April 1, 2021

3 Steps to Clearer Pronunciation

Do you worry that people won’t understand you because of your accent? Do people often misunderstand what you say?

First, it is probably not your accent that is causing misunderstanding. There are many different accents in the UK and you don’t have to speak “The Queen’s English” to be understood.

Embrace your accent because it is part of who you are. Focus on clear pronunciation.

Here are 3 steps to clearer pronunciation:

Step 1: Practise the sounds of English

There are 44 sounds in standard British English: 20 vowel sounds and 24 consonant sounds.

Use an app like “The Sounds of British English” (you can download here)  to become familiar with the different sounds of English.

Listen to the sound and repeat: Focus on the position of your mouth, lips, tongue and teeth.

Miscommunication happens when your pronunciation of one sound is very similar to a different sound in English.

For example, when some native-Spanish speakers pronounce a word with ‘ee’ such as ‘feet’,  it sound like ‘i’ as in ‘fit’ to a native-English speaker.

Your ‘ee’ can sound slightly different from my ‘ee’ but make sure it sounds different from ‘i’

Activity

A minimal pair is two words that only differ by one sound

e.g.  feet and fit

beat and bit

sleep and slip

Practise distinguishing between the two words in the pair.

Record yourself and listen back. Can you hear the difference?

Step 2: Always check word stress

In English, word stress is really important.

In all English words, one syllable (part of a word) is stressed. This means it is said:

  • a bit louder
  • a bit longer
  • a bit higher in pitch
  • a bit clearer

The other syllable/syllables are usually unstressed. An unstressed syllable is:

  • quieter
  • shorter
  • lower in pitch
  • less clear

The vowel in an unstressed syllable is usually reduced to /ə/ or a very short and relaxed ‘er’

This is why native-English speakers often sound like they ‘swallow’ their words.

So, for example, in the word ‘pencil’ – the ‘pen-‘ is stressed and pronounced clearly but the ‘-cil’ is reduced and swallowed:  Pen-cəl

Stressing the wrong syllable can make it difficult for native speakers to understand.

Activity

In the dictionary, the stressed syllable is marked by a so you can check the pronunciation there.

In online dictionaries, you can also listen to the word.  When you listen, notice which part is slightly higher, louder and longer.

Listen and repeat and always check and practise the stress patterns of new words.

It is useful to keep a list of words you use most of the time or which are related to your work or business. Make sure you are pronouncing them correctly.

Step 3: Word stress and rhythm

Which words you stress in a sentence is important because this creates the rhythm of English.

We tend to stress content words like nouns and verbs. We reduce function words like prepositions and articles.

So in the following sentence:

“The dogs chase the cats

– ‘dogs’,  ‘chase’ and ‘cats’ are stressed but ‘the’ is reduced to /ðə/

If I introduce myself:  “My name is Sarah and I’m an English Coach

‘name’, ‘Sarah’ ‘English’, ‘Coach’ are stressed.   The other words are reduced –>  [M’ name’s Sarah ‘n I’manEnglish Coach]

Getting the rhythm of English right is important to make your speech clearer.

Activity

Find a native-speaker presenter or podcast host that you enjoy listening to.

When you listen, notice which words they stress and which words they reduce.

Find a video with subtitles and listen and repeat what they say. Record yourself and compare to the original.

This is a great exercise to help you become more aware of the rhythm of English and to practise it yourself.

So if people misunderstand you, don’t worry so much about your accent. In fact, be proud of your accent!

Focus on clear pronunciation by making sure you:

  1. distinguish between the different sounds
  2. check the stress pattern of new words
  3. practise the rhythm of English.

…and with time and practice your pronunciation will become much clearer.

For 121 help and support with your pronunciation of English, sign up to my personlised pronunciation training.

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