How to pronounce ‘are’.


‘are’ – the hardest monosyllabic word to pronounce.

What’s the problem?

‘Are’ is the trickiest word in English. It can be weak (ə) or strong (ɑ:) and it can even disappear completely when it contracts. On top of this, it will join with /r/ if the following sound starts with a vowel, AND it behaves like a function word even when it is a content word.

How do I get it right?

‘are’ is normally pronounced /ə/ (without /r/)
EG ‘What are you doing?’, ‘The police are coming’

It is pronounced /ɑ:/ (without /r/) when it is stressed:
EG ‘What are you doing?’, ‘I don’t think they are.’

It joins with an /r/ when followed by a vowel:
EG ‘Why are Emily’s family here?’, ‘There are a few of them’.

It is weak even when it is the main verb (no other verb can do this in English):
EG ‘How old are you?’, ‘They’re with me’.

What happens if I get it wrong?

The main problem is that it ruins the stress in a sentence. As it is nearly always weak, when students over stress the vowel and add the /r/ it gives the word too much prominence. Since the verb ‘be’ is the second most common word in English, this potentially causes a large number of errors.

How to pronounce ‘ask’.


‘I axed him!’ How to pronounce ‘ask’.

What’s the problem?

It is very hard to pronounce all of the sounds in the word quickly, so native speakers often omit the /k/ and the ‘ed’ ending. If you try and pronounce all the sounds it can cause mistakes.

How do I get it right?

‘ask’ is pronounced:
– /ɑ:s/ before a consonant (‘ask them’) without a /k/ sound.
– /ɑ:sk/ before a vowel (‘ask if’) with a /k/ sound.

‘asked’ is pronounced:
– /ɑ:s/ before a consonant (‘asked them’) without a /k/ or a /t/ sound.
– /ɑ:st/ before a vowel (‘asked if’) without a /k/ sound.

So the only time you pronounce the ‘k’ in ask/asked is when ‘ask’ is followed by a vowel.

Also be careful with the vowel sound – it is long, open, relaxed /ɑ:/, but it is reduced due to the following voiceless consonants, so it isn’t as long as ‘card’ for example.

What happens if I get it wrong?

The most common mistake is to say something like /akst/ with the ‘k’ before the /s/. Literally this means ‘axed’, so the sentence ‘I asked him’ would become ‘I axed him’!

How to pronounce ‘have’.


The 5 pronunciations of ‘have’.

Number 3 in our top 5 most difficult one syllable words is ‘have’.

What’s the problem?

It looks simple enough, but hidden under the surface are many potential errors for the unprepared speaker! In fact there are 5 pronunciations of ‘have’ depending on its position, usage and subject:

1. /hæv/
This is the obvious pronunciation of ‘have’, but is in fact only used when it is a content word (main verb), like in ‘I’ll have a shower’, or ‘Do you have any money?’.

2. /həv/

This is ‘have’ when it is an unstressed auxiliary verb at the beginning of a sentence, like in ‘Have you seen the time?’, or ‘Have they finished?”. Ensure the vowel sound is weak schwa /ə/ when pronouncing this.

3. /əv/

This is ‘have’ when it is an unstressed auxiliary verb when not appearing at the beginning, like in ‘What have you done?’ or ‘The police have been here’. Notice that previous word will join onto this syllable as it starts with a vowel.

4. /hæf/
When ‘have’ is a modal obligation verb, it is pronounced with voiceless /f/ instead of /v/ like in ‘I have to go to work’ or ‘Her students have to work harder’.

5. /v/
After the pronouns ‘I’, ‘we’, or ‘they’, have is often contracted to simply /v/ when it is an auxiliary verb, like in ‘I’ve finished’ or ‘They’ve told us already’.

What happens if I get it wrong?

Mispronouncing ‘have’ will not normally cause misunderstanding, but it can stand out as a pronunciation error, most noticeably when Slavic and Latin speakers replace (or add) the sound /χ/ instead of /h/. In order to achieve fluent connected speech it is essential that learners of English master ‘have’ due to its frequency.

How to Pronounce ‘world’


‘World’ – the 4th most difficult 1 syllable word in English.

Have you ever struggled to say the word ‘world’? Look no further than today’s post:

What’s the problem?

This word contains a trickycombination of a difficult long vowel sound, three tricky consonants and a sneaky silent letter.

How do I get it right?

It should sound like /wɜ:ɫd/

1. Consonant Sound /w/
Round the lips, pull the tongue back and keep the teeth well away from the lips.

2. Long Neutral Vowel Sound /ɜ:/

This is the thinking vowel sound. It is like a long schwa /ə/, you literally relax the jaw, lips and tongue – your mouth should not move at all. The sound is full length in this word.

3. Silent /r/

Don’t say the < r > in ‘world’! Not even a tiny bit, it is completely silent as it is followed by a consonant.

4. Dark /ɫ/
The ‘l’ in world is dark because it comes after a vowel sound. Your tongue should raise at the back and the front, it is a very soft sound, not like the clear /l/ you find at the beginning of a word.

5. Voiced Alveolar Plosive /d/
Make sure your tongue touches the alveolar ridge (the gum behind the teeth, NOT the teeth). This sound must be voiced – if it sounds like a ‘t’, then it is wrong.

What happens if I get it wrong?

English students produce all sorts of strange pronunciations of this word, often it becomes confused with ‘word’, ‘ward’ and even ‘wall’.

How to Pronounce ‘Can’t’


‘Can’t’ – a dangerous word.

On this week’s blog we are counting down the 5 most difficult one syllable words in English pronunciation. At number 5 is ‘can’t – a dangerous word to get wrong!

What’s the problem?

This word comes with three noticeable pronunciation difficulties:

1. Vowel Sound – should be long /ɑ:/
2. Stress – this word cannot be weak. It will either be unstressed, stressed or tonic syllable.
3. Joining the ‘t’ – the ‘t’ at the end is often pronounced as a glottal stop /ʔ/

How do I get it right?

Vowel Sound /ɑ:/
Open your jaw fully, relax the lips, relax the tongue and make a long /ɑ:/ sound as in ‘car’ and ‘palm’. Don’t make /æ/ as in ‘cat’ and definitely don’t make /ʌ/ as in ‘cut’ (see why below).


The differing levels of stress are shown in the examples below:
UNSTRESSED ‘John can’t go!’
STRESSED ‘He can’t believe it’
TONIC SYLLABLE (Main Stress) ‘No, you can’t’.

Joining the ‘t’.
The ‘t’ will be pronounced before a following vowel sound:
‘can’t_I go?’
It will be pronounced as a glottal stop in other cases:
‘I can’t believe it.’

What happens if I get it wrong?

Unfortunately, if you get the vowel wrong, this word could become the rudest word in English (which we won’t write here). The following exchange would take on an entirely different tone.

A ‘Can I buy some ice cream’.
B ‘No you can’t’.

Upper Received Pronunciation

Eton College

How to speak Posh English / Upper RP.

On this week’s blog we have seen three accents well known to any resident of London – Cockney, Estuary and RP. There is one notable absentee from this list – colloquially termed ‘posh’. Technically this accent is known as ‘Upper Received Pronunciation’ and is widely associated with the English aristocracy and educational institutions such as Eton and Oxford.

The accent was also widely heard on the BBC in the first half of the 20th century as Lord Reith, the then director general of the BBC, promoted the accent in order to achieve a standard and ‘proper’ accent among presenters – an attitude that is openly rejected nowadays at the BBC, where regional accents are in demand.

Features of Upper RP

1. Full Articulation of Consonants.

Upper RP does not replace ‘t’ with glottal stops /ʔ/. To speak ‘posh’, you need to articulate fully all of the consonant sounds:
‘football’ is /fʊtbɔ:l/, ‘particularly’ is /pətɪkjuləli/

2. No ‘r’ Joining

Where most accents would use an ‘r’ sound to join words (‘mother_and daughter’), Upper RP would not, instead leaving a pause:
‘four ‘o’ clock’ is /fɔ: əʊ klɒk/ NOR /fɔ:r ə klɒk/.

Intrusive ‘r’ is impossible – ‘China_and India’ would not be connected.

3. Frontal Diphthong /əʊ/ 

The diphthong sound /əʊ/ from words such as ‘go’, ‘no’, ‘show’, ‘don’t’, shifts starting position from the centre-mid /ə/ to front-mid /ɛ/:
/gɛʊ/, /nɛʊ/, /ʃɛʊ/, /dɛʊnt/.

4. Weak Final /i/

Words ending in the weak /i/ sound, such as ‘finally‘ and ‘slowly‘ are pronounced with a more open /e/ sound:
/faɪnəle/, /sləʊle/.

5. /r/ Replaced by Alveolar Tap /ɾ/

Wherever an /r/ sound appears before a weak vowel (ə, ɪ, i, u), it is replaced by a tap /ɾ/ (this is very clear in the 2nd video below):

‘very’ becomes /veɾe/, ‘horror’ becomes /hɒɾə/

Who speaks ‘posh’?

It is not possible to attribute ‘posh’ to a particular region of England, but it is often indicative of a high social class or of particular educational institutions. It is also often reported in the media that people alter their accents to achieve higher social or employment status. The current conservative government has several Upper RP speakers, most notably Jacob Rees-Mogg (who hails from Somerset):

A longer example is from the 90s television series ‘House of Cards’ about a fictional Prime Minister:

Cockney – England’s Most Famous Accent


Everyone’s heard of ‘cockney’.

If there is one English accent that everyone has heard of, far more so than either RP or Estuary, it is Cockney. Pronunciation teachers will confirm this – students who have never heard of other regional accents will always recognise Cockney (at least by name).

Characteristics of a cockney accent.

There are a great many phonetic differences between Cockney and RP, some of the most noticeable are:

1. ‘th’

Cockney would replace voiceless ‘th’ /θ/ in words like ‘think’, ‘theatre’, ‘author’, with /f/, so they would be pronounced /fɪŋk/, /fɪəʔə/, /ɔ:fə/.
Similarly, voiced ‘th’ in ‘the’, ‘this’, and ‘Northern’, would be pronounced /v/, so /və/, /vɪs/ and /nɔ:vən/.

2. Glottal Stops /ʔ/

Cockney speakers will use glottal stops to replace /t/ before consonants and weak vowels:
water – /wɔ:ʔə/, cottage – /kɒʔɪdʒ/
It is also common for a glottal stop to replace a /k/ before a consonant:
blackboard – /bleʔbɔ:d/

3. /æ/ replaced with /e/

Any word producing the front open /æ/ vowel would be pronounced with mid-open /e/ instead:
‘black’, ‘hat’, ‘that’, ‘ran’.

4. ‘h’ dropping

In cockney, you don’t pronounce /h/ at all. So ‘house’ is /a:s/, ‘he’ is /i:/, ‘horrible’ is /ɒrɪbəw/.

Who speaks Cockney?

Traditionally a cockney speaker was born within the sound of the ‘Bow Bells’ (St Mary Le Bow Church), the accent is associated with East London – particularly the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets.  This is not really the case any more, with large parts of modern East London inhabited by Asian communities who speak ‘Multicultural London English‘, many of the cockney speaking communities have reportedly moved further East into Essex.

Cockney rhyming slang.

A highly distinctive feature of cockney, is its use of rhyming words to communicate meanings. Some examples are below:

‘Would you Adam and Eve it?’ (believe)
‘We had a Bull and Cow last night.’ (row)
‘Give me a butcher’s‘. (look, from ‘butcher’s hook’)

Influence on other accents.

Estuary English is somewhere between Received Pronunciation and Cockney phonetically, although it does not incorporate the slang elements of cockney.

To hear the difference between Estuary and Cockney, watch this interview between Jonathon Ross (Estuary) and actor Ray Winstone (Cockney):

Received Pronunciation vs Estuary

Thames Estuary

What are the key differences between RP & Estuary?

One topic that frequently arises when teaching pronunciation & accent, is which accent to model in class. Most students aim for a neutral accent model – referred to as RP (Received Pronunciation) or BBC English, but the reality is that a lot of native speakers in the South of England (including most of our teachers) tend to switch constantly between RP and an accent closer to ‘estuary’. The issue is certainly a talking point; there have been plenty of column inches on Prince William and Kate Middleton’s varying levels of ‘RP’ recently, with some bloggers claiming William has ‘quite a bit of Estuary’ in his speech.

So what are the features of Estuary and how can you spot Estuary and RP? Here are some key differences:

1. Glottal Stop /ʔ/ & /t/:

An RP accent is very clear about when a speaker can produce a glottal stop – it can replace a ‘t’ only before another consonant sound for example in ‘football’ and when produced is accompanied by an alveolar stop (the tongue touches the alveolar ridge as if it were making a /t/.

In Estuary English a glottal stop is not accompanied by an alveolar stop, and will appear at the end of syllables: (foot, can’t) as well as before consonants (football). It may also appear before weak vowels (water), but this is more typical of cockney.

2. Dark /l/

In RP, an /l/ appearing at the end of a syllable will produce a dark /l/ sound /l̴/, which means that the tongue is raised at the back of the mouth towards the velum as well as touching the alveolar ridge. It gives a soft, almost muffled sound – eg ‘ball‘ /bɔ:l̴/ and ‘feel‘ /fi:l̴/.

Dark /l/ does not appear in Estuary, instead it is replaced by a syllable final /w/ sound. So ‘ball’ sounds like /bɔ:w/ and feel would be /fi:w/.

3. Intrusive /r/

Intrusive /r/ is a joining /r/ sound between one word ending in /ə/ or /ɔ:/ and another word beginning with a vowel. (EG ‘China_and India’ or ‘law_and order’).

An RP speaker would not add an /r/ sound in order to join two words, instead placing a pause.

An Estuary speaker would use intrusive /r/ making all words and sounds join together.

4. /h/ dropping

An RP speaker may never drop an /h/ sound, even in function words such as ‘he’, ‘her’, ‘have’ etc.

Estuary speakers would certainly drop the /h/ in function words, particularly where they appear in the middle of sentences such as ‘Where’s he gone?’ and ‘It’s in her handbag’.



Accent Reduction


Accent Reduction – Native Speech Patterns

‘Accent Reduction’ is an area of study that involves learning the sounds, structures and intonation of a language in order to reduce or remove the influence a speakers’ first language has on their speech.

Areas of Accent Reduction Study

When a learner acquires a new language, they will try to copy the model from other speakers of that language. Every language, though, has a different set of sounds, different stress patterns, different pitch range, and different ways of joining sounds, all of these areas need to be mastered in order to alter an accent.

Studying accent reduction therefore involves focus on the following areas:

      • Vowel Sound Position – where to place the tongue, jaw and lips in order to create the correct position.
      • Vowel Sound Quality – how long and loud to make each vowel sound.
      • Consonant Sound Articulation – how and where to block air and when to use the voice.
      • Stress – how to choose stressed syllables and make others unstressed or weak.
      • Connected Speech – how sounds can join when said together at a normal conversational speed.
      • Pitch – where to use a high, low or mid tone, which intonation patterns to use.
      • Intonation – how to show attitude and meaning with words and sentences.

English – Common Examples

Many non-native speakers of English have strong accents, clearly showing the influence of their mother tongue. Even speakers who have been communicating in English for decades speak with strong mother tongue interference. Some common places for this to happen in English are:

      • Vowel sound positions – English contains 12 positions and 19 sounds. Many languages contain far fewer (Spanish & Japanese for example contain 5) and many learners do not incorporate new positions into their speech. Common problems are /ɪ/ vs /i:/ (hit/heat), long open vowels (bird, bored, bar) and step vowels (pit, put, putt).
      • Dental Consonants – the sounds /θ/ and /ð/ often produce errors as they rarely appear in a students’ mother tongue.
      • Consonant Voicing – creating voiced sounds at the end of a word often poses huge difficulty, making ‘bad’ sound like ‘bat’.
      • Silent Letters – spoken English very often produces silent ‘h’, ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds that learners often do not recognise. A word like ‘he’ can have a pronounced /h/ and a silent one in the same sentence (‘He said he was going’).
      • Joining – English uses 4 ways to join words (consonant + consonant, assimilation, consonant + vowel & vowel + vowel), these techniques are often absent from learners who speak languages that do not join.
      • Pitch – every language and every speaker has a pitch range. English uses a wide pitch range, but in a very controlled way – this is why stress selection is so important. Learners of English often incorporate the exact same pitch from their mother tongue.
      • Schwa Sound /ə/ – the most confusing area of spoken English is the weak schwa vowel. It should appear in roughly 1/3 of vowel sounds – many learners do not use it at all.

In order for a teacher to deliver classes on accent reduction, they should be able to phonetically analyse a students speech in the three key areas: sound, structure and intonation; most students need work on all three areas and in that order.

Learn about accent reduction courses at Pronunciation Studio here.


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