“The human voice is the most perfect instrument of all.”
Arvo Pärt, an Estonian composer
Every language learner dreams to sound like a native speaker. Is it possible to achieve this dream even if you are an adult, have been learning English for many years, and make fossilized pronunciation errors? The short answer is yes. Of course, it takes time and effort, but it is possible to improve your pronunciation and even take it to the native-like level. It is not easy. On the contrary, it is very hard. But if you are ready to pursue this goal and practice diligently, you can do it.
Pronunciation is the way in which a language is spoken. It is very complex, and of course it would be impossible to cover it all in one post. This time we’ll look at a few very important points and suggest ways of practicing pronunciation.
MIND THE LENGTH
Listen to the dialogues and compare the pronunciation of /iː/ and /i/:
-Do you like your tea /tiː/ sweet /swiːt/?
-Yes. Three /θriː/ sugars, please /pliːz/.
-What about this /ðɪs/ fish /fɪʃ/? Can I eat /iːt/ it /ɪt/?
-Yes. Eat /iːt/ it /ɪt/.
-What about this /ðɪs/ cheese /tʃiːz/? Can I eat /iːt/ it /ɪt/?
-No, don’t eat /iːt/ it /ɪt/. It’s /ɪts/ six /sɪks/ weeks /wiːks/ out of date.
It’s important to be careful about the length difference because sometimes the word meaning depends on it:
About 360 million people speak English as their first language (source), and they may live in countries that are quite far from each other. Take British and American people for example. It’s only natural that their accents sound different. Moreover, people living in different regions of the same country are likely to have pronunciation and accent differences. For instance, the pronunciation of “caramel” starts disregarding vowels once you go west of the Ohio River in the US (source):
One particularly interesting difference between American English and British English is the pronunciation of the sound /r/. Americans tend to pronounce it more strongly. Watch this video for more information and examples:
- A rhotic accent or dialect is one in which the letter “r” at the end of a syllable is pronounced. Generally speaking, American accents are rhotic.
- A non-rhotic accent or dialect is one in which the written letter “r” is not pronounced unless it is followed by a vowel. Generally speaking, British accents are non-rhotic.
MIND /θ/ AND /ð/
These sounds are quite unique, aren’t they? Make sure your /θ/ doesn’t sound like /s/ and your /ð/ doesn’t sound like /z/. To make the sound /θ/, put your tongue between your teeth. Blow out air between your tongue and your top teeth. Don’t use your voice. If you use your voice, you’ll make the sound /ð/. Listen and repeat:
Thick, thin, there, moth, mother, father, clothes, weather, think, thought, thinking
MIND /w/ AND /v/
When you make the /v/ sound, you gently touch your lower lip with your upper teeth. Making the /w/ sound, you round your lips. The vocal folds vibrate when you are pronouncing both /w/ and /v/. Listen and repeat:
Sound patterns of learners’ first language are likely to influence their English pronunciation. Thus, if your mother tongue is Japanese, you are likely to pronounce /l/ as /r/ (without rolling the /r/), if your first language is Russian, you are likely to pronounce /s/ instead of /θ/, if your mother tongue is French, chances are you tend to omit the sound /h/ at the beginning of words (e.g. /ɪə/ 👂 instead of /hɪə/), and if your first language is Spanish, you might pronounce /ə/ before /s/ without even knowing (so, /speɪn/ sounds like /əspeɪn/ (
a Spain)). Such influence of your first language sound patterns’ is natural, but fortunately you can do something about it. Please note that it may be preferable to have someone who could hear you and give you advise about your specific problem. A teacher would be very helpful in this situation. If you have an English speaking friend, you may want to ask him or her for help. If don’t have such a friend or a teacher, try recording yourself reading a text and then compare your pronunciation with the one of a native speaker reading the same text (any English course book provides audio scripts), identify the problems and keep practicing until you sound similar to the native speaker. Start with the following text and recording.
Tongue twisters can be very good for practicing a target sound. We’ll definitely write a post about them. Subscribe to our blog not to miss it.
When it comes to pronunciation, you need to be careful not only about the sounds you make but also your intonation. A good way of practicing it is shadowing, which is repeating along as you are listening to the language you are learning. This technique is different from repeating because when you repeat, you listen first and repeat after the speaker. With shadowing you repeat as you are listening. Try it with the text and recording you have just used.
If you need more help with improving your pronunciation, please contact us. Our teachers and the materials we provide can help you improve your English pronunciation. We look forward to hearing from you! 😉
Materials used for writing this post: “Ship or Sheep? An Intermediate Pronunciation Course. Third Edition” by Ann Baker