“How can I improve my pronunciation?”
How many times have we heard this question! Native speakers of French for instance seem to suffer from a complex so deep-rooted that no amount of pep talk can change that!
So, here are a few things to think about when you are convinced that your pronunciation sucks.
There is no ONE English. Contemporary literature calls for the rampant use of the term “Englishes” instead of “English”.
English is spoken in different parts of the world and each part of the world brings its own uniqueness into the language. How can you then decide which English is real English? Is American-English real English or British-English, is Australian-English correct or the English spoken in New Zealand? And did you know that the way English is spoken in one state of the US can differ from how it is spoken in another? The same holds true for the UK. An Irishman will speak English in his own way. Does it mean his English isn’t “real”?
How about English spoken in the various ex-colonised countries? India, Philippines, Nigeria to name a few. And what’s more, tons of words adopted by English language speakers originally come from the ex-colonies. ‘Bungalow’, ‘jungle’, ‘bangle’, ‘thug’, ‘pyjamas’ for instance find their origin from Indian languages.
This is not to say that you can speak English anyway you wish, or that “zank you” will make perfect sense to an English speaker. My point is that you should not stop yourself from speaking English because you feel that your pronunciation isn’t correct! After all /təˈmɑːtəʊ/ or /təˈmeɪtoʊ/ will still refer to a tomato, right? It is the communication that matters.
Having said that, here are a few ways you can work to sounding a little more like a native speaker:
- Understand how phonemes work. ‘Thin’ and ‘Thing’ won’t be pronounced in the same way for instance and thus understanding the difference between /n/ and /ŋ/ will help you sound better. What’s more, once you’ve figured out the various phonemic symbols, you will be able to ‘read’ the pronunciation when you see them in a dictionary. Here’s a link you can use to get to know your phonemes.
- Create your own pronunciation dictionary. You may not know how phonemes work or you may be in class and don’t remember them by heart, but when your teacher pronounces a word, and you realise that you have been mispronouncing it all the while, take note of it. Write the pronunciation down by creating your very own pronunciation style. This will obviously be personal but at least you will understand it.
- Listen and repeat. The classic ‘listen and repeat’ method carried forth from the early days of the audio-visual era may not necessarily be a bad method. It is very effective especially in correcting somewhat-fossilised pronunciations. To take this one step further, try listening to long sentences (using one of the websites here for instance) and aping the pronunciation. You could also sing songs (take a look here). Mime them, ape the singer and have fun in the process.
- Use an online dictionary. There are tons on online dictionaries that pronounce words for you orally. Don’t take the pronunciation of a word for granted. Instead, look up a dictionary to make sure you are pronouncing the word correctly. Try Forvo for instance. You type in a word and get the word pronounced by various native speakers of the language. You will thus be able to identify between various accents from different parts of the world.
- Passive listening. Watch films in English, listen to the radio, watch TV programs in English without feeling the need to understand everything. Just allow the voices, the accents, the sound of the language to get absorbed by your brain. Whenever and wherever you need to speak in a certain way, the right pronunciation will come to you. That’s a promise!