To improve your pronunciation, you need to become aware of, and be able to produce correctly, the English sounds, stress, rhythm and intonation.
As you become conscious of sounds, stress, rhythm and intonation, your speech becomes more and more easily understandable and more and more native-like, and you'll be on your way to speak English like an Englishman/woman, an American, a Canadian...
You need to learn how to pronounce English sounds (vowels and consonants) correctly...
For example, you should be able to pronounce 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.)
- I am going to the swimming pool.
Doesn't the door open? Pull it harder!
And of course, you must learn to pronounce and use the most important sound in English: the "schwa"! What is the schwa you ask?
The schwa is the most common sound in English. It is a short, weak, unstressed sound. Getting the schwa sound correct is a good way of making your pronunciation more accurate and natural.The phonemic symbol for this sound is /ə/. The purpose of schwa is to allow unstressed syllables to be said more quickly so the main beats of spoken words are easier to place on the stressed syllables.
Here are some examples of the schwa: about, breakfast, doctor, person
We will talk more about the schwa when we practice word and sentence stress.
You need to understand that in English some syllables are more prominent than other syllables (stronger, sometimes longer or with tone changes), which gives English its particular rhythm. You should learn how to stress the right syllable(s) of single words and word combinations.
For single words:
- 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:
- Here are some more words to practice:
- And some tricky ones:
For word combinations, here is one example:
- Here is how you stress the word fifteen:
But things change in combinations:
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)
Please do not record this performance.
Now, let's get back to our favourite sound, the schwa! As you remember, the schwa is a weak unstressed sound. Here are some examples:
- again /ə 'gen/
- patient /ˈpeɪ ʃənt/
- machine /mə ˈʃiːn/
- president /ˈpre zɪ dənt/
- vanilla /vəˈnɪ lə/
There are two important things to consider 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 unstressed, that are weak, some syllables that are stressed slightly, and some syllables that 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 or frequency).
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 wife needed some money, so she went to the bank.
My wife needed some money, so she went to the bank.
Pay attention to how "some" and "to" - which are weak and unstressed - are pronounced with a schwa: /səm/ and /tə/.
The second thing to consider is that English is stress-timed, not syllable-timed.
In syllable-timed languages each syllable takes more or less the same amount of time. In stress-timed languages, however, the stressed syllables occur at more or less regular intervals, and unstressed syllables are shortened to fit this rhythm.
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 reproducing the correct rhythm of 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.
Another aspect you should pay attention to and be able to reproduce 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 types of sentences with the correct intonation:
I am happy.
Are you happy?
How do you feel?
Would you like some tea?
Would you like tea or coffee?
Would you like tea, coffee, or hot chocolate?
It's a nice day, isn't it?
- How to indicate, with your tone, the finality/continuity or certainty/uncertainty of what you are saying.
You are now familiar with the basics of what needs to be done in theory. But how can you do it in practice?
Here are some guidelines 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 tried-and-trusted home-made technique. It's a personal technique I developed when I was learning English myself. I call it WOTH (Walking on the Heels), i.e. 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. At the beginning, it is difficult to repeat what you heard half a second ago, while listening to what the speaker is saying now, but with a bit of patience and practice, 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.
It is a really effective technique which is worth trying!
- And a bonus suggestion: Build an English persona!
Find a British/American actor or actress who speaks good clear English and model your English after him or her:
Top 10 Actors with British Accents: Get a British Accent by Imitating
And here are some film monologues you can use to model your English after. See how close you can get to the actor's delivery.
- Rowan Atkinson Live - Elementary dating
- Good Will Hunting 'Your Move Chief'
- Why America isn't the greatest country in the world anymore
- Greatest Speech Ever Charlie Chaplin The Great Dictator HD No Music
- V for Vendetta: The Revolutionary Speech
- 500 Days of Summer (I Quit Monologue)
- Ratatouille Ego's Review
- Pulp Fiction - Jules and his Bible Verse
- Best Movie Speeches Ever: 1
- The phonemic chart (An essential tool to practice the sounds of English)
- The phonemic chart (American) (If you prefer American English... but it is not as good as the British version)
- The Odd One Out (An interesting pronunciation quiz with 15 questions)
- Sounds of English (BBC video series)
- A Youtube channel with American English pronunciation videos
- Stress Monster (An online game from Oxford University Press)
- The Top 10 tips for perfect (British) English pronunciation
- How to Improve Spoken American English
- Be a NATIVE ENGLISH Speaker in 8 steps!
- How to Pronounce Vowel Sounds - English Pronunciation Lesson (with an detailed explanation of British/American differences)
- English pronunciation: Schwa