What you need to learn

To improve your pronunciation, you need to become aware of, and able to produce correctly, the English sounds, stress, rhythm and intonation.

As you become conscious of sounds, stress, rhythm and intonation, and learn to produce them more correctly, your speech will become more and more easily understandable and more and more native-like. You’ll be on your way to speak English like an Englishman/woman, an American, a Canadian…

SOUNDS

You need to learn how to pronounce English sounds (vowels and consonants) correctly...

For example, you should be able the vowels in the following underlined words correctly if you want people to understand you:

  • I want to leave. (I'm tired of this boring party.)
    I want to live. (Is there no cure for my cancer?)
  • We are sinking! (Our boat is going down in water.)
    We are thinking. (We need time to make a decision.)
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WORD STRESS

You need to understand that in English some syllables are pronounced clearly stronger than other syllables, sometimes longer or with tone changes too. You should learn how to stress the right syllable(s) of single words and word combinations.

For single words, let's take the word dictionary:

  • This word has 4 syllables and depending on which syllable you stress, it will sound differently. To say the word correctly, you need to put the stress on the first syllable.
    ˈdictionary

For word combinations, here is an example:

  • Here is how you stress the word fifteen:
    ˌfifˈteen
    But things change in combinations:
    ˌfifteen ˈdays

But in addition to being the basis of the rhythm of the language, stress can change the meaning of what you say too. Here are some examples:

  • a ˌblue ˈbottle (not a green one)
    a ˈbluebottle (a kind of insect)
  • I ˈtold him. (But he forgot to do it.)
    I ˌtold ˈhim. (I told him, not her.)
  • ˈrecord (a noun)
    The runner set a world record.
    The records of the meeting show that...

    reˈcord (a verb)
    Can I record your voice please?
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SENTENCE STRESS AND RHYTHM

There are two things to understand here.

First, the idea of "pronunciation units". A short sentence probably consists of a single pronunciation unit, a long sentence may be broken into two or more units.

Pronunciation units are melodic units. Each unit consists of some syllables that are not stressed, that are weak, some syllables that are stressed slightly, and some syllables are fully stressed. Also, there's usually one syllable in each unit which is the most stressed and/or has a change in tone, a change in the pitch of the sound.

Pronunciation units can be, to a degree, arbitrary. A fast speaker generally uses fewer intonation units, and as a result, may sound as being more urgent, excited, or anxious. A slow speaker may use more intonation units and may come across as being more emphatic or more insistent.

Here is an example with two or three intonation units depending on how you speak:

My ex-wife   needed some money,   so she went to the bank.
My ex-wife needed some money,    so she went to the bank.

The second thing to understand is that English is stress-timed, not syllable-timed.

In stress-timed languages the stressed syllables occur at more or less regular intervals, and unstressed syllables are shortened to fit this rhythm. In syllable-timed languages, however, each syllable takes more or less the same amount of time.

English and German, for example, are stress-timed languages. French, Spanish and Cantonese, on the other hand, are syllable-timed.

Obviously, learners whose first language is syllable-timed often have difficulty producing the correct rhythm of a stress-timed language like English. unstressed sounds in a stress-timed language like English. They tend to give all the syllables more or less the same amount of stress and length. This is something you should be aware of and work on.
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INTONATION

Another aspect you should pay attention to and be able to produce is intonation, the changes in the tone of your voice, when and where your voice should go up and become high-pitched, and vice versa.

In tonal languages such as Chinese or Vietnamese, changes in pitch are used to distinguish word meaning. So when you say a word with a high pitch or with a low pitch the meaning of that word can change.

English is a non-tonal language. Changing the pitch doesn't change the meaning of a word, but intonation still plays an important role in English. As well as showing your attitude and feelings, it can show whether you are asking a question or making a statement, whether you are done or what you say is not finished, and so on.

At the minimum, you should learn these:

  • How to say the following three types of sentences with the correct intonation:
    I am happy to be here.
    Are you happy to be here?
    How do you feel?
  • How to indicate, with your tone, the finality/continuity or certainty/uncertainty of what you are saying.
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How to do it in practice

You are now familiar with the basics of what needs to be done in theory. But how can we do it in practice?

Here are some tips for you:

  • Listen to a lot of original English audio and video clips, radio programmes, movies etc. (To my experience audio works better than video here.)
  • Listen actively. From time to time, focus on the phonetic aspect of what you hear, the sounds, the stress patterns etc. Just feel and imitate the sounds, rhythm and music of the language.
  • Be judicious in choosing what you listen to, and what you imitate and learn. You wouldn’t want to model your English after an actor playing the role of an uneducated drug smuggler with a lisp.
  • Try to practice the consonants and vowels as a part of words not in isolation.
  • Practice a lot with minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are two words that are pronounced exactly the same except for a single sound which is different in the two. Here is an example (UK) and here is another (US).
  • And finally there’s my home-made favourite technique. It’s a personal technique I developed when I was learning English. I call it WOTH, walking on (the speaker’s) heels. It’s a technique that is a bit difficult to learn but will work wonders once you get the hang of it. Here is how it works: as you listen, try to repeat what you hear with a very short lag (around half a second perhaps) after the speaker. As you go on, you will learn to listen and speak at the same time, and because you are only half a second behind the speaker, you will have a good chance of imitating the sounds, stress pattern and intonation correctly. Give it a try! It really works! But of course you need to persevere until you get the hang of it.