Speaking English With an Accent
Speaking English as a non-native speaker generally means speaking with an accent. In some cases that accent may be so heavy that people find it difficult to understand what you are saying. This can be frustrating for them and for you.
A foreign accent occurs when a person speaks one language using some of the rules or sounds of another.
For example, if a person has trouble pronouncing some English sounds, they automatically substitute similar sounds from their own language. To native speakers of English, this sounds strange or ‘foreign’.
The Complex Vowel System of the English Language
The problem is, being able to pronounce all English words correctly all of the time is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English. This is not surprising! With around 20 vowel sounds to master, English has one of the most complex vowel systems of any language.
English Words Are Confusing
Then, to make things even more of a challenge, words that look completely different can be pronounced in exactly the same way.
Take, for example, the words ‘SON’ and ‘SUN’ or ‘SUITE’ and ‘SWEET’. The words look different but the pronunciation is exactly the same. Confusing, isn’t it?
Other words look exactly the same but are pronounced differently depending on their meaning. This makes things even more tricky.
Take the word ‘REFUSE’, for example. As a verb, it means to show unwillingness to do something. Whereas, the noun form means garbage. The pronunciation changes depending on which form of the word you are using. For example, “I refuse to take out the refuse!”
Focus More on Your Pronunciation Skills.
So perhaps as an English learner you’ve devoted yourself to becoming a grammar expert? Or maybe you’ve acquired an amazing knowledge of English vocabulary?
However, if you find that you have to repeat yourself often or that people simply don’t understand you whenever you speak English, it’s time to start concentrating more on your pronunciation skills.
Consider dedicating more time to your knowledge, understanding and practice of the physical skills necessary for good English pronunciation.
So exactly how can you improve your English pronunciation? Well, there are no quick fixes, but there certainly are some highly effective exercises and some important points to bear in mind.
Below are 12 great tips that you can start using today to set you on the path to perfect pronunciation.
1. Listen Carefully
It is important to develop your listening skills by paying careful attention to how native speakers of English pronounce words and how they stress sentences.
Listen carefully to the intonation in English.
Intonation is about how we say things, as opposed to what we say.
It is about the music of the language, the way the voice rises and falls when speaking.
Watching, online videos, movies, TV series and other visual media (like news reports) is an excellent way to learn the correct way to pronounce words and replicate the intonation of the English language.
You can of course listen to radio broadcasts and podcasts too, but observing mouth movements and facial expressions via visual media can really help to improve your understanding of the way words are pronounced.
Where subtitles or close captions are available, try alternating between having them turned on and turned off. Perhaps first listen with the subtitles on to get a full understanding of what the speaker is saying and then try turning them off as you concentrate fully on the sound of the individual words and sentences being spoken.
Also, be mindful of who you are watching. Try to watch ‘good’ English speakers, or speakers who are considered fluent native speakers. Otherwise, you could be learning bad or incorrect pronunciation.
2. Record Yourself
It is very important to listen to yourself when you speak. By doing so, you will pick up on words that you may be mispronouncing.
The best way to do this is to make regular recordings of yourself reading different texts and critique yourself to see where there is room for improvement. Admittedly, this can be challenging as it is not always easy to hear your own voice.
Try to appreciate, however, that you’re not alone – it is the same for everyone. As I started recording and editing videos of myself I had to listen back and was initially shocked to hear how I sound.
However, over time I got used to it, and not only that, I was able to identify weaknesses that I had in my spoken English and highlight ways to improve the way I sound when I speak.
I advise you to do the same. Read aloud and record yourself, then, without being too harsh on yourself, listen back and look for ways that you can improve. It will make a huge difference to your pronunciation if you practice this consistently.
3. Shadowing a Foreign Language
Shadowing is a terrific language learning technique not just for practicing English but for any foreign language. The technique involves listening to and repeating individual words, phrases and sentences of native foreign speakers.
All you need is some sort of listening device, a set of headphones and a good (preferably interesting) recording of your target language.
One resource that is particularly helpful for this technique is ted.com, where you can watch videos with good quality subtitles and transcripts.
To view the subtitles, hover over the icons at the bottom of any video and turn on English subtitles using the second icon from the left (the one next to the volume icon). You can also adjust the speed of the video using the third icon from the left.
Alternatively, you can view the full video transcript by clicking on the ‘Transcript’ tab just below the video. Each section of the text is highlighted as the speaker speaks so you can follow and read along with them.
They have many excellent videos and they are generally gifted, well practised speakers with good, clear command of English so you’ll be learning from the best.
4. Oral Gymnastics – Be Aware of How Your Mouth Moves When You Speak
Try to be mindful of the way your mouth, tongue, lips, jaw and even your face move in order to produce different sounds.
Look in the mirror or take a video of yourself while speaking.
Observe the shape of your mouth when specific sounds are produced.
Compare these to the shape of the mouth of an English speaking person and you will soon see which shape produces the best pronunciation.
Search for online guides or videos that show you the optimal mouth shape and lip movement to produce specific sounds. Here is a good example.
Your lips and tongue are primarily concerned with consonants whereas your mouth shapes the vowel sounds. If you are struggling with vowels (a,e,i,o,u), pay more attention to the shape of your mouth when speaking. If consonants are your problem, watch how your lips are creating sounds.
Your Tongue is Important
The movement and placing of your tongue is also extremely important when it comes to producing many sounds in English.
For example, some English learners have a problem mastering the ‘L’ and ‘R’ sound. Some struggle to hear and feel the difference between these two sounds so of course have a problem producing these sounds when speaking.
To produce the L sound, the tip of the tongue moves upwards and forward – the tongue comes forward, and the tip of the tongue presses against the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth.
To produce the R sound, on the other hand, the tongue should not be touching anything else in your mouth. The tip of the tongue points downwards while the back and middle part of the tongue raises.
Here’s a good video to illustrate the L and the R sound.
The ‘TH’ can also be a challenge for some English language students to master. The problem is, again, the placing of the tongue. The TH often ends up sounding like an English D or an F.
For example, instead of saying “this” – a very common word that begins with the voiced TH consonant – students will say “dis”. This is particularly common in Hong Kong English speakers.
Another typical TH word, but this time using the unvoiced TH sound, is the word ‘think’. English learners who haven’t perfected the TH sound will often say either “tink” or “fink”.
This next video illustrates the TH sound.
The most important thing to remember with both the voiced TH sound and the unvoiced TH sound is that the tip of your tongue needs to be placed between or just behind your teeth.
You don’t need to bite the tongue. You can just gently rest the tongue between or behind the teeth. However, you should ry to avoid pushing your whole tongue out between your teeth. Just the very tip of the tongue is enough.
5. Build Muscle Memory
Muscle memory plays a very important role in how we form words. It is how the body remembers how to perform certain actions without having to be told, step-by-step, what to do by the brain. It’s like learning a new sport or learning to play a musical instrument, the more you practice and repeat a certain task the more you develop muscle memory.
That’s how professional dancers, athletes and musicians make things look so effortless. Years of dedication and practice gets them there.
The same is true with the unique sounds and mouth movements of English. The more you practice these, the more you will improve.
Give Your Mouth a Workout
When it comes to language, your mouth, lips and tongue have all learnt how to form sounds almost automatically. When learning a new language, it can be easy to forget to teach your mouth a new way to form speech.
Exercising the muscles that control your jaw, your tongue and your lips by repeating the correct pronunciation of English sounds or words is a great way to retrain the brain. Doing so will create new muscle memory for the mouth and all its components.
So what’s the best way to achieve this?
Read Out Loud
An incredibly powerful and easy to perform exercise that you can do to strengthen your mouth muscles is to read aloud on a daily basis.
Precise English pronunciation requires strong mouth movements. Therefore, learning and practicing how to move your mouth and knowing exactly where to place your tongue and teeth as you produce English sounds is vital.
Reading aloud will help to strengthen your mouth muscles to move in that specific way.
You are able to focus on how you are saying things and not necessarily what you’re saying when you read aloud. This is a powerful way to practice for real life conversations.
The muscles of your mouth get stronger when you read aloud on a daily basis. Likewise, your oral motor skills (one of several sets of abilities involved in language development) will improve considerably.
As a result, when you engage in real life English conversations, your mouth will remember what it should be doing. This will help to improve the way you sound and be better understood.
Make sure that you are repeating the sound or word correctly. It is preferable to perform your repetitions in front of a mirror so that you can keep checking on lip movement and the shape of your mouth. Admittedly, that’s not always easy when you’re reading a text but it is possible if you try.
6. Slow Down
It can be difficult to understand even the most fluent native English speaker if they rush their words.
Whenever you speak, take a deep breath and try to speak slowly. Obviously, not so slowly that you sound boring, but give your mouth the time to form each syllable and word separately.
When your words flow or slur into one another, it can be far more difficult to understand what you are saying. Slowing things down will also give you the chance to recognise which words or sounds that you are having trouble pronouncing correctly.
7. Constructive Criticism
Take constructive criticism well. When somebody corrects your mistakes, it is not meant to hurt your feelings but rather to help you.
Take the moment as an opportunity and ask the person correcting you to repeat it until you get it right. Most English speakers are only too happy to help you as long as you are trying and as long as you are asking them for help.
Remember that the best way to learn is to imitate and then to repeat the correct pronunciation.
On the other hand, it is not a good idea to criticise yourself too harshly. You are going to make mistakes and learning correct pronunciation can take longer than learning to speak English in the first place. Understand that making mistakes is a natural part of learning English. The mistakes you make will only have a negative impact on you if you allow them to, and if you do not learn from them.
So make room for error and give yourself the time you need to learn. Perhaps find a buddy with whom you can learn and support them in learning better pronunciation.
8.Imitate Native English Speakers Using Relaxed Pronunciation
Recognising and imitating the relaxed pronunciation that native English speakers use is also a very useful exercise to practise.
Relaxed pronunciation – also known as condensed pronunciation or word slurs – is almost always present in every day speech, in all natural languages. When a person relaxes their pronunciation, syllables of common words are contracted or slurred together.
For example, an English speaker might say, “I dunno” instead “I don’t know”. Or instead of asking, “What are you doing?”, an English speaker might slur the words together and say, “Wotyadoin’?” or”wotchadoin’?”
Recognising and, in a similar way as described in Shadowing (above), imitating English speakers’ use of relaxed pronunciation will not only help with your listening skills but also your English pronunciation.
Imitating native speakers, helps you get that natural sound that can help you improve your English pronunciation in a way that sounds more natural to native English speakers.
9. Understanding Word Stress & Sentence Stress
Where you place stress or emphasis within a word can affect the way in which it is pronounced and therefore its meaning.
This is called word stress and knowing which syllable within a word should be emphasised or stressed is very important for correct pronunciation.
This is because getting the word stress wrong can completely change the meaning of a word.
For example, the word ‘minute’ can have two completely different meanings depending on which syllable your stress.
When the stress is placed on the first syllable (MINute), the word is a noun and and refers to a period of time i.e. sixty seconds or a sixtieth of an hour.
On the other hand, if we place the stress on the second syllable (minUTE), the word becomes an adjective and means extremely small.
A good rule to follow is that most two-syllable nouns have the stress on the first syllable and most two- syllable verbs have the stress on the second syllable. Remember, though, that there are always exceptions to the rule.
Words that are spelled the same but have a different meaning and pronunciation are called homographs.
For a more in depth look at the rules of English word stress visit: https://www.qlanguage.com.hk/english-word-stress-rules/
There are many ways that placing stress on the right syllable can affect your meaning. Moreover, placing stress on the wrong words within a sentence can create miscommunication too.
For example, increasing pitch at the end of a sentence makes it a question instead of a statement. Placing stress on a certain word can also give it more meaning in a sentence or express emotion attributed to the word.
Let’s look at an example. If we take the simple sentence, ‘I didn’t eat your cakes‘ and repeat that sentence 5 times, we can change the inferred meaning by simply placing the stress on a different word.
10. Talk To Yourself
Express your thoughts aloud in English and have a conversation with yourself.
This is a great way to practice your pronunciation. It will make you more comfortable when it comes to speaking with others in English.
Of course, you may feel a little crazy at first but it will become more natural over time as will pronouncing words correctly.
Besides, talking to yourself is actually a normal thing to do and in fact has a number of benefits. Dr. Jessica Nicolosi, a clinical psychologist based in New York says:
“If we speak out loud, it forces us to slow down our thoughts and process them differently because we engage the language centers of our brain.”
“By talking to ourselves we become more deliberate, and this creates a slower process to think, feel and act, instead of being bombarded by our thoughts.”
As mentioned above, slowing your speaking down will give you the time to recognise which words or sounds that you are having trouble pronouncing correctly. You can then try to correct and improve yourself accordingly.
11. Sing Along
Not everyone is a karaoke king and many believe that their singing voice is similar to that of an angry cat. However, scientific studies have shown that singing can help facilitate language learning.
When we sing, a different part of the brain is used, which changes the way that speech is delivered. You may even find that you have much better pronunciation while you are singing than when you are talking.
Keep the radio on or listen to music using your favourite app and sing along with your favourite English songs.
To make things easier, start with songs that use simple vocabulary and are easy to understand.
Also, try Googling the name of the song followed by the word ‘lyrics’. For example, click here to see the search result for the classic Beatles song, Hey Jude.
Following along with the lyrics while listening is particularly helpful especially if you are a visual learner. This will also ensure that you know exactly which words you are hearing and how those words are spelled.
Think carefully about the lyrics of the songs you hear and sing the words until you get used to the correct pronunciation. This also gives you the time to slow down and think about how the words should be pronounced.
12. Find Alternatives
If your pronunciation of a specific word is really getting you down, find an alternative word or phrase. Swap them with words and phrases that are easier to pronounce but express the same meaning (synonyms). The English language has numerous synonyms.
Here’s a good illustration with two simple English words, ‘good’ and ‘bad’:
Invest in a thesaurus to find synonyms for the words that you find the most challenging. Select words that are easier to say and pronounce. Finding a synonym doesn’t mean that you should give up. Keep practicing that word until you get the pronunciation right and are comfortable using it. This is also a good way to learn new words and increase your vocabulary.
It is also important not to become to stressed about your pronunciation. Stress causes anxiety that will make you afraid to speak in public or have a conversation with someone. This will also probably increase your accent leading to poorer pronunciation.
So relax and be confident. When you do make a mistake with pronunciation, don’t apologise or make excuses. Have a little laugh at the error and learn from the experience. If you can joke about it, it may make the correct pronunciation easier to remember the next time you need to use the word.
And last but not least, invest in a good English course that provides you with the necessary tools to improve your pronunciation.