially between phrases and sentences.
  • use more stress to highlight the key words in your message 
  • use gestures to help slow you down.    
Focus on stress and intonation  
Word and sentence stress are important in English. In fact, it is more likely  for someone to misunderstand you because of wrong word or sentence stress than because you are pronouncing a word incorrectly. 

Unlike other languages that stress every syllable equally, every English word has its own stress and intonation. As well, although many languages stress each word in a sentence, in English we only stress  "information" words such as nouns and verbs. All the little words  like pronouns, articles, adjectives and adverbs become shortened, and can sound completely different .

LISTEN to English speakers and focus on the way they STRESS syllables and words in sentences. Pay attention to the way their voice goes UP and DOWN. The rise and fall of our voice makes our speech clear and easy to understand. So, instead of just listening to WHAT people are saying, listen to HOW they are saying it. Try to imitate them, and put a lot of your effort on working on stress and intonation.

Work on difficult sounds 

Make a list of words that you find it hard to pronounce. Analyze which specific sounds are making these words difficult. Don't worry too much about sounds like "th", and r or l. Do, however focus on all your vowels, word endings and consonants that often get confused such as P and D, or K and H.

Learn the phonetic alphabet

Become familiar with the phonetic symbols or International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in your dictionary. Keep it handy so that you can understand what new words should sound like when you use your dictionary.

      Use a Mirror to Practice

   The shape of your mouth and the position  of your lips, teeth   and tongue are very  important in learning how to pronounce words and sounds correctly in English.  To find out what the correct mouth and shape looks like go to Rachelsenglish.com . When you practice, sit in front of a mirror top see if you are making the right shape correctly. Then watch to see if you are moving in the right way.  When you feel you've got it right, practice making the sound at least 20 times. You will feel silly, but it is the only way to improve.

Record yourself 

Most people don't like listening to the sound of their own voice but recording your speech is an excellent way of learning about your trouble spots, not only with specific sounds and words, but with stress, rhythm and intonation. Once you hear the parts that are incorrect or unclear, you can start working on improving them. You may find this uncomfortable at first, but you can't improve unless you know where to start.  
Keep working with a recorder. This could be your cell phone or any other device including your computer, but don't give up just because you don't like the sound. Focus on practicing and improving. Keep the old recordings so that you can compare and listen to your own improvement.

Imitate Native Speakers  

A parrot is a bird that copies the words of humans. It learns to imitate human sounds by repeating the sounds or phrases over and over. This is an excellent way for you to practice rhythm and stress. When you are listening to the news, watching a short video, or listening to a reading or a story on the radio or the computer, try to copy the exact rhythm of the speaker as he or she speaks. Does the voice go up and down? Does it sound happy, angry, surprised or sarcastic? Is it asking a YES NO or an information question or making a statement.  Copying native speakers will help you sound more natural and doing this a lot will make the process faster.

Listen to music and sing along

 In my previous post I discussed the benefits of English music and songs.  Listening to the singers helps you with the rhythm and stress of the language. Listening again and marking the areas where the singer pauses, goes up and down or stresses specific words and syllables can  also help you - especially if you then  sing along several times.  These days thee are also many karaoke sites that put the words on the screen along with the correct rhythm.   Many singers whose first language is not English have recorded English songs and sounded wonderful. Try the Music Page to listen to some of these international singers. 

Practice Practice Practice 

Practice as often as you can every day. Take a pronunciation class and practice outside of class. Focus on your own trouble spots. Find one or two pronunciation websites or programs online and use them regularly. There are many listed in the links on the right. You  can also go to the PRONUNCIATION page. 

DON'T jump around from exercise to exercise. Focus on one problem at a time and really work at it.  Develop a daily routine with a series of exercises. Then do some special activities such as shadow reading and listen and repeat when you have more time. Record yourself often. 

You can definitely improve your pronunciation if you want to, but you MUST do the work.. There is no magic. Only practice will  help you improve, so be patient with yourself. Don't expect miracles. Expect gradual improvement and accept that it will come if you try.

Here are two short sets of pronunciation exercises that you can every day to help yourself. At least it will force you to open your mouth - THE single most important thing you can do to speak English more clearly. 

Daily Pronunciation Exercise from John Keith Communications  

Daily Pronunciation Exercise from Many Things  

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