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Pronunciation is probably one of the hardest skills in English to learn. It takes a lot of time and effort to improve your pronunciation. Some non-native speakers live for a long time in an English-speaking country but still have poor pronunciation. Other speakers seem to pick up English pronunciation with little effort, and some may do so without visiting an English-speaking country at all!

Nobody knows quite why this happens. Perhaps it is because some speakers have a better ‘ear’ for languages than others? But age and previous language learning are also thought to be factors, as well as having a sense of ‘musicality’. And of course, you are likely to improve your pronunciation more quickly if you are doing plenty of listening and speaking. This is why it is so crucial that you speak as much English as you can outside the classroom.

Having said this, it is certainly not necessary to have native-speaker-like pronunciation. Your accent is part of you and your culture and there is no need to lose it entirely. In fact, you probably wouldn’t want to. The real key to having good pronunciation is what we call ‘comfortable intelligibility’. In other words, the person or people listening to you should be able to understand what you are saying with minimal strain. This is something completely different from losing your accent entirely.

What makes English pronunciation difficult?

Some of the most important reasons why English pronunciation is believed to be so difficult are :

  • There are some sounds in English that probably don’t exist in your own language – for instance, English has 20 vowels and diphthongs (many languages only have 5);
  • There is no simple relationship between spellings and sounds in English;
  • English is a ‘stress-timed’ language – words and sentences have strong and weak parts. This is different to many other languages throughout the world where parts of words and words themselves may be given the same stress in a sentence;
  • When English is spoken quickly, words are linked smoothly together and sometimes sounds even disappear altogether (this is called assimilation). This means it can be hard to understand, as well as speak English.

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    What are the five main areas of English pronunciation, and why are they important?

    There are five main areas of difficulty in English pronunciation. These are:

    • Pronunciation of individual sounds
    • Word stress
    • Sentence stress
    • Rhythm
    • Intonation

    In the table below, you can see what the main problems are in pronouncing English and how you might be able to improve.

    Area of difficulty: Pronunciation of individual sounds

    Implications of this particular area

    There may be confusion between minimal pairs (e.g. bed/bad, ship/sheep) and this may compromise meaning.

    How to improve

    Use lists to practise repeating minimal pairs;

    Use tongue twisters to practise special sounds;

    Practise the sounds of English by using the phonemic chart.

    Area of difficulty: Word stress

    Implications of this particular area

    Sometimes words ‘shift’ their stress so word stress can actually change the meaning of the word (e.g. record (v)/record (n)).

    How to improve

    Check your dictionary in advance of a seminar or presentation to make sure you know where the stress falls on long words. Repeat the words.

    A demonstration of how word stress appears in the dictionary can be seen here.

    Area of difficulty: Sentence stress

    Implications of this particular area

    Sometimes emphasising different words suggests different contrasting information (e.g. how does the meaning change when different words of the following sentence are stressed? ‘Mary saw a red car driven by a young man with brown hair’).

    How to improve

    Try to exaggerate (make even stronger) the stress on key words – this may sound unusual to you, but will probably sound perfectly natural to the listener.

    Area of difficulty: Rhythm

    Implications of this particular area

    Rhythm is important to maintain the flow of the language. English is a stress-timed language. Problems with this are not so likely to affect comprehension but getting the rhythm right does help the listener to follow your thinking.

    How to improve

    Practise reading poems, limericks, etc. out loud to get a sense of how English rhythm works.

    Area of difficulty: Intonation

    Implications of this particular area

    Getting the right intonation is important to convey the right attitude – i.e. high start for questions, tentativity and wide pitch variation to show greater enthusiasm.

    How to improve

    Vary your voice more and try not to speak in a monotone.

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    General advice for improving pronunciation

    There is certainly a lot of general advice that we can give you to help you to improve your pronunciation. You can try some or all of these ideas.

    • Find out what mistakes you make. If you do not know what mistakes you are making, you will not be able to improve. Ask a native speaker what particular mistakes you make. You could ask your pre-sessional or in-sessional EAP tutor or a friend or acquaintance. Ask people if they can understand you and if you have not seen that person for a long time, ask if they think you have improved. Ask your audience at a presentation whether they found it easy to understand what you said.
    • Be aware of the ‘face position’ of native speakers. English, unlike a number of other languages, is spoken with a relaxed face. Make sure that your cheeks are relaxed before you speak. Observe how native speakers speak and the position of their mouths.
    • Try to listen to good models of speech. Ask someone you know or a tutor to record for you some technical words in your subject that you find it difficult to pronounce. Also check the words in the dictionary to see where the stress falls.
    • Know about the particular features of English pronunciation. For example, make sure that you pronounce and do not swallow the endings of each word. Note particularly the importance of pronouncing –s and –ed endings. Remember that the spelling of a word does not always help to pronounce it.
    • Have a very specific ‘target’ for improvement for the week. Just saying ‘my aim is to improve my pronunciation’ is too general and unfocussed. You have to try and identify particular aspects of pronunciation that you need to develop. Try to work specifically on one aspect of your pronunciation each week. For instance, if you know that you have problems with the ‘th’ sound, make a plan to work on this as much as possible during one week.
    • Some people find that recording themselves and listening back can help to spot errors in pronunciation. But naturally, you need to have some idea of what mistakes you make first.
    • Mark up a reading text. Put marks and symbols on a reading text to show where words are linked together, where the stress falls on long words, etc. Practise reading from the marked up text onto an MP3 player.
    • Using pronunciation books and CDs, and Internet web sites, can help. There are useful pronunciation self-study books available and listening to the CDs and practising pronunciation for ten or fifteen minutes a day can be time well spent. There are a lot of useful sites on the Internet that help you to improve your pronunciation.
    • Slow down. Sometimes it is tempting to try and speak very quickly to give the impression of fluency. However, this often affects the clarity of your pronunciation and makes it harder for people to understand you. And remember, many speakers of English do not speak very quickly, but are very fluent nonetheless.
    • Try to sound interesting/ interested. Don’t speak in a monotone but try to sound as if you enjoy speaking English. Put emphasis on important words and say them a little more slowly, to bring out their meaning.
    • Attend in-sessional pronunciation classes. The University of Warwick, and many other universities, organise in-sessional classes for pronunciation development. If you are worried about your pronunciation, try to attend these classes regularly. To find out more about our free English language support classes, click here.


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    Recommended pronunciation book

    If you would like to improve your English pronunciation on your own, we recommend English Pronunciation in Use Advanced Book (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). It takes you through all the key aspects of English pronunciation and provides good models for improvement. It has aPronunciation textbook reference section with a glossary of specialized terms, help with the pronunciation of numbers and geographical names, and fun exercises on phonemic symbols and minimal pairs. There is a CD-ROM which provides a wide variety of additional interactive activities to reinforce the pronunciation covered in the book. There are also tests, progress checks, games and animated diagrams of the mouth showing learners how to produce individual sounds. Students can also record themselves and compare their pronunciation with one of the many models provided.

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    Pronunciation resources on the Internet

    Below are listed some internet resources we think could benefit you in developing your pronunciation skills. Have fun!