One of the main difficulties of English is without a doubt the pronunciation.
It’s not just that there are lots of rules, but that the rules are contradictory, overly complex and in some cases, nonsensical. The most famous example is /gh/, which can be pronounced /f/ as in ‘cough’, /g/ as in ‘ghost’ or not pronounced at all, as in ‘though’.
It’s not surprising when you consider that English has a multitude of source languages (Old English, Norse, French, and Danish) and other influences such as Latin, Greek, and more recently, Spanish. It’s a salad with a lot of weird vegetables that don’t normally go together. And as such, it constitutes a major challenge for non-native speakers. You’re basically trying to speak three or four languages at once.And it’s not fun1
The problems that any one non-native speaker will have really depend on their mother tongue. Chinese speakers have different challenges than French speakers. However, there are a few sounds in English that almost everyone has trouble with (/ae/ as in ‘cat’ and /th/, especially the voiced form used in words like ‘this’ or ‘them’.)
But no matter what language you speak, English pronunciation can be a troublesome nuisance!
What can you do about it?
I’d like to give you 3 useful tips that will help you improve your pronunciation with a minimum of effort and time.
(And before I dive in to this, I want to clarify – accents are great. No need to get rid of your accent! The key is whether or not your listener can understand you. That’s really the metric for pronunciation improvement.)
90% of the non native speaker professionals and students I work with simply speak too fast. If your native language tends to be spoken quickly (Italian and some versions of Spanish, for example), you’re probably speaking too quickly.
Slowing down helps your listener process what you’re saying. It will also aid you in enunciating the words more clearly and considering the intonation. (It also helps convey executive presence – you’ll notice that most of the effective speakers on Ted Talks or in politics speak slowly and pause frequently to help their listeners understand them. )
Speaking of intonation….
2. Use Correct Intonation
In many cases, what we consider to be pronunciation mistakes might actually be intonation mistakes, or problems with the stress pattern. If you’re stressing a different syllable than listeners are accustomed to, they might not recognize the word.
For example, in the word alleviate, the stress in on the second syllable. Stressing the first syllable might make your listener think you’re saying ‘all of it’, etc. I recommend using the Google pronunciation app to clarify the intonation patterns in words when you’re unsure.
3.Practice High Frequency words
Make a list of your high frequency words, particularly the ones you’re unsure of. It’s helpful to draw this list from your professional vocabulary or words associated with your major. Normally the list is anywhere from 50-300 words, but it’s a finite set and mastering these will give you confidence.
Write these words in a spreadsheet and make note of the correct pronunciation and intonation. Practice this list daily, recording yourself and then listening to it so you can make corrections as needed. Start with the individual words and then begin practicing whole sentences using the words.
If you practice this daily, after a few weeks or months, you will hear definite improvement!