5 Tips To Improve Your Pronunciation

5-pronunciation-tips

5 Top Tips to Improve your English Pronunciation.

At Pronunciation Studio we have seen thousands of students with the same aim – improve their clarity and control in English pronunciation. But which students make the most progress? Here we have compiled the top 5 tips that work:

1. Use a Mirror

Good pronunciation is about moving your articulators (lips, tongue & jaw) correctly. It is hugely beneficial to watch yourself doing this so that your awareness improves. Your lips will round when you say ‘chip’, your teeth will move off your lip when you say ‘right’, and of course your tongue may appear when you say ‘teeth’!

 2. Record & Listen to Yourself

‘When I practice at home, how do I know I am doing it correctly?’ is one of the most common questions we hear in class. The answer is that developing your ear to recognise your mistakes is one of the key skills you need to acquire – the best way to do that is to record yourself – compare it to the original recording – how is it different?

3. Slow Down!

The best way to speak clearly is not to speak fast. You can speak English fast when you have mastered weak forms, joining and using tone units, but before using these skills correctly, speaking fast will simply make it harder for people to understand you. Slow down and choose the words you want to stress, it will make a world of difference for the listener.

4. Practise Little, Often & Everywhere.

Unlike learning grammar or vocabulary where there is a right and wrong answer, pronunciation is a physical skill and it will gradually get better as your mouth improves its strength and your ear improves accuracy so the best approach is to practice regularly in small chunks – 10 to 30 minutes every day is ideal. Practise at home, on the train, in the park – don’t worry if people think you’re crazy, the reward is worth it!

5. Love IPA

One thing that unites all of the students who reach a really high level of control over their pronunciation is that they learnt to use IPA and then applied it. English has 45 sounds (depending on the origin of the speaker) but only 26 letters to represent them. This causes huge problems in the relationship between spelling and sound – IPA is the best way to solve this for learners. Use the love IPA blog to help you make friends with phonemics!

Share your tips!

Please send any tips that have helped you to improve your pronunciation to enquiries@pronunciationlondon.co.uk – we will publish any good ones and give a free online class to any we publish.

 

Schwa – The Key to English Pronunciation

schwa-sound

The schwa /ə/ is the biggest key to English pronunciation a learner can possess.

Using a schwa can increase vowel accuracy by over 30%, it is the star of English speech, but most learners of English pronunciation have never heard of it and do not use it. This article aims to solve that with 4 simple questions…….

 

1. What is a schwa /ə/?

schwa is by far the most common vowel sound in English – RP English speakers use it about once every three vowels they pronounce. To put it another way if you don’t use the schwa sound in your speech, you are making a pronunciation error 1/3 of the time. To illustrate this, listen to and read the passage below, the schwa vowel is written in.

I’d like tə go shopping fər ə pair əf shoes, bət thə shops ə closed becəse thəs ə weathər əlert. əparrəntly lots !f snow is coming in frəm thə Highlənds so thə govərnmənt həv ədvised peopəl tə stay ət home.

2. How is a Schwa produced?

Schwa is a neutral vowel – in order to produce it your tongue should be flat and resting, your lips should be relaxed (not spread or rounded) and your jaw should be relaxed, half way open.

3. Where does Schwa appear?

The main problem is that you cannot see it on the written page – it can be spelled with ‘a’ (about), ‘e’ (father), ‘i’ (lentil), ‘o’ (polite) or ‘u’ (column), so unless students are trained to spot it, errors will occur. The key to recognising schwa is stress; schwa is only weak.

Schwa also appears in small words like ‘to’, ‘from’, & ‘are’ in connected speech, which are known as ‘function’ words in pronunciation.

4. How can I include the sound in my speech?

Like all language acquisition, you can learn the schwa in a simple 3 step process:

1. PRESENT – Learn how to say it using the correct, neutral mouth position.
2. PRACTICE – Recognise where it is in words and sentences (the script on this page is a good example) and repeat them.
3. PERFORM – Apply it to your own words and sentences.

Repeating this process will gradually incorporate the sound into your speech naturally.

Join a free Schwa class.

Free Class ii

Pronunciation Studio’s 90 minute free introduction class is all about the schwa sound, we learn how to produce it, where to find it and how to incorporate it into your speech. All delivered by an English pronunciation expert. Click here for current dates.

Alternatively download chapter 1 of ‘The Sound of English’ and learn more about the schwa with audio in there!

4 Weak Vowels – English Pronunciation

weak-vowels

4 Weak Vowels – English Pronunciation

Anybody who has attended a pronunciation class will know what a ‘schwa’ is: the most common weak vowel of English. There are, in fact, four equally weak vowels in English and they form a very important part of accurate speech. In this paragraph for example, out of 77 vowel sounds, 40 are weak.

That means that over half the vowels we pronounce in English should be unstressed and selected from just 4 vowel sounds! Another way of looking at that is if you do not use weak vowels in your speech, you are mispronouncing at least half of your vowel sounds – proof that this is one of the most important aspects of learning English pronunciation.

In order of frequency the four weak vowels are:
ə ɪ i u

Where do they occur?

All of the weak vowels appear on weak syllables of long words and when function words are weak, examples are below:

Sound / Function Word / Content Word
ə / to / about
ɪ / in / English
i / me / lovely
u / you / particular

How are they pronounced?

Importantly, all of these vowels are mid to close jaw position, shown on the vowel grid on the right. It should also be noted that each of these vowel positions appear in strong vowels (i: / ɪ / ɜ: / u:) so to produce a weak vowel, we are not using any additional areas of the mouth.

What are common mistakes?

The most frequent error by learners of English is in placing and correctly producing the schwa (ə) vowel sound as it is by far the most frequent and unusual of the vowels. Then the difference between /ɪ/ and /i/ tends to cause a lot of problems – it is exactly the same pronunciation issue as with the famous ‘ship’ vs ‘sheep’ vowel pair. The key for learners is to produce two completely unique positions of the mouth. /u/ is rare and does not tend to cause many problems, it is only really found frequently in the function word ‘you’.

How can I master the vowels?

Firstly, recognise where they appear in words and sentences.
Secondly, master their pronunciation, /ə/ /ɪ/ and /i/ are challenging for most English learners.
Thirdly, adopt them naturally into speech, this takes lots of practice!

Weak Vowel Exercise

This activity is covered on Advanced Pronunciation (Level 2) – find all the weak vowels in the following sentences (you can listen to them below):

1. Is it going to rain in the morning? ɪ ɪ ə ɪ ə
2. Are you having a party this weekend?
3. When would it be a good time to visit?
4. Have there been any signs of a repeat?
5. Did you invite them to your wedding?
6. I’m thinking of some time off.
7. We should have been at home by now.
8. It was such a good film.
9. War and Peace will be read in the thirtieth century.
10. He would like fish and chips if it’s on the menu.

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching ‘Ship or Sheep’?

gip-geep

Gip or Geep?

Nonsense Words – The Answer to Teaching /ɪ/ vs /i:/?

everybody who has studied English pronunciation has, at one point or other, bemoaned the lack of spelling to sound rules (see this collection of poems). Pairs of words with similar spelling but different pronunciation are plentiful (cough/dough, heard/beard, good/food), but increasingly from a teaching perspective, I feel these archaic elements of English spelling are exaggerated and English spelling can be very useful to the student of pronunciation. Nonsense words are a brilliant way of exploring this in class.

In last Saturday’s advanced pronunciation class we had the following conversation:

A  “Gip seagle feen spicken leaj?”
B  “Seef jick hib neep biller.”
A  “Feegen bick?”
B  “Sif gick dip heaz.”

It is clearly nonsense, but there is only one way to pronounce the vowel sounds within. This highlights the difference between the pair of vowels /ɪ/ vs /i:/. The mid-close /ɪ/ sound is almost always spelt < i > as a strong vowel, so ‘jick’, ‘hib’ and ‘gip’ must be pronounced with /ɪ/. In contrast, the close /i:/ sound is almost always spelt with two vowels < ee > or < ea >, but is never spelt with just one < i >, so ‘heaz’, ‘seef’ and ‘leaj’ are definitely going to be /i:/ even if we have never seen the words before.

This simple spelling rule can radically alter a student’s speech. Many students speak native languages where a written < i > would correspond to a close /i/ sound, so breaking the assumption that this will happen in English is a huge step to solving the ship/sheep problem that so many students struggle with.

along with the spelling rule, students need to learn the correct mouth positioning for the two vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/ as shown in this vowel grid.  For a full explanation see this earlier blog post.

Nonsense Words

Try pronouncing the nonsense words below – the pronunciation should be clear from the spelling:

gip  leab  seag  sib  chif  feek  piv  veize  vim  sheev  tib  bim

This material appears in class 2 of Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation. 

How to Join ‘th’ Sounds.

th-sound

‘th’ Joining & Why it’s Important.

on Saturday I taught a class of 8 advanced speakers and pronouncers of English, they could all repeat both ‘th’ sounds with no problem (/θ/ as in ‘think’ and /ð/ as in ‘those’).  Nearly all of the students would, however, make an error when speaking normally, and the ‘th’ sounds would be mispronounced as some kind of alveolar or dental plosive. A huge number of advanced speakers make this error, but there is a simple trick to avoid it as follows.

What’s the problem?

the problem arises if one of the alveolar sounds /t, d, l, n/ appear directly before a dental sound /θ, ð/. Why? Because the tongue is out of position, it is impossible to go from the alveolar ridge to the teeth in no time, so the speaker makes their ‘th’ sound in the wrong place.

How to avoid a pronunciation error.

avoiding the error is technically very simple – you simply make the previous alveolar consonant on the teeth. To demonstrate, compare the following examples:

nine /naɪn/ ninth /naɪnθ/ – the underlined ‘n’ would be dental.
blood /blʌd/ bloodthirsty /blʌdθɜ:sti/ – the underlined ‘d’ would be dental.

This also occurs when joining words together:

in /ɪn/, in the /ɪn ðə/
did /dɪd/, dɪd they /dɪd ðeɪ/

Practice

in class on Saturday we used the following sentences and looked for at least two examples of alveolar consonants becoming dental in each sentence:

    1. Aren’t the residents unhealthy living in that pollution?
    2. It’s hard to succeed in the cutthroat world of the media.
    3. Did the internet suffer a loss of bandwidth this morning?
    4. I think they should ban the wealthiest from attending.
    5. For the thousandth time Katie, join the leads together.
    6. ‘Heartthrob’ we used to call him, although he’s lost his looks now.
    7. Well it’s true that synthetic materials were all the rage.
    8. We were happy, but then her misanthrope got in the way.
    9. Do you think that the national anthem is appropriate?
    10. What the hell are you doing drinking absinth?

You can listen to the sentences here:

‘th’ joining is covered in class 1 on Pronunciation Studio’s Level 2 Advanced Pronunciation course.

French Speakers’ English Pronunciation Errors

french

What are the main mistakes for French speakers in English pronunciation?

To coincide with our French speakers’ night at Pronunciation Studio on the 16th December, here we have highlighted the top 10 errors for French speakers in English:

1. r & silent r

French ‘r’ is a voiced uvular fricative, made at the back of the mouth, English /r/ is an alveolar approximant made near the front of the mouth – they should not be confused!

right red lorry great

French speakers tend to say all the written ‘r’s, but in British English you should nor pronounce an r if it is after a vowel:

Four thirty in the afternoon.

2. Vowel rounding

Many French centre and front vowels use rounded lips, whereas in English they would be made with neutral lips – the sound is very different:

The first thing I heard was a scream.

3. th

French does not contain dental fricatives θ or ð, speakers often replace these with /s/ and /z/:

We’ll see them on Thursday, I think.

4. h

The glottal fricative /h/ does not exist in French, it does in English:

house home holiday Harry

5. ɪ or i:?

French has just one close front vowel [i], English has two: /ɪ/ and /i:/ – /ɪ/ should be made with a slightly lower jaw, but French speakers often just use the one position for these vowels:

ship / sheep
fit / feet
rid / read

6. Word Stress

French tends to stress the last syllable of a long word, English does not:

father corruption absolutely computer

7. Intonation

French has a very unique melody – it is often flat and high with rising patterns. English is generally uses falling patterns more and has a greater difference in stress:

Where do you think we should go?
I don’t see how it is that important.

8. Open vowels /æ/ vs /ɑ:/

French contains one open vowel unrounded: [a], English contains 2: /æ/ (cat) /ɑ:/ (cart) so French often the French [a] instead:

hat heart
ham harm
had hard

9. Diphthong ‘o’

French does not use diphthong (double) vowel sounds, so they often come out a bit flat:

Don’t go to the show.

10. Affricate Consonant /dʒ/

French speakers often miss the beginning plosive sound in English affricates:

/dʒ/: James general job agent

Spanish Speakers’ English Pronunciation Errors

spanish

What are the main mistakes for Spanish speakers in English pronunciation?

To coincide with our Spanish speakers’ night at Pronunciation Studio on the 9th December, here we have highlighted the top 11 errors for Spanish speakers in English:

 1. /v/ or /b/?

In English /v/ is a voiced fricative using teeth and lip, and /b/ is a voiced plosive using the lips. They often become confused for Spanish speakers:

Next vacation I’d love to visit the river.

2. ɪ vs i:

Spanish has just one high front vowel [i] and Spanish speakers often use this vowel when they see an ‘i’ in English. They shouldn’t! ‘i’ in English is normally the lower /ɪ/ vowel:

Did this thing win?

3. s / ʃ

/ʃ/ is made by slightly rounding the lips and pulling the tongue a bit further back in the mouth than it would be for /s/ – Spanish speakers often do not do this:

push sharp fashion

4. 11 vowel positions

Vowels are a big problem for Spanish speakers as Spanish only has 5. English has 19 formed from 11 positions of the mouth, so often in speech, a Spanish speaker uses one vowel where an English speaker would use 2 or 3:

[a] hat heart hut
[u] good food hurt
[o] pot port
[i] fit feet

5. ŋ

/ŋ/ is made at the back of the mouth in the same place as /k/ and /g/ – but Spanish speakers often replace it with alveolar /n/:

I was walking talking and singing

6. Aspiration

In English, the sounds /p/ /t/ & /k/ are normally aspirated (a big explosion of air), but they never are in Spanish:

Park the car in town.

7. Weak Vowel: schwa /ə/

Spanish is a language of strong forms and you say what you see. English contains weak forms, the most common of which is the schwa /ə/. The problem is that this sound can be spelt with any vowel – a, e, i, o, u:

about tighten lentil today column

8. /r/ and silent ‘r’

Spanish /r/ is rolled, English /r/ is smooth:

rock red arrow try

Also British English ‘r’ is silent at the end of a syllable, Spanish speakers often ignore this:

work court her pour

9. syllable final consonant devoicing

It is not possible in Spanish to have a voiced consonant at the end of a syllable, so Spanish speakers often de-voice the English ones:

bad cod job love

10. s or z?

An ‘s’ is a dangerous letter for Spanish speakers in English. Why? Because it is often pronounced as /z/:

cheese was news lose

11. ‘sp’

We couldn’t leave this one out! That little ‘e’ often creeps in before a word beginning ‘sp':

It was a(n) splendid night in Spain

 

 

Polish Speakers’ English Pronunciation Errors

polish-pronunciation

What are the main errors for Polish speakers in English pronunciation?

To precede our Polish speakers’ evening on the 4th December at Pronunciation Studio, here we have highlighted the top 10 pronunciation errors for Polish speakers.

Audio recordings are by Tom Wisniowski (BA/IPA), Pronunciation Studio’s Eastern European accent specialist.

1. th

Polish speakers often replace the two ‘th’ consonant sounds /θ/ and /ð/ with /f/ and /d/:

I think there’s three of them.

2. Voiced Endings

Polish does not contain voiced sounds at the end of syllables, so Polish speakers often devoice the final consonant:

‘bed’ ‘cab’ ‘rag’ ‘love’

3. Aspiration

/p/,  /t/, and /k/ are aspirated in English – they have a big explosive sound when they are released – but not for Polish speakers:

park / came / time

4. Short vowels /æ/ /ʌ/ /ɑ:/

Polish speakers will often mispronounce the vowels /ʌ/, /æ/ and /ɑ:/ as Polish does not contain them, instead the Polish /a/ is often used. The following words should be pronounced with different vowel sounds:

hat hut heart

5. -ing endings

Polish speakers often mispronounce -ing endings in two ways, firstly by adding a /k/, secondly by using an /n/:

I was walking, talking & singing.

6. Consonant / Vowel Joining

In English, where one word ends with a consonant and the next one begins in the vowel, the consonant moves to the next word, not so in Polish:

What are Ed and Janet eating?

7. ʊ diphthongs

English contains two diphthongs (double vowels) ending with ʊ, Polish speakers tend to mispronounce the first part and over stress the second:

Don’t go so slowly.
How now brown mouse?

8. are

‘are’ is a confusing word to pronounce with at least 5 pronunciations in English (see this article), Polish speakers often struggle with it, using just one pronunciation:

Are you ok?
Where are you going?
They aren’t here.

9. r and silent r

/r/ in Polish is rolled – in English it is smooth.

train three dry crash

Also /r/ is silent in English at the end of a syllable:

burn third cart her

10. ‘o’

Polish is a phonetically written language, you say what you see. English is not so much and one spelling that confuses Polish speakers is ‘o’, which can produce 8 pronunciations in English (Polish speakers may use just 2):

got /ɒ/
do /u:/
go /əʊ/
pork /ɔ:/
gold /ɒʊ/
wolf /ʊ/
today /ə/
women /ɪ/

Polish Speakers’ Pronunciation Courses

Join us on 4th December at 19:00 for Pronunciation Studio’s Polish speakers’ evening, where we will go through each error and how to correct each one in speech. It’s free to sign up. Alternatively, take a look at our 2 level accent reduction program.

Japanese Speakers’ English Pronunciation Errors

japanese-pronunciation

What are the main mistakes for Japanese speakers in English pronunciation?

To precede our Japanese speakers’ evening on the 11th December at Pronunciation Studio, here we have highlighted the top 10 pronunciation errors for Japanese speakers.

1. /l/ or /r/

Japanese speakers often confuse the lateral alveolar approximant /l/ with the alveolar approximant /r/:

Roy left the rice in the red trolley.

2. /ə/

There is no neutral vowel in Japanese, speakers tend to say the vowel they see in written form, ignoring the neutral schwa:

Can the prince come today for a chat.

3. Fricatives θ/ð

Fricatives articulated in the front of the mouth are very difficult for Japanese speakers, most noticeably the two ‘th’ sounds: /θ/ and /ð/ which may be replaced by either dental /t/ & /d/ or alveolar /s/ & /z/:

I think the theatre was more than thrilling.

4. 12 vowel positions

Japanese contains 5 vowel positions – /a, e i, o u/, English contains 11: /i ɪ e æ ɜ ʌ ɑ u ʊ ɔ ɒ/, unfortunately, Japanese speakers often speak English with just the 5:

good/food, hit/heat, hat/hurt/hut/heart, port/pot

5. Word stress

There is a tendency for Japanese speakers to place equal stress on each syllable, making long words unclear:

apparently

6. added syllable

Some speakers add a little ‘o’ after consonants at the end of syllables:

Matt made a very nice soup.

7. sentence stress

Japanese speakers often place a roughly equal stress on each syllable of a sentence without using the strong / weak structure of English:

The car was parked on a hill side.

8. Diphthong vowel /əʊ/

One of the hardest English vowel sounds for Japanese speakers is /əʊ/ because it starts neutrally rather than rounded (as the spelling may suggest):

Don’t go so slowly.

9. Joining

There is a tendency to separate words when Japanese speakers pronounce English, instead of joining them with vowels or consonants:

Go over there and ask if we are allowed in.

10. consonant clusters

Some Japanese speakers may place a small vowel between two consonants:

please try three

Japanese Speakers’ Pronunciation Courses

Join us on Wednesday 11th December at 19:00 for Pronunciation Studio’s Japanese speakers’ evening, where we will go through each error and how to correct each one in speech. It’s free to sign up. Alternatively, take a look at our 2 level accent reduction program.

Italian Speakers’ English Pronunciation Errors

italian-pronunciation

What are the main errors for Italian speakers in English pronunciation?

Here we have highlighted the top 10 pronunciation errors experienced by Italian students at Pronunciation Studio:

1. /h/ and silent ‘h’

Italian speakers often miss /h/ when they should say it:

‘house’ ‘how’ ‘horse’ ‘hard’

To compensate, an /h/ sometimes appears where it is not wanted – between two vowels:

“go away”, “she isn’t”

2. Adding a little vowel at the end of a word

When a word ends in a consonant, Italian speakers often add a little ‘a’ afterwards:

“I like them a lot”

3. Open vowel /a/

Italian has only one open unrounded vowel ‘a’, whereas English has 3 – /æ/ in ‘cat’, /ʌ/ in ‘cut’, and /ɑ:/ in ‘cart’. Italian speakers often only use their own ‘a’ in English so these words become ‘cat’ ‘cat’ and ‘cart’.

“I love that park”

4. /ɪ/ vs /i:/

A similar problem in a different area of the mouth occurs with the vowels /ɪ/ and /i:/, which are often pronounced in the same way by Italian speakers, so ‘heat’ and ‘hit’ sound the same except for their length. In fact, the vowel in ‘hit’ should be a lower position.

“Fit it in”

5. Sentence Stress

Italian is a latin language which stresses every syllable. English does not – some need to be weak:

“I want to go to the cinema”

6. Spelling to sound

Italian is a phonetically written language, meaning you say what you see. English is not so much, so a word like ‘particular’ may come out all wrong:

“particular”

7. th

th words cause problems for Italian speaker, often being replaced by a dental t or d:

“I think its the third thing”

8. aspiration

When a p t or k appears in English it is aspirated, so there is an audible explosion in pronunciation. Not so in Italian where it is never aspirated:

“Pass some time on the coast”

9. diphthong ‘o’

Double vowels do not exist in Italian, so when Italian speakers see words like ‘no’, ‘go’ and ‘don’t’, which should be double vowels, they often make a single ‘o’ vowel:

“No, I don’t think so, Joe!”

10. /r/ and silent ‘r’

English r sounds is smooth, Italian r is rolled. Also watch out for ‘r’ after a vowel – it isn’t pronounced in British English, but Italians often pronounce it anyway:

Words with /r/: raw, right, wrong, red

Words with silent ‘r': word, car, father, four

Pronunciation Courses – Online & in London

Pronunciation Studio offers a wide range of courses to improve second language speakers’ pronunciation skills. These are available in our school in Central London & online via Skype anywhere in the world. Learn more about courses and see a free sample. 

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