How can I improve my English Pronunciation?
I’m often asked this question by my students, and it’s not surprising that learners find this area difficult because there’s so much to think about: vowel sounds (monophthongs and diphthongs – single sounds and group sounds), difficult consonant sounds and consonant clusters (groups).
On top of all this you have to think about word stress, sentence stress, rhythm, intonation, linking and features of connected speech. No wonder students find this overwhelming.
One of the first things you need to do is focus on a realistic pronunciation goal. Sometimes my students say “I want to sound like a native speaker” but you have to accept that if you start studying English after the age of 15, this is very unlikely to happen. A more realistic goal to is develop pronunciation that is clear and easy to understand, even though you still have traces of your original accent.
Below are some practical steps you can take to work on your pronunciation:
1. Take it slow.
You don’t need to speak fast to speak fluently. Speak at a steady pace and give yourself time to breathe and think about what you want to say next. A lot of my Spanish and Italian students speak very quickly in their mother tongue and can find this a challenge.
2. Be an actor.
Many students feel silly when they work on their pronunciation and try to copy native speakers. A good technique is to imagine yourself as a different persona, just like an actor. This will help you feel less self-conscious.
Before you can make a sound, you need to be able to hear the sound. If a sound doesn’t exist in your language, your brain may not have the ability to differentiate it from other sounds. So you need to train your ears to listen out for this sound. Listen to as much as you can: TV, radio, conversations in the street. Don’t worry about focusing on meaning, just listen to the sounds and flow of speech. Then try to copy this.
Use a mirror so you can notice the position of your lips, tongue and teeth. What shape does your mouth make when make the different sounds on the phonemic chart? Compare the shape your mouth makes with that of a native speaker.
When you practise pronunciation, close your eyes and picture the position your mouth needs to use to make the sound. Where does your tongue need to be? What about the flow of breath you need to use?
Also, visualise each sound as having a physical form. What colour is it? Does it have a temperature? How does it feel? Is it rough, smooth or even spikey? This can be a really good technique when you need to differentiate between two sounds. A good example of this is the vowel sound in ‘ship’ and ‘sheep’. Many students find these sounds difficult to tell apart. But if you can picture these sounds as objects, this can really help.
Making sounds is a physical activity, just like going to the gym or doing yoga. You are teaching your mouth to make new shapes by using different muscles. Practice putting your mouth into these different positions, use a mirror – don’t worry about the sounds.
You might look a bit crazy doing this so do it when you are alone. Just like a singer needs to practice notes, students need to practice sounds. So just speak to yourself and practice making words and sounds out loud. This is called ‘language play’ and it’s how we learn to make sounds in our own language when we are infants.
You can even learn a song in English and copy the singer’s intonation, stress and vowel / consonant sounds. That way you don’t need to focus on communication, you can just work on pronunciation. You can even record yourself and compare your version with the original.