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No matter what your level of language knowledge and understanding, nothing gives you away as a language learner as quickly as unnatural pronunciation. Think you’ll never lose your accent? Think again!Here are some easy ways to set you on the path to successful spoken communication, for beginners to those striving for near native level.
1.WHAT'S YOUR GOAL?
You might not have thought about this before, but I always encourage my students to decide what exactly they are aspiring to? In terms of pronunciation, WHO do you want to sound like? Would you like to sound like British aristocracy? An Australian surfer? An American film star? Don’t forget that pronunciation is often connected to social status and plays a big part of people’s identity. Think about your own language: there are bound to be differences in pronunciation for different regions. What stereotypes or opinions do you hold about people from the different places? Are they negative? Positive? True?
These prejudices and ideas are also visible in English, which is why you’ll often find some regional accents are less obvious nowadays. While you might aim for something more neutral as a learner, it’s still important to understand there are key differences between a generic British or American accent. Certain letters change their stress and formation depending on where your accent is from, so picking one is a good place to start.
Just like preparing for a marathon requires physical practice, training for a foreign language also means you need to train your mouth to physically articulate the different sounds in the target language. These movements can often be quite unnatural at first and feel almost rude sometimes! Think about the first time you really tried to say an English word with the TH sound? I bet you were sticking your tongue out and felt really silly! However, the more you actually practice moving your mouth to better make these different sounds, the more comfortable you’ll feel and the more natural you’ll sound.
One really good tip is looking at how proficient users move their faces and mouths to make different sounds, and then trying to replicate these movements in front of a mirror. There are some great online dictionaries, like collinsdictionary.com which have videos for pronunciation support. Once you’re happy with individual words, look at how proficient speakers use their mouth movement to connect words naturally too. Get practising! The more your mouth moves, the more it remembers the movement!
3.Your Mother Tongue and Its Impact on your English
Every language learner brings with them the common sounds and stress patterns of their first language. This can be both good and bad! The first step in understanding where your pronunciation might need support is to find those sounds which don’t exist or don’t differentiate in your native language. Spanish speakers may struggle with V or B, Turkish speakers with W or V, and everyone hates the TH in English 😊
If you can find some words which use these different sounds, practice is going to be your best friend! Write out these words and use the internet to find the correct pronunciation. Then use your phone or tablet to record yourself saying these words. Listen to the original before recording and then listen back to both once you’ve finished your list. Do the words sound the same? Do they sound similar? Do this every day for a week, and then compare your progress.
4.Connecting Sounds and Music
Being able to pronounce individual sounds and then whole words are the first steps to more natural pronunciation. However, once you’re feeling confident with these elements, you need to think about how to connect up these words and sounds naturally.
I’m a firm believer that singing is a key tool for language learners. Singing along to your favourite songs in English, either in the car, in your bedroom or in the shower will help you to work on connected speech. This is what we call when words are spoken at a natural speed, and parts of their sounds change. You don’t have to be a talented singer, just find an artist or group that you love and give it a go! You’ll see that your pronunciation will start to become more connected and natural sounding, as well as giving you an insight into the musical world of the English language. You can find lyrics online, or use a language training website and app like LyricsTraining.com as they have hundreds of songs to choose from!
Part of effective pronunciation is also using intonation to express ideas and functions. For some languages, using the wrong intonation changes the word completely. Luckily, English isn’t that tricky, but you do need to make sure you’re using intonation to engage your audience, and express your feeling effectively. If you love something, use intonation which reflects this. If you’re uncertain about something, use tentative intonation to help your audience understand.
Not sure where to start? Watching TV shows and films is a great way to see people using intonation in a range of ways. Listen and repeat what they say, and try to mimic their way of talking. It will help you to add more variety when you’re talking in English and your audience will be much more engaged with more emotive speech.
Don’t forget- pronunciation is something for learners of all levels to focus on! Think about how to make your English sound more natural and your communication will become much more smooth and conversations will flow more easily. Good luck!