In this section we’re going to look at how to improve your pronunciation. There are two broad parts: the quick-start section, and the detailed section. It is structured this way so that anyone who isn’t interested in focusing on pronunciation knows the key tips that can get them most of the way there without too much effort. The detailed section will then follow up with everything a learner needs to know to achieve excellent pronunciation.
Why learn Pronunciation
If you want to speak, pronunciation is essential for those of you learning tonal languages. For everyone else, you can get away without focusing on it, though there are some good reasons to learn it:
- It eases communication, as native speakers will have less trouble understanding you
- Native speakers are generally more willing to communicate with learners when they have a good accent
- You may receive complements on your pronunciation, which can be motivating
- People are often curious to know more when they hear learners with good accents, providing a good conversation topic
- If you like the sound of the language, you will get more satisfaction from being able to create those sounds yourself
Good pronunciation typically does not come naturally to adult learners. Poor pronunciation learned during the early stages can become ingrained and hard to fix, so I recommend you start learning at the same time as you start speaking. That doesn’t mean you are doomed if you start later, just that it will probably take more effort to undo any habits you’ve learned.
The quick-start section
I have three key tips for you to think about. My key piece of advice for improving your pronunciation is this: Incorporate these three tips into your learning, doing them as you complete other activities. With enough time doing these, even without advanced knowledge of the phonology of your language, you can get quite far. These are:
- Learn the sounds
Focus means focus on your pronunciation. Listen carefully to the audio you hear and listen to yourself, trying to assess if you sound right.
Practice means take the time to speak a loud on your own, trying to get the sounds right. You can try to read texts, flashcards, or anything else you encounter aloud. I recommend you use a dictionary such as Forvo or Wiktionary or any audio input to get native speaker examples to try mimic.
Learning the sounds of a language can be quite complex, but by far the aspect most important to consciously learn is the sounds that are different from your native language. These can sometimes be difficult to hear and even harder to produce yourself. For that, we need some help.
Thankfully, the field of linguistics has invented a very useful tool for understanding the sounds of language: the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA is a system of writing all the sounds of human language. Knowing the core sounds associated with your language and familiarity with their IPA symbol is very useful. By googling any IPA symbol, which you will find in Wiktionary, you can find the Wikipedia article describing it, which has a sound file to help you. Here is the Wikipedia entry for the phonology of English to give you an idea. Try clicking on a few of the sounds.
Being familiar with the sounds of your language, represented by the IPA symbols, can be incredibly helpful for getting those sounds right.
Find a guide
It is quite helpful to find a resource to explain your language’s phonology. I recommend you use Google or search a community to find a pronunciation guide for your target language. The best guides will explain each sound using diagrams, explanations, or IPA characters in addition to audio to show you how they sound. Beware: A common method of many courses, guides, and dictionaries is to give an English approximation for each sound. This is OK to start but is insufficient to achieve fully accurate pronunciation. You can also use Wikipedia, as it is a very thorough source containing all of the detail you could need. The counterpoint is that the language in Wikipedia can be quite technical and opaque. Whether you use Wikipedia or something else, the truth is that pronunciation guides only fill a small niche in your learning: they make you aware of the sounds and help you understand how they should be made, but to actually learn pronunciation you need plenty of practice.
With these short sections done, if you’re not enthusiastic about pronunciation, feel free to move on to the next section: Grammar.
The details: how to nail pronunciation
For the best start, I recommend you focus on pronunciation early on, ideally when you first start speaking. You don’t need to learn everything about pronunciation at the start—A good understanding of each of the main sounds is sufficient. A lot of pronunciation skill comes naturally over time. It helps to identify the aspects that will be difficult for you based on differences between your native and target language. Consciously practise these aspects first.
Here is the best-practice approach to pronunciation:
- Have a resource to make you aware of your language’s pronunciation and how to make the sounds
- Spend enough time listening that you can hear the new sounds and you can differentiate them from any other similar-sounding ones
- Drill by trying to make the key sounds yourself (we will cover some good exercises soon)
- Practise by speaking aloud, focus consciously on the sounds you are making
- Repeat any of the above steps as necessary
In this guide we’ve talked about the importance of a method that incorporates both practice and drill. Similarly, achieving good pronunciation requires a mix of both. Drilling at the beginning should focus on learning any new sounds and how to produce them, as well as at least making yourself aware of any other aspects of pronunciation that are important. Once you are at least aware, concentrated practice will be the best way of achieving good pronunciation. This means speaking, but making sure you’ve remembered what you’ve learned as you speak. If you just want “good enough”, you can probably get away with simply doing these two activities. If you want to get the best start possible, I will list the full range of activities later.
Next, we will look at guides and exercises.
As I mentioned, you will need to spend time isolating the aspects that are relevant to your language and focusing on improving them. Dedicate some time to doing some activities in which you practise speaking some words alone in front of your computer. You don’t need to do this too much, just until your brain is made aware of what it needs to do to make the new sound. After that you can gradually integrate the sound naturally as you practise your language.
While these exercises might seem time consuming, you don’t have to set aside time for a special session to do these activities. Integrating your pronunciation with your normal study is generally the better way to learn. For example, practising isolating sounds and words can happen as you encounter them. Shadowing can be done as you encounter words in your audio resources or flashcards if they use audio. This might slow you down a bit near the start, but the benefits are multiplied in the long run.
|You may need to get used to pronouncing individual sounds before you can use them correctly in words. You can do this using the Wikipedia articles for the IPA symbol associated with the sound you want to learn (example: English schwa). Play the audio and repeat it aloud.
|Once you have the sounds roughly right, try to use them in a simple word. Use Forvo, Wiktionary, or any other dictionary that has audio to get a good example to mimic.
|Correction with your conversation partner
|Ask your partner to critique your pronunciation. They may have trouble identifying what you are doing wrong. This is why the IPA can be very useful.
|Play back a recording of yourself reading a text. Even better is if you have a native audio recording you can compare it to. For single words you can just use Speech Jammer and increase the delay to max to hear yourself right away. This will take some getting used to.
|Listen to an audio recording of a native speaker with a text reference and try to speak over them, copying their intonation, pace, and pronunciation.
|If you study alone, try practising by reading aloud texts you are reading for study. It helps if the text also has a native audio recording. It is also helpful to practise throughout your study by trying to read flashcards or anything new you encounter aloud.
Tips to mastering pronunciation
While it mostly just takes practice, there’s a few things you can do to increase the rate in which you learn.
Try speaking your target language with an exaggerated caricature of how people from that country speak your native language. More often than not, you will land much closer to a good estimation of the correct pronunciation than by starting from the default of your native language. It might sound silly to you, but it will probably sound pretty good to a native speaker.
Be patient. You are very unlikely to get your pronunciation right the first time, so don’t aim for perfection. Your focus should be getting in the right area, making sure you’re trying to pronounce new sounds properly, and can approximately mimic the cadence and flow of native speakers. You will improve with practice over time. When it comes to listening, it will take some time to train your ear. For a while, different sounds will seem the same to you. Don’t worry. If you persevere, they will eventually begin to sound different. Give yourself time.
Don’t worry if you feel a bit silly. One of the biggest hurdles to enabling adult learners to speak with a good accent is that they are afraid of sounding silly when they speak. The result is that learners default to the way that sounds the least silly to them—the sounds of their native language. It is important to understand that good pronunciation will initially feel very weird to you. Native speakers will not perceive you the same way.
What to learn
There are several aspects to pronunciation that you will find it helpful to look out for in your practice. These are:
Sound inventory: This is the most important aspect. Every language has a set of distinct consonants and vowels. These sounds can be very different from English, so learning them consciously is important. This is discussed in its own section.
Oral posture: This is the way native speakers tend to hold the muscles in their mouth. This also has its own section.
Tone: This is the use of tone to distinguish morphemes, meaning two words can be identical but for their tone and carry completely different meanings. If your target language is a tonal language you will need to become proficient in order to communicate.
Difficult sound clusters: Different languages have different rules surrounding which sounds can fit into a single syllable. This means some languages will have clusters of sounds you will find difficult to pronounce.
Stress: Languages have different rules around what syllables are stressed within words, as well as how stress is shown.
Connected speech: Words flow together in a way that makes them sound different than if they were spoken individually. Notice how this sentence sounds different in your mind when. I. write. the. last. part. like. this.
Intonation: This is pitch when used to convey other types of information. The most simple example is a rising pitch to indicate a question. Intonation is often used in other ways and these can differ between languages.
Rhythm and tempo: Languages are spoken with a different sense of pace and timing.
The next sections will elaborate on some of these aspects.
The difficulty with learning new sounds is understanding precisely how to make them. This aspect was covered in the previous section on speaking, so the below is a reminder with some additional information.
Your best tool is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), already mentioned. By googling any IPA symbol, you can find the Wikipedia article describing it, which has a sound file to help you.
Next I will provide you with some resources to understand the fundamentals of consonants and vowels. It can be very easy to think you are producing something correctly. However, careful study of the sounds of your language can reveal differences you were not previously aware of.
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on phonetics will be a useful reference later on.
The IPA includes a vowel chart, which is very useful for understanding how different vowels are formed.
Here is a great video analysing English accents that also serves as an interesting introduction to the vowel chart:
(link on YouTube)
Consonants have three fundamental aspects: place of articulation, manner of articulation, and voicing. Any good description of a sound should provide at least this information to help you make it. Below I will give an explanation of what they are with an optional link to a series that describes them. You’ll see a lot of technical words to describe the sound, but you really just need to focus on what this means for making the sound. If you like, you can simply use the audio and try to copy it.
Place of articulation is what parts of the mouth touch (or almost touch) to make the sound
Manner of articulation is how you make the sound. There are many, but examples include nasals, such as “m” or “n”, and fricatives, such as “f” or “v”.
Voicing (or phonation) is whether or not your vocal cords are vibrating when you make the sound. It is the difference between the “t” and “d” sounds.
In each case, the Wikipedia article will include a detailed description of how the sound is made, including the above three aspects. Descriptions will include links for you if you’re not sure what it’s telling you.
Oral posture is one of the more difficult concepts to grasp, but understanding it can provide a huge boost to your pronunciation. You can think of oral posture as the natural tendency, resting place, or “home base”, of the mouth of a native speaker. Every sound is produced from this base.
You can learn to speak better by adjusting the posture of your own mouth when you are speaking to sit at this natural “home base”. This should help you achieve more accurate pronunciation.
Pronunciation guides rarely talk about oral posture, so the best way to learn it is often by paying careful attention when watching a video of a native speaker. The best time to spot this is often by watching the mouth of the speaker when they pause between phrases, or by paying attention to how they sound when they make the equivalent of the English uhhh.
Here is a video of an accent trainer describing French that may help you understand the concept:
(link on YouTube)
Here are some aspects to look out for:
Tensing or relaxation
Location of tensing (can be the whole cheek or isolated parts)
Bunching up in the back of the mouth
Arching or cupping
Bracing (often against upper teeth)
Retraction or protrusion
The positioning of the velum
The width of the pharynx
Difficult sound clusters
Consonant-heavy languages can be difficult to pronounce due to the clusters of consonants that can take some time getting used to. If you encounter these, I recommend you spend some time practising by repeating them in isolation.
For most learners, it is important to pay focused attention to where and how stress is placed on words. English stresses by a raising of pitch and lengthening of the vowel. In other languages, stress can be more subtle or expressed differently.
Your target language will probably use stress differently. Finding a guide is generally the best way to learn about these aspects.