“Excuse me?” “Pardon?” “Could you repeat that?” For people speaking English as a second language, these phrases can be the source of a lot of anxiety. Even if you were feeling confident that you were speaking grammatically correct English before, what if you made a mistake? Or perhaps you misused an important word.
The more likely reason for which you were misunderstood was due to your pronunciation. English pronunciation is notoriously difficult to learn, made up of a whopping 44 unique sounds. Not only that, but written English rarely reflects how a word should be spoken, with letters having a variety of pronunciations.
One of the more obvious aspects of pronunciation that you can work on is the way that you move your mouth. By moving your mouth and lips, you change the sound that you produce when speaking. However, incorrect mouth positioning can lead to issues with pronunciation.
The reason why so many non-native English speakers struggle with this is down to the differences in the way that their mother tongue and English speak. English uses a lot of ‘open mouth position’ sounds. These are sounds that require the speaker to lower their jaw and open their mouth wider. Examples of this are ‘O’, ‘Or’, and ‘Are’. As some languages don’t use ‘open mouth position’ sounds, it can be hard for native speakers of those languages to adjust.
There’s a number of ways that you can work on improving your mouth and lip movements though. One way is to use a mirror or camera. Whilst looking closely at your mouth in the mirror, produce whatever sound or word that you’re trying to improve your pronunciation of. Then, compare that with how a native English speaker’s mouth moves when they say it.
News anchors tend to talk very clearly, and can make for great references. An alternative method, if you don’t have a mirror or camera handy, is to place your finger up against your lips as you speak. Provided you don’t move your finger, you should be able to feel the way that your mouth is moving. It’s not as practical as the mirror method, but can still be effective.
You can also place a hand lightly under your chin to track your jaw movements. Whilst this won’t tell you about your mouth shape itself, it is a good way of checking that your jaw is opening properly for ‘open mouth position’ sounds. Don’t push too tightly for best results.
Another pronunciation issue relating to mouths is mumbling. Mumbling is when people speak in a low or difficult to understand voice. This isn’t just an issue for people learning English, but native speakers as well! It’s caused by people not opening their mouths and jaws enough when they speak, in addition to not moving their lips enough.
If you find yourself mumbling, you should focus on exaggerating your mouth movements when forming different sounds in a sentence. This should result in you pronouncing each individual sound more clearly.
It’s not only the shape of your mouth that affects your pronunciation, but what’s inside of it as well. I’m talking about your tongue and teeth. In order to produce clear English speech, you need to be able to position your tongue correctly to create the sounds you want.
Many of the sounds used in English also appear in foreign languages, so the tongue positions required to make those sounds normally feel natural to most people. However, there are some particular sounds that don’t get used in some languages, which often causes difficulty for those learning to speak English. Let’s go through a few of the more common problem sounds now.
There are many pairs of words like ‘Collect’ and ‘Correct’ where the only difference is that the ‘R’s’ have been replaced with ‘L’s’ or vice-versa. That makes pronouncing these letters clearly very important. Here’s a quick guide to these sounds:
To make an ‘L’ sound, have your tongue move towards the front of your mouth, with the tip of your tongue pressing against the roof of the mouth, just behind your teeth. Your mouth position should remain mostly neutral.
To make an ‘R’ sound, the tip of your tongue should be towards the bottom of your mouth, whilst the middle of it raises up. Whilst making this sound, your mouth position should become more rounded.
‘Th’ is rarely used outside of the English language, and causes many students difficulty. There are actually two different ‘Th’ sounds. They are both made using the same tongue position, but one vibrates the vocal cords whilst the other doesn’t. Here’s how to make the sounds:
Stick your tongue out so that the tip of it is just past your teeth. Your tongue should be touching your lower teeth, and there should be a small gap between your upper teeth and your tongue for air to pass through. By pushing air through the gap, the sound is produced. When practicing this sound, you can use your finger to check that your tongue is sticking out correctly.
Another type of tricky sound that requires tongue movements are diphthongs. Diphthongs are called ‘moving vowel’ sounds, and are essentially two different vowel sounds put together. You start the sound with your tongue in position for the first vowel sound, and have to move it to the second vowel sound position during the sound. There are eight diphthongs total in English and they are written with a mixture of letters and phonetic symbols.
Many English language learners struggle with these because they’re not used to using the muscles that are used to produce English diphthongs. Because of this, learning to pronounce diphthongs correctly is a process that takes new language learners a lot of time and practice. Let’s look at a couple of diphthongs:
This diphthong starts with the ‘E’ sound used in ‘egg’ and ‘bed’, and finishes with the ‘I’ sound from ‘if’ and ‘pit’. It’s used in words such as: Lay, stay, and pay. To produce this sound, you have to move your tongue from the middle position at the front of the mouth, to the upper area at the front of your mouth.
This diphthong starts with the ‘A’ sound used in ‘at’ and ‘bad’, and finishes with the ‘Oo’ sound of ‘book’ and ‘look’. It’s used in words like: How, now, and brown. To produce this sound, you have to move your tongue from its low position at the front of the mouth (with the jaw open), to the upper area at the back of your mouth.
When practicing diphthongs, it’s important to not only focus on the sound itself, but the mouth and tongue movements involved as well. If you only learn how to pronounce certain words using the diphthong, you may struggle with pronunciation of other words that also use it.
One thing to be cautious of with diphthongs is getting them mixed up with other sounds. As they start with one vowel sound and end with another, it can be easy to mistake them with another sound if you don’t listen carefully through the entirety of the sound. Let’s take a look at some easily mistaken words.
With these two words, the diphthong [ɪə] is replaced with another diphthong, [eə]. They both end with the sound ‘ə’, which represents the ‘a’ in words such as ‘away’ and ‘about’. Whilst [ɪə] starts with an ‘I’ sound (as in ‘if’), [eə] begins with ‘e’ (from ‘egg’).
Here we can see that, despite being spelt very similarly, there are clear differences in the pronunciations of these words. Nevertheless, they can be easily mistaken when used in a sentence. Having a clear understanding of the diphthong sounds is key to reliably being able to pronounce and comprehend when they’re used.
In our second set of words, the diphthong [əʊ] is replaced with the vowel sound [ɔ:]. [əʊ] starts with the ‘a’ sound discussed above, followed by the ‘oo’ sound from ‘book’. [ɔ:] is normally written as ‘au’ or ‘ou’, and is the ‘o’ sound in words like ‘door’ and ‘or’.
In this example, you can see that diphthongs can also be confused with vowel sounds as well. Since many vowel sounds in diphthongs such as the ‘a’ in [əʊ] are quite weak, it can be easy to focus on the stronger sound.
The phonetic alphabet is a set of symbols that represent every sound that is used in English. Made up of 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds, there are 44 symbols in total. Most consonants can only be pronounced in one way, so they are often represented by their alphabetical letter. These are generally easy to understand.
However, vowels can be pronounced in many ways. As a result, each vowel has multiple symbols that represent a single pronunciation of it. For example, take the two following symbols:
These both represent different pronunciations of the letter ‘a’. ‘æ’ represents the ‘a’ sound used in words such as ‘cat’ and ‘black’. ‘ɑ:’ is the symbol for the ‘a’ sound in words like ‘arm’ and ‘father’.
Do you see how by using phonetic symbols you could understand a new word’s pronunciation? Let’s look at an example word: part. This word’s phonetic spelling is:
/ pɑːrt /
Thanks to knowing what ‘a’ sound ‘ɑː’ represents, you can be confident that you know the correct pronunciation of the word, even without hearing a native speaker say it! Most modern dictionaries will have a phonetic spelling for every word, making them a very handy tool. With so many English words having misleading spellings, this benefit can’t be ignored. Let’s look at some of the other benefits of learning the phonetic alphabet.
Many English students see an improvement in their speaking ability after learning how to use phonetics. Being able to find the correct pronunciation of words in a dictionary enables them to practice speaking by themselves more easily, as well as giving them more confidence to actively use new vocabulary in conversations. More speaking means more improvement.
Another benefit is that students will improve their ability to ‘decode’ words. ‘Decoding’ is the act of recognizing how certain patterns of letters should be pronounced. Whilst students will eventually learn to ‘decode’ words naturally, learning phonetics and deepening their understanding of pronunciation speeds this process up a lot.
One added benefit of being able to read phonetic spellings of words is that silent letters will never be a problem for you again. As phonetic spellings literally spell the pronunciation of a word, silent letters don’t appear at all in them! It’s a small benefit, but one that removes a very annoying feature of the English language.
Minimal pairs are two words which have the same pronunciation, except for one sound. They can be easily mistaken for each other, even by native English speakers. As the meaning of the two words can be very different, it’s important to practice minimal pairs to ensure that you’re not misunderstood.
Here’s some examples of common minimal pairs:
Bat – But
Fast – First
Think – Thing
Free – Three
Am – An
Practicing minimal pairs can be really beneficial to your English. Not only will it help make your pronunciation clearer, but it also helps develop your listening abilities. By improving your ability to produce different sounds, you will also learn to recognize when others use those sounds as well.
When practicing minimal pairs, you should first practice the sounds that change in the words. For example, the ‘a’ and ‘u’ from ‘bat’ and ‘but’. After you feel confident in producing those sounds correctly, then start alternating between the words. Again, a mirror can be a great help with this exercise.
When you first start learning English, it’s important to focus on a single dialect. Different dialects pronounce words differently, have different accents, and use different vocabulary. Not choosing to focus on one dialect can cause you some problems later down the line, especially regarding pronunciation.
Arguably the biggest potential issue is mixing different aspects of one dialect with others. For example, if you learnt the British way of pronouncing ‘aluminum’ but had an American accent, you would sound a bit strange to both British and American English speakers. In order to sound as fluent as possible, it’s best to keep your English consistent with a single dialect.
It’s also important that the materials you learn from are consistent with your choice of dialect too. For example, if you’re aiming to learn an Australian dialect, you should listen to Australians speaking English. This not only helps you with emulating their speech patterns and pronunciations, but also helps your listening skills as you will grow more accustomed to their accent and mannerisms.
Now that you know a bit about how you can go about improving your pronunciation, it’s time to get started! Whether it’s working on learning some phonetics or practicing your mouth movements, keep practicing and soon you’ll be able to perfect your English pronunciation! Good luck!