Learning English pronunciation

Why should you study English pronunciation?

Because pronunciation is the biggest thing that people notice about your English. 

When you talk to a person in real life, they may not notice your limited vocabulary or grammar mistakes. But they will notice right away if your pronunciation is good or bad. If your pronunciation is poor, they will think about you as the guy/girl who speaks bad English, and good grammar and vocabulary won’t help you!

English pronunciation is hard because the spelling of a word doesn’t really tell you how to pronounce it. Two similarly spelled words, like WEIGHT and HEIGHT, can have different pronunciations. This has two consequences:

  1. 1 It’s incredibly easy to make pronunciation mistakes, which can become bad habits. That’s why you should always check the pro­nunciation rather than guess it.
  2. 2 You have to learn not just spellings, but also pronunci­ations. You cannot use spellings as a shortcut – you just have to put thousands of pronunciations in your head. You can do this in two main ways: by listening to spoken English and by checking pronun­ciations in a dictionary.

Communication

Good pronunciation should be one of the first things that you learn in English.

You can live without advanced vocabulary - you can use simple words to say what you want to say.

You can live without advanced grammar - you can use simple grammar structures instead. But there is no such thing as “simple pronunciation”. If you don’t have good pronunciation, you have bad pronunciation.

And the consequences of bad pronunciation are tragic. Even if you use correct grammar, people may simply not understand what you want to say.

Can you communicate in English with "normal" native speakers?

Go to America or Britain and try to talk to “normal people” - a clerk at a supermarket, a bus driver, etc. If they can understand you, then you can say that you can communicate in English.

Many of English leaners think that they can communicate in English because they can communicate with their teacher and other students.

Do not make this mistake! You have to remember that:

  • Your teacher has been listening to bad English for years. He or she can understand it much more easily than the average person.
  • Other students are usually from the same country as you. Therefore, they speak English like you and they make the same mistakes. So it is easy for them to understand you.

Communication is not enough

If you can communicate in English with people from other countries, congratulations! It’s a big achievement. Now you should ask yourself two questions:

  • Is my English easy to understand?
  • Is my English pleasant to listen to?

Some people communicate successfully in English, but have a strong foreign accent. Although you can understand what they are saying, it is not easy. You have to listen to them really carefully, which takes effort. In addition, some foreign accents are simply unpleasant to listen to.

If you speak English with a strong foreign accent, you are making things difficult for people who listen to you. On the other hand, if you have a clear, pleasant accent, people will simply enjoy talking to you. They will want to spend time with you.

Test your English pronunciation

Can you pronounce basic English words correctly?

How to learn English pronunciation

Learn to recognize all the sounds of English.

  • Why is it important to learn about the sounds of English? Because English uses different sounds than your native language. You have to be able to recognize them and pronounce them.
  • The sounds of English and their IPA symbols.

Learn about phonetic transcription and word stress.

Phonetic transcription

With phonetic transcriptions, dictionaries tell you about the pronunciation of words. In English dictionaries, phonetic transcriptions are necessary, because the spelling of an English word does not tell you how you should pronounce it.

Phonetic transcriptions are usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), in which each English sound has its own symbol. (You can take a look at a chart with all the English sounds and their IPA symbols.)

For example, the IPA-based phonetic transcription of the word HOME is hoʊm, and the transcription of COME is kʌm. Note that in spelling, these words are similar. They both end in OME. But their phonetic transcriptions are different, because they are pronounced differently.

Phonetic transcription is usually given in brackets, like this: /hoʊm/, /kʌm/.

Word stress

When a word has many syllables, one of them is always pronounced more strongly. This is called word stress, and we say that the syllable is stressed. For example, in the word BECOME, the stressed syllable is COME. If the stressed syllable was BE, BECOME would be pronounced like this.

Dictionaries tell you which syllable is stressed. The most popular system is to put a vertical line (ˈ) before the stressed syllable in the phonetic transcription of the word. For example, the transcription for BECOME is /bɪˈkʌm/.

If a word has only one syllable (examples: PEN, WATCH), dictionaries usually do not put the ˈ stress mark before it. So they don’t write /ˈpen/ — they simply write /pen/.

Some dictionaries use other systems for showing word stress. For example, they may put ˈ after the stressed syllable, or they may underline the stressed syllable.

Choose your pronunciation model: American or British.

Different kinds of English have different pronunciation. For example, the pronunciation (the accent) of British English is different from the pronunciation of American English.

The most frequently learned kinds of English in the world are American English and British English.

American pronunciation

When people talk about “learning American pronunciation”, they mean learning General American (GenAm) pronunciation. General American is the accent that is most often spoken on national television in the United States. American pronunciations in dictionaries are also based on GenAm.

Educated Americans usually speak GenAm. (Even if they were raised in a small town in Arkansas with a strong regional accent, their accent often becomes more like GenAm over time – either because they make an effort to “reduce their accent” or because they move to another part of the country and their accent changes by itself.)
90% of what you’ll hear on American TV, radio, podcasts, movies, Web videos, etc. is GenAm.

In most parts of the US and Canada, you will hear GenAm (or something similar) spoken by people “on the street” – not just educated people. Two major exceptions are the South of the US (Texas, Georgia, etc.) and black/Hispanic neighborhoods. In general, differences between American regional accents are small compared with the regional differences within Britain.

General American pronunciation is rhotic /'roʊtɪk/, which means that the letter R is always pronounced.

British pronunciation

When people talk about learning British pronunciation, they usually think of Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is the pronunciation of the British upper class – people who went to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This is the pronunciation that you will learn at a British language school; it is also the model taught in coursebooks and dictionaries from publishers like Oxford and Longman.

Only about 5% of Britons speak RP — these are upper-class people, academics, actors, TV personalities, politicians and English teachers. Educated Britons from various regions of the UK sometimes adopt an RP-like accent. They may do this for two reasons: 1 they move to another part of Britain and they want people to understand them more easily, or 2 they want to speak with a prestigious accent.

Most “normal” Britons speak with their local accents. If you go anywhere else than the south-east of England and talk to people on the street, you will most likely hear something quite different from RP, which can be very hard to understand to untrained ears. Sometimes cities that are only 20 km apart have very different accents. (The British Library has an interactive map of the UK which lets you listen to some examples of British accents from various areas.)

Among “normal people”, an accent similar to RP is spoken in the southeast of England — in the area near Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and London. This accent is called Estuary English.

RP is a prestigious accent because it is spoken by many successful, respected people like the Royal Family, Members of Parliament, university professors, etc. However, conservative RP can make you sound old-fashioned, pretentious and even unfriendly. For this reason, some British politicians avoid speaking conservative RP – instead, they choose “modern RP” (RP with elements of Estuary English).

RP is the British accent that you’ll usually hear in popular British films and TV shows – especially those made for the international market.

RP is non-rhotic, which means that the letter R is usually “silent”, unless it is followed by a vowel. Here’s how it works:

In words like car, tower, inform and first, R is silent (R is not followed by a vowel).

In words like red, foreign, print, R is pronounced (R is followed by a vowel).

R is also pronounced at the end of a word, if the next word starts with a vowel, for example: number eight, far away.

Most RP speakers also insert an R in phrases like: the idea(r) of, Africa(r) and Asia, law(r) and order. This R is not in the spelling; they just use it to separate two vowels.

The following pairs sound exactly the same in RP: or–awe, court–caught, sore–saw, farther–father, formerly–formally. In General American, they all sound different.

Get in the habit of checking the pronunciations of English words.

  • When you’re speaking and you’re not sure how to pronounce something, don’t guess the pronunciation – English pronunciation is tricky (see right), so you’ll probably get it wrong.
  • While you’re reading in English, keep asking yourself: “Do I know how this word is pronounced? What sounds does it contain?”. If you’re not sure, look it up in a dictionary. This should happen very frequently when you’re a pronun­ciation beginner.

Listen and notice.

Get some spoken input: TV shows, podcasts, movies, audiobooks, etc. When listening, pay attention to how sounds and words are pronounced. Think about what sounds you hear. When you listen to non-native speakers, notice their mistakes.

Practice pronouncing English words and phrases from time to time.

Practice can take many forms. You can practice in a systematic way (e.g. a 15-minute session with a dictionary or online pronunciation exercises), or you can just repeat a couple words while you’re doing something else (e.g. watching a movie or taking a shower). The important thing is to do it regularly — that way, you will make steady progress.

Don’t worry if you can’t produce all the English sounds correctly. You should first focus on getting the pronunciation right in your head.

Consider learning the pronunciations of the most common English words in a systematic way.

You could get a list of most frequent words and look up their pronunciations. Or you could use my English pronunciation software that teaches you the pronunciations of the most frequently used English words.