Ways to improve pronunciation

“The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do. ”
by ~Walter Bagehot~


There are many things that have been written and said in the name of improving pronunciation. Whatever you read or have been told, ultimately, improvement  depends upon what YOU do or don’t do and, as importantly, what you continue to do!  EVERYONE is capable of improving their own pronunciation, maybe not right up to native like in all cases, but certainly good enough to be easily understood.

Every language has its own demands, especially when you consider which language(s) you know and which one you are learning. Whatever the case though, what I said still stands. The issue we all face is not to do with our capacity, it is to do with what we do and how we go about it.

There are various approaches you could take to improve your pronunciation. Here I will outline one way that anyone could use. Do consider for a moment that without knowing where your “mistakes” are, your chances of improvement are minimal. If you take it on board and persist with what I suggest below, you will find that you will be able to improve. How much you improve is all to do with how badly you wish to improve and what you will do in order to achieve what you want. If you treat it like a game rather than something you have to suffer, you will massively magnify your chances of improvement as then you will get engaged in it, an essential element for effective learning. Here is an outline of an effective wayto improve your pronunciation.

A. Find a problem

One mistake that one can easily fall into, especially if you have been going to language classes is to keep expecting others to correct your “mistakes” and have the belief that “only with their help can I improve”. As long as you believe this and rely upon others for your progress, it will surely be slow AND dependent upon others. What happens once you leave classes or formal instruction?

One key to any improvement is to break down what you wish to improve. So my suggestion here is to find “a problem”, or something that you say which sounds different to how “the natives” say it.  Maybe you might not even be aware of anything, but you know or suspect your pronunciation could do with some improvement.Can you hear any difference between what you say and they say? If you can’t either you are really good! 🙂 or your discernment needs to improve. Keep trying. If you get nowhere with it, tape a SMALL bit of speech (maybe a sentence or two) and look for differences at the sound level, word level or phrase level – keep replaying it until you hear a difference. If you still get nowhere with this task, I would suggest choosing another sentence, and repeat.

If you still are stumped, one strategy you could use is to ask someone you trust to let you know if there is a difference (somewhere in the sentence –  they SHOULD NOT pinpoint it!!) between what you say and what you taped, taking care to explain to them what your standards are. ( eg close enough is NOT good enough). If they hear a difference, then you will know you need to keep working at it. If they pinpoint it, then you are letting yourself off the hook! What we are trying to do here is to get you to improve your listening.

Let’s say you find something that needs attention.  For example, you have found out that you are not saying  the /er/ sound as in “her”, in a way that resembles the locals.

B. What to do with the problem

1. Isolate the sound in the word that is causing the issue. This means you want to be able to say the sound by itself without any interference from any other sounds.

2. Find out how you say it by itself ( I would suggest not going to a dictionary etc yet). Listen to yourself and observe your mouth, watching what you do to produce the sound.

3. Play with the sound for a while..alter it – lengthen it; shorten it; change your mouth.

Vowels are produced somewhere in your mouth, with it open. Put your attention to where the sound seems to come from and see if you can move the sound you make to another place  – move it back, forward up down etc. You will find that the sound alters as you move the sound and as you change the shape of your mouth. Listen to how the sound changes and observe what you did to achieve that.

If you feel silly, remind yourself that you are training your mouth AND. as importantly, your ear to hear yourself make different sounds.

4. Become aware of where you make the sound in your mouth and change it ever so slightly, by either changing your mouth a little or where the sound comes from. By doing all this you are making your mouth more responsive and your ear more sensitive. Take your time as the the skill you are developing can transfer to other sounds, maybe not immediately, but in time this can happen. If you work at this often enough you will start to see changes in the attention you pay to sounds, your discernment and the differences you tolerate.  Powerful stuff!!

5. Find other words that have the same sound in it – do not at this stage use a dictionary or computer program. Make that an absolute last resort. That way you are making yourself work in new ways that can only help your language learning skills. Look for words by reading from a book aloud, or by looking at the spelling of words and seeing if the sound is similar, or not

6. Once you find some (in the example we gave above, turn, burn, girl and fern would be some), listen to yourself say each one carefully, listening to yourself and seeing how the sound in question sounds. Similar, different. Being in the middle of other sounds puts a lot more demands upon both your speaking and listening, to achieve the same level of discrimination.

 7. Depending upon what you have achieved you can embark on a number of other strategies that can help you

– refine the sound

– ensure that the sound is consistent across different phonemic environments

– help you to avoid falling back onto old ways

I have worked extensively with students and on myself and I can tell you that even once you have a sound “under control” in one phonemic environment, it may lose its “shape” in another, either because of entrenched habits OR because the different environment puts new demands upon moving from one sound to another. So they may need to be mastered one by one. It sounds laborious but by doing this you are improving your skills and you will find that as time goes by you will need to do this less and less, as you master the process of doing it.

So – you need to remain vigilant for any change that happens when you start changing things, as below.

a) Said next to different consonants. For example:

 – urt, urn, url

– tur, purr, fur

b) Said in the middle of various consonant combinations ( spelling is a separate issue here to the sounding). For example:

– hurt, turn, furl

– turn, pert, learn

c) Said in short phrases. For example:

– I can turn it

– It hurt me

I trust this post will have helped you better understand what you can do to improve your own pronunciation. This way to improve your pronunciation can be used in conjunction with other materials. However too often I have seen learners believe, “If I do this course, I will improve”. The reality is that unless we take on responsibility for our own learning, success will remain patchy. This way I have shown you gives you a strategy to regain control. So whatever you do, work at mastering what you do and that way you will see your pronunciation improve.

  • KameronConner

    You have plotted some great ideas. One can also improve the pronunciation by speaking in front of a mirror and observing how the lips are formed while talking. Moreover, recording your voice and hearing it repeatedly, one can clearly rectify the errors. I heard about Speakeasily. They are also proficient in their guidance.

    • Thanks for the suggestions. Your suggestions can be of some assistance however learners need to be aware that,

      1) lips are only involved in making some consonants and no vowels and

      2) recording your voice only enables you to hear your own, whereas what learners need, I believe, is to hear the target language AS well as their own. That is one reason why movies can be such a popular and free tool – http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/movies-to-learn-a-language/

  • Michael

    Your email sparked some ideas.
    Thinking of life as a game has a powerful resonance in the present era.
    At home I live in at least two sound/cultural environments. Thai and English.
    I also find myself tuning out/into whatever other phonetic milieu I am in.
    I think we can have in a sense multiple brains. Perhaps somewhat like multiplexing a signal in a fiber optic cable?
    Just a few thought bubbles to add to the conversation

    • Like the idea! 🙂 Amazing what we can hold onto simultaneously!