Tips for Improving English Pronunciation | RPI College

For any English language learner, spelling is often not a reliable guide to correctly pronouncing words. Unlike pronunciation, which has undergone significant changes, English spelling has remained relatively unchanged. As a result, mastering the correct pronunciation can be a considerable challenge for those learning the language. However, good pronunciation encompasses more than just the sound of individual words and letters; it also involves other essential elements such as intonation, stress, and connected speech. These components all play a role in achieving proper pronunciation, but they should not be confused with an accent.

In the UK, the USA and other English-speaking countries, there are various accents that can all be considered correct pronunciation. When learning English, one does not need to adopt a British or American sound. It is more important to be understood rather than trying to sound like a native of New York or London. In fact, many native speakers enjoy hearing English spoken with a Spanish, Italian or French accent. So, how can you improve your pronunciation so that people from different parts of the world can easily understand you, while retaining your native accent? Here are six top tips for practicing and perfecting your pronunciation.

1. Listen

An effective method for enhancing your pronunciation is by listening to genuine conversations. You have many options to do so, such as watching movies in their original language, tuning into English podcasts on topics that captivate you, or even listening to music. Pay attention to the inflections and cadence used by people when they speak. Another helpful technique is 'shadowing', where you listen to a brief phrase or sentence and then repeat it, attempting to replicate the sounds, intonation, and word emphasis while also observing your mouth and tongue movements.

2. Record Yourself

If you have practiced shadowing, you can record yourself speaking - either repeating a short phrase or doing a longer speaking task from a coursebook, such as describing a picture. Make notes of any sounds you have difficulty with when you listen back - practice these sounds slowly and then record yourself again.

3. Get to Know the Phonemic Chart

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a beneficial tool for mastering pronunciation. While it may seem unfamiliar and like learning a new language, it provides a visual representation of various sounds. Most dictionaries include phonetic transcriptions for words, making it easier to pronounce them accurately. This is particularly useful in English, as the spelling does not always reflect the pronunciation, as seen with words like 'though', 'through', 'tough', and 'ought', which all contain the letter combination 'ough'. Without the IPA as an aid, deciphering their pronunciation would be impossible.

4. Use a Dictionary

As well as printed dictionaries which will give you a phonetic transcription of a word, there are lots of online dictionaries where you can click and listen to the word being spoken.

5. Do Some Exercises

Different languages have different sounds, and our mouths adapt to those sounds. Some sounds are physically difficult for us to make, as they do not exist in our native language. Just like when you are learning a new sport or dance move, it is important that you train your mouth to know how to form new sounds - the more you practice the easier it gets. For example, lots of Spanish speakers have problems with the difference between the /b/ and /v/ sound. We make the /b/ sound by joining our lips together and then letting go. The /v/ sound is similar, but your top teeth should touch your bottom lip before you let go. The more you practice this, the easier it gets.

6. Get to Know Your Minimal Pairs

Minimal pairs are words that have almost the exact same pronunciation, but with one sound that is different - for example, ship and sheep. The difference between the /I/ in 'ship' and the /i:/ in 'sheep' is the length of the vowel. This can be difficult to hear for many language learners and comes up in lots of different words. The first step is to be able to tell the difference between the sounds when you hear them.

Finally, do not feel bad if you still make mistakes with pronunciation - English is famously tricky. However, if you practice the tips listed above, you will notice improvements!