Pronunciation is one of those things that always seems to be left out in the cold, so to speak, when learning English. We all want to speak fluently and accurately, have good listening and writing skills and improve our reading and vocabulary; but unless there are any real issues, pronunciation can wait. When working to learn English, it seems like there are just too many other things competing for your time and attention to bother focusing on pronunciation, doesn’t it take care of itself after all?
Unfortunately, often it does not, and it is a very important part of mastering English. Furthermore, it is 25% of your score in the speaking portion of the IELTS. In addition to lost points that having a shaky hold on pronunciation will bring you, think of how it will feel to get into the exam and not be confident in how the words you are trying to speak should sound. The last thing that you want during your already stressful exam is to have an instructor struggling to understand you and have to ask you to repeat yourself over and over. That makes my palms sweaty just thinking about it!
So where does that leave us? Good, clear pronunciation helps with communication and therefore it makes sense to include it with all the other skills from the beginning. However, there are some ‘self-help’ things you can try to work on by yourself, not least, checking how to pronounce new words as you learn them. Most dictionaries both online and off will give you the pronunciation. There are some great online resources, such as Macmillan Dictionary online, that include an audio recording that you can play and listen to.
Consider these examples of less than ideal pronunciation.
- A university friend from Hong Kong once asked me (this is true) – ‘Do you keep your ruggage in the loof?’ Ok, this is funny and it was very easy to understand what he meant – but in a different context it might have led to misunderstanding or embarrassment.
- A close Indonesian friend always said, when she picked me up by car, GET IN, with a flat intonation and two strong stresses. It irritated me every time as she sounded rude and almost gangster-like. I finally showed her how to make this more polite and friendly and my irritation dissolved. Again, in another context she may have created a less than favourable opinion of herself.
- A Brazilian student had problems with the pronunciation of we and you. Both of these words always sounded like ‘you’ and she had endless misunderstandings in meetings when it was not clear who had, or was, going to do something.
- Another student from Turkey frequently asked for soap at the college canteen (soup).
- Finally, my own mispronunciation to a Chinese friend of the Hokkien word for ‘thank-you’ with the result that I accused her of being ‘stingy’!
I’m sure we all have our own pronunciation stories to tell!
English teachers are very tolerant of pronunciation errors but, in my experience English speakers at large are not. I have often had students present themselves for lessons because their speaking/conversation skills were not good. In most cases, they had been referred by line-managers who were native speakers and in most cases their speaking skills were, in fact, very good – the managers were having problems understanding them. In a work scenario, people will not make many allowances–if they can’t understand you then it’s a speaking English problem and it is your responsibility. This may be unfair, but it is also true.
It makes sense to start with your own pronunciation. Have you listened to yourself speaking English? Part of good pronunciation is being able to hear it in the first place.
- Record yourself speaking – try to do this in an authentic setting if you can. Listen to your performance and analyse it. How do you think you sound? Is there anything that is unclear? Is there anything you spot that you should try to work on?
Sometimes there are sounds that are just difficult to pronounce, perhaps because they don’t exist in your mother tongue or because they are simply tricky. The ‘th’ sound and consonant clusters e.g. ‘str’ come to mind.
To improve, ask yourself:
- does this sound exist elsewhere in your language? At the end of a word or the middle? If so, try to isolate it.
- do you need to train yourself to pronounce it? Use a mirror – is your tongue in the right place, your teeth? Sometimes a very small adjustment is all that is needed and you will be able to see in the mirror how this can be achieved.
Reading aloud is a very good way of practising pronunciation.
- Take a short text and read it out loud. Try and find something with dialogue so you can get the intonation for speech in as well.
- Exaggerate the intonation, slow it down to get the pattern. English intonation has quite a wide range.
- Why not record yourself? Do it a few times and see if it improves.
The old language labs used to work on the principle of model – repeat – listen and compare – model again etc.… until your version was as close as you could make it to the model.
- Using models for repetition is still a good way to practice!
- Drilling, though not horribly exciting, is also a useful exercise.
Here are a few resources to help you practice.
- Ship or Sheep online (you may have used the book)
- This exercise gives practice at word/sound level English-online
- Use this poem for some practice:
The Pronunciation Poem
Here is some pronunciation.
Ration never rhymes with nation,
Say prefer, but preferable,
Comfortable and vegetable.
B must not be heard in doubt,
Debt and dumb both leave it out.
In the words psychology,
Psychic, and psychiatry,
You must never sound the p.
Psychiatrist you call the man
Who cures the complex, if he can.
In architect, chi is k.
In arch it is the other way.
- BBC Learning English gives advice and information on all aspects of pronunciation.
As with other aspects of language learning, spending a little time frequently is the way to improve steadily and keep your interest.
So, when studying for your IELTS exam this winter, remember to bring your pronunciation skills in from the cold and let them bask in the warmth of your attention for even just a little while. Your overall skill at speaking English will improve because of it!
If you are interested in getting more help and tips to succeed in your IELTS and English language goals, consider taking one of our online courses, immersion workshops, or some one-on-one coaching for a programme designed especially for you.