When you meet someone new, what’s the first thing you notice? Is it how they look? How they speak? A person’s accent holds a lot of information and it tells a story about where they come from, where they grew up, and even where they’ve been living more recently.
When you speak a second language, sounds from your first language will probably come out when you speak, giving you a ‘foreign’ accent.
But is this a problem? Not necessarily, as it’s a part of your identity and certainly not something you have to lose.
Pronunciation only becomes a problem when it causes a breakdown in communication between you and the people you’re talking with. Perfecting your English pronunciation is about making yourself understood.
In this post we’ve got 5 powerful tools to help you do just that!
Pronouncing words in a second language is difficult for a number of reasons.
Perception, which relates to how we hear sounds, is one of the biggest problems for learners. Believe it or not, when you listen to someone speak in a second language like English, what you and I hear is not the same; it all depends on your first language.
Basically, the English sounds are filtered through the ‘sound system’ of your first language.
The biggest problem for English language learners relates to vowels, as there are twelve different vowel sounds in English – compare that to 8 in Catalan and just 5 in Spanish!
This explains why certain English words can sound so alike. Here are a few examples…
For someone with English as their first language, these minimal pairs sound quite different.
But once you start “hearing” these as different sounds, it will be much easier for you to start producing them.
If you want to learn how to hear the differences in these vowel sounds, and others like them, you’ll need to improve your perceptual skills.
Production refers to how you make sounds. It’s easy to forget that speaking is not just a mental process, it’s a physical one, too. Speaking a foreign language requires your mouth, tongue and lips to move in unfamiliar ways! And this, like any other physical skill, requires practice. Lots of practice.
If you’re struggling with a certain word or sound, you might find it useful to watch someone speaking.
Watch this video and pay close attention to how the woman produces the two sounds. What shape is her mouth? How do her lips move?
Now for some tools to help you perfect your perceptual and productive skills:
I know, it looks more like Egyptian hieroglyphics than English, but don’t be scared. You don’t need to have studied linguistics to use a phonemic chart.
There are 45 different sounds in English and this phonemic chart serves as an interactive guide. You don’t need to learn all of the symbols. Just have a play, click away and get to know them.
Once you’re familiar with the sounds of English, it’s time to work on those perceptual skills. English Accent Coach is an online game, developed by Canadian linguist Dr. Ron Thomson.
First, you need to select the sounds that you want to work on. To begin with, it’s best to choose just two or three sounds. The programme will then test your recognition, by playing one sound at a time. All you have to do is listen to the sound and click on the corresponding symbol. As you improve, you can add more and more sounds.
Another issue with English is that the spelling doesn’t always correspond with the pronunciation. So how can you be sure that you’ve got it right?
YouGlish is a great tool for this! You type in a word and it will search Youtube to give you hundreds of examples of people saying that word. You can also select US, UK or AUS to hear how these varieties of English differ.
Accurate pronunciation is not just about individual sounds and words. If you’re going to make yourself understood you also need to focus on how you put words together. In English, we emphasise some words more than others; this is what we call stress.
With Ororo.tv a range of short videos with subtitles for you to watch. Find a show that you like, listen carefully for a few minutes and try to identify the stressed words. Listen again, pause between scenes and repeat the sentences using the same stress.
This last tool is based on voice recognition technology and is all about productive skills. Choose your lesson, click ‘play’ and you’ll hear a short sentence. Click ‘record’, repeat the sentence as best you can and click ‘stop’. You will then be given a rating, depending on how accurate your pronunciation was. Don’t worry if your first attempt isn’t great, you can repeat it as many times as you like. There are 48 lessons to complete, so get practising!!
Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.
A breakdown in communication (exp.): a failure to exchange information.
Perception (n): awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensations.
Alike (adj): similar or in a similar way.
Production (n): the process of making something (in this case, sounds).
To struggle (v): to proceed with great effort or difficulty.
Hieroglyphics (n): a system of writing that uses pictures.
Stress (n): the way that a syllable is pronounced with greater force than others.
exp = expression
n = noun
adj = adjective
v = verb