How to Improve English Pronunciation

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit. ”
by ~Aristotle~

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Real improvement in English pronunciation IS possible.

Do you really want to improve ? If you do, you have come to the right place. Learning how to improve your English pronunciation depends upon you letting go of ways that don’t work and effectively! Don’t take anyone’s word for it; learn to see for yourself what is getting in your way and what you need to do to improve. EVERYONE is capable of improving their own pronunciation, to the highest of levels, as long as they do what it takes. What prevents people improving is going about it in ways that ensure they struggle. Struggling too long without real results will eventually cause you to doubt yourself and then settle for less than you can achieve or even give up.

English has its own particular demands, depending upon which language is your first language. Whatever the case though, what I said still stands. The issue you face is not to do with your capacity or your past, it is to do with what you do (and don’t do) and how you go about it. It is a bit like trying to hit in a nail with a screwdriver. It’s just not going to work! Once you use a hammer, your chances of success will dramatically improve.

Here I will outline one effective way you could use to improve your English pronunciation. This way you can use at any time, in any place as long as you have access to authentic English. Of course a real desire to improve is necessary as well.

Noticing is at the heart of any improvement

As in any area you care to think about, without recognising what we need to change/improve, improvement is not really possible. So, without knowing where your “mistakes” are, your chances of improvement are minimal. Consider learning to cook. You can find a recipe online, sure. But you will only improve on it for your tastes, once you can recognise what needs to change. Is it too salty, sweet, dry etc. Once you notice that, you can improve the recipe. It is exactly the same for pronunciation.

Take this idea on board and start to focus more on what you hear and can discern, rather than concerning yourself too much with learning what others are teaching you (online, in class or otherwise).  Tuition of course is helpful and does have its place. However, by relying on it too much you can undermine your own powers of noticing and discernment.

As you focus more and more on your learning, you will start to develop a new relationship with your learning and find that you will start noticing more and hence set yourself on the path to improvement. How much you improve depends upon a number of factors. A key one is to do with how invested you are in the learning. This partly depends upon how engaged you are in your learning, 

Seeing learning like a game rather than something you have to suffer through is fundamental in this transition. So anything that can help you get more engaged in what you do will help. As you come closer to learning in ways where engagement is the driver, you will massively magnify your chances of improvement. For too long engagement was not seen as an essential element in effective learning so there are many ways of learning out there that end up doing the opposite.

Below is an outline of how to improve English pronunciation that seeks to utilise engagement. You may wish to tweak what I suggest to make it more engaging for you.

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?

Improve your English pronunciationOne 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.  It is important to learn to pay as close attention to what others say as to what you say.

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, record a SMALL bit of speech (maybe a sentence or two) and play it a few times listening carefully. Then, you say it a few times until you are comfortable in saying it. Then, listen to the recording again. Look for differences at the individual 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.

Learning to focus your listening at the sound level is key. The more you focus on it and work with it, the more it can improve. You improve your speech by learning to recognise differences. The more you work at it, the finer and finer your senses become. It’s a bit like becoming a “connoisseur” of food, wine or coffee. These people learn to distinguish fine variations in tastes, texture, smells and looks after spending a lot of time focussing their senses on what they are doing (namely eating or drinking! 🙂 ).

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 how the locals say it.

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 particular sound by itself without any interference from any other sounds. This is a real key. Do not go any further without being able to do this step.
(I would suggest only going to a dictionary to help you as an absolute last resort. If you do, you need to learn to do this step for other sounds without its help). 

2. Find out how you say it by itself . Listen to yourself and observe your mouth, where the air and energy in your mouth is directed to, where there is sensation, etc.

3. Play with the sound for a while… alter it – lengthen it; shorten it; change the shape of your mouth. This will help to give you a better sense of how you make sounds.

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 in your mouth 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 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 – resist using a dictionary or computer program. They can help you to verify, but the less you use them the stronger you are making yourself. This way you are making yourself work  to look new ways that can only help your language learning skills. You can 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 resonates in your ears. 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.

If you have trouble doing this, go back to to the previous steps to lock in the individual sound into your hearing and speaking. Then add a consonant to the front of it to see if you can retain the same sound you were having difficulty with. Try then add just a sound to the end of it, doing the same.

 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 This can happen either because of entrenched habits OR because the different environment puts new demands upon moving from one sound to another. So mastery needs to achieved step by step. This is the way with any skill, I am sure you will admit. It might sound laborious but if your aim is mastery, it becomes a game where you are pitting yourself against yourself to see what is needed to improve. Success is sweet once mastery in one sound is achieved this way. The next one tends to become easier as you are improving your skills to accomplish this.

Recap

Once you are able to say the sound you had trouble with in isolation, you need to remain vigilant for any change that happens when you start to use it in your speech.  I have written out a sequence here to help you see how to advance step by step. If you do this it will maximise the chances of you ensuring you retain the improvements you made, once you start using it in your speech.

a) Said next to different consonants. For example:

 – urt, urn, url ( adding a consonant to end)

– tur, purr, fur (adding a consonant to the beginning)

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

d) Said in real speech, whilst you are paying close attention.
You will need to be attentive to what you say until you automate this new way of saying things. It is normal to slip back. The key is to notice that and work to be attentive enough for that to happen less and less.

I trust this post will have helped you better understand how to improve your English pronunciation. This approach 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. The way I have shown here 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 and your confidence grow.

  • 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!