Today I am going to give you all an introduction to the different methods commonly used to improve pronunciation. Listen to discover the best way to develop excellent pronunciation and correct the underlying issues you face!
Pronunciation is Essential for English Learners
Pronunciation is an essential part of effective communication in all languages, including the English language. Poor pronunciation can lead to mistakes, misunderstandings, and miscommunication. This can make it difficult for native English speakers to understand what a non-native speaker is trying to say.
I know this from personal experience. I can’t begin to describe the amount of pronunciation mistakes I have made in Japanese and Chinese. Even pronouncing a word slightly differently or incorrectly can completely confuse your conversation partner.
Pronunciation also plays a crucial role in how someone perceives you. Good pronunciation can make a positive first impression. If you have good pronunciation, your conversation partner’s perception or impression of your intelligence, credibility, and competence will likely increase.
The opposite is also true. Poor pronunciation can make communication difficult creating a bad or negative first impression. When communication is difficult, it also becomes difficult to make personal connections and establish trust. Especially if you work in business and need business English, poor pronunciation can stop you from effectivley communicating with clients, customers, and even colleagues.
I want to make something clear: pronunciation and accent are different things. I don’t believe you need to speak with a perfect British or American accent – it is not important. Keeping an accent allows you to stay in touch with your culture and identity – I don’t want you to sound British or like me, I want you to sound like you!
However, being understandable is important. There is not necessarily one correct pronunciation, but there are incorrect ways to pronounce words! Improving your pronunciation (rather than focusing on changing accent) will help you become more understandable.
How to Improve Your Pronunciation
Ok – that is all easy to say. Obviously, pronunciation is important… but how can you actually improve yours? What are the best ways to improve pronunciation?
I’ve spent a lot of time reading about this topic (for my own benefit). I’ve also talked to some of my good friends (both language learners and language teachers). And I’ve discovered many different techniques to improving pronunciation.
Today I want to divide these techniques into “popular” methods to improve pronunciation and “evidence-based” methods to improve pronunciation. Within these categories I’ll discuss a few of the techniques and the pros and cons.
Importantly, everything I’m saying is general and not specific to you as a person. Everyone is different. Everyone has unique ways of learning. Some people are naturally talented and gifted at accents and pronunciation. Other people (like me) really need to try hard to correct their mistakes.
The evidence-based techniques I’m going to introduce will probably improve your pronunciation more consistently and will address any underlying problems or issues… but they are usually more difficult than the popular methods.
The important thing is to find a technique that works for you and achieves actual results!
Popular Methods to Improve Pronunciation
First, let’s discuss some of the popular methods used to improve pronunciation. These are the methods commonly suggested by articles on the internet or Instagram internet teachers. And when students tell me they are practicing their pronunciation, they are usually using one of these popular methods. But are they actually that good?
Drill-based Pronunciation Exercises
The first broad category of methods to improve pronunciation I want to talk about are drill-based exercises. These are a very popular method of pronunciation training – and something that I have often recommended as a tool to practice and train pronunciation.
There are many different variations of drill-based exercises. Repeating words and sounds; tongue twisters (like she sells seashells by the seashore – I’ve talked about tongue twisters a lot before, so I won’t do it again here); pronunciation drills in groups settings. Another popular drill exercise is looking at minimal pairs.
Minimal pairs are words or phrases in a language that only differ in one phonological element (or in plain English only have one different sound). Mat and bat; hot and hut; tow and two; zen and Jenn. All of these are example of minimal pairs focusing on different sounds.
By studying and repeating minimal pairs, you can really focus on specific sounds. I often use minimal pairs with students who have native languages that don’t have certain English sounds (like not having separate /l/ and /r/ sounds). By repeating words like lice and rice or glow and grow you can really notice how the sound is pronounced.
This is because the majority of sounds are exactly the same – by isolating the one challenging sound you want to focus on you can really practice. It is like a body building who focuses on training one muscle at a time, rather than their whole body – by focusing on one muscle (or sound) you can notice improvements and weaknesses.
Drill based exercises like repetition, minimal pairs, and tongue twisters can help to develop muscle memory. They can train your tongue, mouth, and throat to regularly pronounce English sounds in a consistent way.
However, drill exercises are limited in their usefulness. They don’t address the underlying problems or errors in your pronunciation. Repeating words, doing tongue twisters, or using minimal pairs can really help as a form of practice if you know what is wrong with your pronunciation. But if you don’t know your mistakes, they don’t help.
Instead, you may be pronouncing words incorrectly. If you do these exercises with incorrect understandings of English pronunciation, you may be training yourself to pronounce words incorrectly. What is the point to developing muscle memory… if that muscle memory is doing the incorrect thing! You may be drilling the incorrect pronunciation!
And… these kinds of exercises can be boring and repetitive.
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Imitation-based Pronunciation Techniques
Imitation based techniques involve imitating or copying the pronunciation, accent, or intonation of someone else’s speech (usually a native English speaker). There are a few different popular imitation-based techniques.
Modelling involves listening to native speakers and then trying to copy their pronunciation and intonation afterwards.
Shadowing is similar, but you repeat in real time – as you listen to an English speaker you immediately repeat what they are saying. This is a really popular technique suggested by almost every English podcaster and YouTuber (I’ve probably suggested in before). And it can be great for improving your fluency and accuracy.
Accent reduction focuses on overall accent rather than simply pronunciation. For example, imitating the California accent or British received pronunciation as a method to improve your overall pronunciation. You may find it easier to practice pronunciation by copying another accent, rather than using your own.
Imitation-based techniques have some good points. Most importantly it encourages you to focus on the sounds of the language and identify the key components of what you are hearing. You will also develop an ear for the language – or get used to listening to and using a certain forms of pronunciation.
On the other hand, there are some big drawbacks. Like drill techniques, they do little to correct your underlying pronunciation problems or issues. You may think you are correctly shadowing or modelling… but there is a good chance that you are using incorrect pronunciations. And if you practice something incorrectly… you aren’t going to be able to use it correctly.
AND you may end up sounding too similar to a model you are copying. This can sometimes make you sound strange and unnatural. Do you really want to sound like me? Or an American? Or do you want to sound like yourself?
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Pronunciation Software and Apps
Another really popular approach to practicing pronunciation is using software or apps which are designed to practice your speaking.
I’m about to mention a bunch of different options or apps you could choose. These aren’t recommendations (I’ve never used most of them) but just some options for you. These also aren’t sponsored (which is probably stupid… I should have got them to sponsor me).
Duolingo uses games to help people practice pronunciation (although every time I used Duolingo in the past I turned off the speaking part). Other apps like Rosetta Stone and Babbel have similar features. You speak your answer and it will accept or reject it!
Using apps and pronunciation software gives you immediate feedback. It tells you if you are correct or incorrect – if it can understand you or not. And this can be great! They are also customizable – you can choose yourself how to use them and what kind of lessons you want to focus on.
There are also a lot of negatives. They often have a narrow or prescriptive idea of pronunciation… sometimes things a native speaker would understand would be rejected by the app. And it can be weird to speak to an app – you don’t speak in context or naturally.
Actually, this is a really important point. I’ve been back in the UK for 2 months now and I’ve noticed something interesting about my parents. They have an Alexa home assistant from Amazon that is connected to some lights and the TV (I bought it for them a few years ago). The way my mum talks to Alexa is completely different from normal. I think the same thing would happen using a pronunciation app… it is not natural or real.
Again, apps don’t help to address the underlying problems. Yes – they could tell you if you are right or wrong. But do they tell you why? Do they teach you how to fix your issues? Probably not.
Evidence Based Methods to Improve Pronunciation
The popular methods that I just outlined all shared a similar problem. They did not address the underlying problems and issues in your pronunciation. Drill exercises, imitation, and apps are great for practicing… but what if you are practicing incorrectly?
They don’t teach you why you are making mistakes. And they don’t give you a solution to focus on and improve. The next two methods will help to address your underlying problems (but they also have their own negatives).
Every language around the world uses combinations of sounds to make words. Linguists have studied thousands of languages and identified every sound used in all languages around the world. The result is the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA).
The IPA is a set of symbols, standard across the world, that are used to represent the sounds of speech. This alphabet gives us a way to write down the pronunciation of words in every language in a consistent and detailed manner.
If you learn to read or understand the IPA you will know exactly how a word is pronounced. The IPA is used in dictionaries and translation software (it is the slightly weird symbols next to the words). I use it in my vocabulary posts on Instagram sometimes.
Understanding phonology, the sounds of the language, is an amazing tool for language learners. I talked with James Brock, one of the previous guests on the podcast, about this very topic. James told me he received a book of Chinese phonology and studied it all the time. He reached a very high level of Chinese by studying the position on the tongue when making sounds.
Linguists have identified and explained how sounds are made. The “f” sound and the “v”, for instance, can be defined as a labiodental fricatives (you should learn these terms in your own language). In other words, a vibration (or friction) is created by force air between your teeth (dental) and lips (labio) and your tongue doesn’t move. “v” is voiced (so using your voice box) and “f” is unvoiced meaning no voice box.
I know this because I studied IPA. I know exactly how to make the sound because linguists have studied it and defined it. Some sound should be made in your throat, some in the back of your mouth, others use the tongue, lips, or teeth.
Learning how the sound is made is one of the best ways to identify the problems in your pronunciation. You can see the mistakes you are making if you can see the sounds. And it focuses your approach on sounds – the most important thing for pronunciation.
However, it can be difficult to learn. It is not simple. And it will take time to understand. But for some people it can be really useful!
Experienced/Qualified Pronunciation Teacher
The other evidence-based option is to take pronunciation classes with an experienced and qualified pronunciation teacher.
And I mean experienced and qualified. Don’t assume every English teacher will be able to teach you how to improve your pronunciation. Even teachers who market themselves as pronunciation specialists are often unqualified and don’t understand the science.
You need a teacher who will be able to identify the underlying problems in your pronunciation and teach you how to improve it. A random teacher from iTalki or Cambly, Instagram, or me (people always ask me for pronunciation classes) probably won’t be able to help you achieve your goals.
Find a teacher who has a high-level qualification in English teaching. Find someone who understands linguistics, phonology, and the mechanics of the language. Find a teacher who will help you understand IPA and how to use it.
If you are interested Thinking in English actually has a teacher who can do this! Nathan runs my classes for me and he both has an undergraduate degree in Linguistics and a CELTA teaching qualification. He is exactly the kind of teacher who would be perfect to diagnose your pronunciation problems and find solutions!
We are also thinking of running events and workshops on pronunciation – let me know if you are interested by leaving a comment or sending me a message.
With a great pronunciation teacher, you will get customized and specific feedback, advice, corrections, and drills and exercises to practice!
However, such teachers are not always the cheapest option – and this might not be an option for all of you listening.
Overall, my advice to all of you is to identify the problems and issues in your pronunciation first. Find what you are doing wrong and the mistakes you are making. You can do this with a teacher or yourself by looking at phonology.
Once you know the errors, a good teacher can provide explanations and exercises to fix the issues. Or you can use IPA to correct your pronunciation yourself.
Then, once you understand your mistakes and issues, you can use drills, imitation, and apps to practice, develop fluency, and build muscle memory!
How do you practice your pronunciation?